Can We Stop Confusing IQ With Intelligence?

“Life smarts” is very different from book knowledge

Posted Dec 16, 2012

Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooter, was reportedly “a genius,” according to one of his acquaintances. But what he did in Newton, Connecticut, was not “life smart.” When will we stop equating book knowledge with intelligence?

The Flynn effect is the label for the fact that scores on IQ tests have been going up in the last 100 years or so. But as Flynn (2007) himself points out, the only thing changing is the ability to think hypothetically.* Thus we have conflated abstract thinking with intelligence. But those with high IQ are not necessarily “life smart.” In fact they are often “life dumb,” showing an inability to be empathic, socially skilled or wise.

It’s hard for us in the U.S. to understand what real intelligence is. We have succumbed to the notion that intelligence can be measured by "book knowledge" and test scores. Book knowledge typically separates the world of knowing into bits and pieces, facts and factoids, isolated phenomena. But this super-knowledge of facts is not real intelligence. It’s often not even real knowledge which involves solving real-world problems with what you know. Knowing facts, using logic and conscious reasoning represent part of intellect, a tiny aspect of real intelligence. It is necessary but not sufficient for life smarts or wisdom.

Michael Polanyi (1958) and Mary Midgley (1992) have pointed out how intellect actually narrows understanding. Thinking too much makes you believe that thinking is what intelligence is about. Real intelligence involves personal knowledge, extending yourself into something and knowing that thing as itself. Temple Grandin (2009), diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, is able to imagine what animals imagine and feel. But even this is not enough for “life smarts.”

Life smarts requires the capacity to mentalize with humans, the capacity to feel what other people are feeling and to take their perspective. Although brilliant in an IQ sort of way, The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper shows an inability to mentalize, demonstrating a lack of life smarts. He also is a bit sociopathic as he doesn’t care that he can’t figure out other people.

Early experience affects how well one can empathize and mentalize (although therapy and other activities can improve them, at least among the willing) (Allan, Fonagy et al., 2010;  Siegel, 1999).

Real intelligence includes social-relational intelligence. It is intellectual and emotional. It is using intellect in a way that treats others with deep respect. Humans' unique capacities may have to do with using communal imagination to imagine alternatives from what is at hand.

When you can’t mentalize, a capacity that Adam Lanza apparently lacked, you can become isolated. And you can then operate from a distorted world view.

Those who are isolated from others can "lose their minds." The isolation can be:

  • coerced (e.g., solitary confinement)
  • imposed (e.g., babies isolated from caregivers)**
  • semi-voluntary (e.g., those with poor social skills give up from extensive teasing or failure).

However the social isolation occurs, it can lead to delusions of grandeur, psychosis or evil actions  (Gawande, 2009; Gilligan, 1997; Niehoff, 1999). Humans need each other to maintain sanity (Lewis et al, 2000). Group isolation can lead to delusions also. Note Fox News and the Republican Party prior to the 2012 election, isolating themselves from “mainstream media,” not attending to distortions in their own polls and discourse, resulting in post-election shock.

Those with only intellect or book knowledge sometimes behave in ways that indicate that they don’t really know what they are doing to the relational, diverse and cooperative world we live in. Think of Wall Street financial whizzes with their fancy derivatives or Enron executives gleefully robbing grandmothers’ pensions. They are in their own isolation cells.

People with high intellect who have lost or never developed a sense of caring connection to all of life can be dangerous when they have power over others (with guns, money, influence). Let’s stop calling them geniuses.

*Note: Hypothetical thinking is the type of thinking that hunter-gatherers refuse to do and they have much more life smarts than we do (e.g., Diamond, 1997; Gowdy, 1998).

**Note: Social skill development starts from birth. Kids who spend extensive hours isolated in cribs, playpens, with electronic media will not have the social skill toolkit that develops in children who are immersed in socially-rich environments (that respect their dignity and autonomy too).


Allen, J.G., Fonagy, P., & Bateman, A. (2010). The role of mentalizing in treating attachment trauma. In R.A. Lanius, E. Vermetten & C. Pain (Eds.), The impact of early life trauma on health and disease: The hidden epidemic (pp. 247-256). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Diamond, J. (1997). Guns, germs and steel: The fates of human societies. New York, NY: Norton.

Flynn, J.R. (2007). What is intelligence? New York: Cambridge University Press.

Gawande, A. (2009). Hellhole: The United States holds tens of thousands of inmates in long-term solitary confinement. Is this torture? The New Yorker, March 30, 36-45.

Gilligan, J. (1997). Violence: Reflections on a national epidemic. New York, NY: Vintage.

Gowdy, J. (1998). Limited wants, unlimited means: A reader on hunter-gatherer economics and the environment. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Grandin, T. & Johnson, C. (2009). Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best life for Animals. New York: Mariner.

Lewis, T., Amini, F., & Lannon, R. (2000). A General Theory of love. New York: Vintage.

Midgley, M. (1992). Science As Salvation: A Modern Myth and Its Meaning. London: Routledge.

Niehoff, D. (1999). The biology of violence: How understanding the brain, behavior, and environment can break the vicious circle of aggression. New York: Free Press.

Polanyi, M. (1958). Personal knowledge: Towards a post-critical philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Siegel, D. (1999). The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. New York: Guilford Press.