One of my message boards is having a discussion on why smart kids are so socially awkward. Smarts are treated differently from a lot of supposedly positive social deviations. People might encourage you to stop drawing so much attention to your looks or your money, but they don't generally tell you to actively hide it like they do with brains. I have actually been told, in my life, that I would fare better socially if I could just 'not be so smart'. This from people who would never dream of telling me that I should lose weight, dye my hair, do drugs, or put out in order to make myself popular. It's akin to being told that I'd probably have more friends if I just didn't let on that my arms worked. Yeah, I could do it -- it would just require huge amounts of concentration, perpetual paranoiac self-monitoring, passing on the opportunity to do things I genuinely enjoy lest my secret slip out, and inevitably screwing up in front of someone else, who would then be pissed at me for lying to them. You just can't do that long-term. And you wouldn't want any friends you made that way, anyhow. They wouldn't really be friends with you.

There's a general agreement of confirmation bias -- you remember when you run into bizarre geniuses, and it never occurs to you to count up the perfectly functional ones. Exhibit A here is invariably Richard Feynman, who was an unquestionably brilliant physicist, while also being an engaging public speaker and author, sometime ladies' man, and usually the life of the party, even at Los Alamos where partying was officially frowned upon in a stern and military manner. His books read not unlike the collected tales of Naṣraddīn, if Naṣraddīn had grown up in Queens and developed an obsession with vacuum tube radios as a kid.

Asperger comes up a lot, and is mostly shot down. Although it's possible that there's a higher proportion of aspies in the genius category than in the population as a whole (I haven't checked), they are by no means the majority of the weird smart kid population. Speaking from the weird smart kid side of things, I'm pretty sure that autism spectrum social problems look much different, too -- kids with autism generally do not see social cues and get frustrated when the end result is that they can't get people to do what they want, whereas in the more general case of excruciatingly smart kids, they do see the social cues and try to respond to them, but can't figure out how these things are supposed to work and why. The prevalence of hypervigilant behavior, especially related to criticism and rejection, also argues against ASD. How can you be panicked by something you aren't aware of?

I and a few others pointed out that social skills are, to a large extent, learned. Targets of bullying and social ostracism, smart or not, often miss out on chances to learn this stuff from the rest of their cohort, because the rest of their cohort is busy throwing rocks at them for no adequately explained reason. Partly this is just a manifestation of humanity's savage distrust and dislike of the alien, but it also seems to stem from having very different views of what intelligence is and what it means.

As far as I can tell, normal people -- that's normal in the statistical sense, the big hump in the middle of the bell curve -- see intelligence as a competition. They think there's some kind of sorting order to this. Nobody wants to be the dumb one, so of course deliberately putting someone in that position is a power thing and aggressive as hell and a common bullying tactic, and I really don't blame people for getting their hackles up over it when someone is actually doing that. Even I think it's an asshat move, and I'm the one who wins the idiotic measuring contests.

There are also people like that up in the gifted range. We think they are hypersensitive narcissistic douchebags. Frankly, if you had ever talked to the rest of us long enough to call a truce, we would have helped you throw rocks at them. You got to avoid them because they thought you were pond scum, but the gifted kids pretty much all get thrown together in the same giant, dysfunctional sack for all the extra academics, so we had to deal with the hyperbolic little chucklefuck every single week, plus events and field trips. Had you asked, we would have happily donated our knowledge of physics and materials testing to any effort that ended with our mutual enemy riding home on top of the bus, where we couldn't goddamn hear him.

The reason most gifted kids are so bad at concealing the smart in general, and so baffled when other people are offended by it, is that it's not a competition for us. Once you hit a certain level of intelligence, the difference is not quantitative, but qualitative. It's not a matter of whether you understand, it's a matter of whether you care enough to look it up. It's not a big game of one-upmanship; we've already maxed out on most of our random "things you're likely to see on Jeopardy!" knowledge, and after that we start to specialize. We're not generally intimidated by people who know things we don't -- the gifted kids who care to socialize tend to have lists of the subjects their friends study, and collect people based partly on them bringing in new specialties that the group doesn't yet have. In the unlikely event that someone calls us up at three in the morning in a panic, shrieking hysterically about needing a nuclear physicist who speaks Nepalese and knows how to properly reupholster a Louis XVI dining room chair, we will be prepared, dammit.

For the weird smart kids, immediately spilling everything they know on a topic to someone else is a way of sharing. It's a social bonding thing. "Look, I have a brain-toy. Isn't it shiny? We can play with it together." For the other kids, someone else vomiting up an encyclopedia entry on the history of pencil shavings is a scary power play, an all-out offense meant to crush anyone who thinks they're smart enough to compete. The normal kids set up a defense worthy of an NBA championship game, and the smart kids seriously just want to hang around and play H-O-R-S-E. Too often, both sides come out of it ticked off, wounded, and wondering what the hell just happened in that conversation there.

It tends to set up an interesting dynamic later, as adults. When you're a kid, dumping smart on others is a way to gain status. There's no immediately obvious benefit to hanging around in the peripheral aura of brains, so it's one-on-one and usually vicious. When you're an adult, overhearing you dump smart on someone else makes other people think you're competent and they should be clinging onto your coattails. As an adult, standing in someone else's peripheral braining area is often itself a smart move; it might be safer in there, and possibly also involve a nicer office. Gifted kids who also happen to have a chronic case of charisma tend to find themselves with an unexpected entourage. Sharing information makes people realize you have information, and having information usually means you have some idea what the hell is going on, and voilà, you have a school of fish flittering after you wherever you go. This baffles a lot of them -- if you look up Avengers press, people ask the cast who the den mother was on that film, and everyone points at RDJ, who hits like twelve out of ten checkboxes on my Weird Smart Kid sheet. Given his reactions I'm pretty sure he has no goddamn idea how this keeps happening.


  1. Every time you talk about this stuff, you make large portions of my life make more sense. Like, right now, why my absent-minded professor routine makes people easier to deal with, or why in college the nerds I knew tended to fall in to the categories of able to pass/not able to pass [for a mundane], and the first group had much better social skills but also tended to be more neurotic.

  2. I wish there was something profound or thought provoking I could add this this post (or the one on pattern recognition), but I'm with yavieriel in that's kind of nice knowing it's not just me.


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