People who are smarter than me

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As discussed several times in the past, pretty much everyone is convinced that they are smart, while pretty much everyone has also dealt with stupid people during their lives.

If intelligence truly exists, then there is no doubt that there exists an average. Whether you see intelligence as the ability to do math, as the ability to understand new things, as a huge mix of emotional, rational, physical, whatever-al intelligence, or anything else, there has to be an average. Even if you think that everyone literally is exactly as smart as each other (I disagree), then everyone is of average intelligence. From a purely mathematical point of view, it stands to reason that, if we ignore every person which is exactly as smart as you, then everyone else that you know has precisely 50% chances of being smarter than you.

As this is, again, an average, it’s easy to let cognitive dissonance tell us that most people we know are not smarter simply because we happen to be one of the lucky cases where our own intelligence is above the average. On the other hand, even cognitive dissonance isn’t powerful enough to make us believe that we literally are the smartest person alive. This means that, when you ask someone to name people who are smarter than them, you will usually get a bunch of big names like Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Neil Degrasse Tyson, Alan Turing, etc. You might also hear the names of authors, artists, or even sometimes politicians that the person likes. What you rarely, if ever, hears, is a person answering with a list of actual real people in their lives, that don’t have a particularly big reputation as smart, like friends and family members.

But again, according to statistics, the average person should have half of their relatives in that “smarter than myself” list.

Considering that I’m most likely wrong about my own abilities, i’ve decided to force myself to put life in perspective. If intelligence is a Bell curve, and I suck at locating myself on it, then I will assume that I am close to the center, as statistics suggest, then I should be able to come up with a list of people with whom I interact at least weekly, who should be smarter then me. That was hard to do. In the end, I had to do things slightly differently. I tried to figure out who, of the people in my life, could be considered smart according to my flawed definition of being smart. Then, I just have to adjust my own definition to include more or less people, in order to have roughly 50% of the people on both sides. In the end, since I am supposed to be in the middle, I could just say that every single person on the smart side has a big chance of being smarter than me.

As with most situations of cognitive dissonance, this is extremely uncomfortable. I now have a real (mental) list of people who are most likely smarter than me, and this includes roughly half of the people close to me, and I hate it.

But there is one thing that definitely sucks about this. Considering that the whole reasoning is based on average people and math, without any regard for the real situation, there is no way to actually improve. This means that no matter how hard I try, I’ll always be at best the average guy in my group of friends. But this is probably a serious step forward in self awareness, and I think that’s good. But a smarter person might think that sacrificing comfortable narcissism for a vague concept of self-awareness is a stupid idea, since it might reduce my own happiness. An even smarter person might even think that this entire blog post was a huge waste of time both for me and anyone who happens to read it.


Small afterthought: I have asked a lot of questions around since I’ve had the idea for this post. I’ve focused on the portion of people who I felt wouldn’t be completely against this kind of discussion. I’ve still noticed a pattern. Most people that I personally think are dumber than me happen to think that I am dumber than them. Most people that I would rate as smarter than me using the method in this post also happened to think I was at least as smart as them, sometimes more. This can mean 4 things:

  • I have a strong tendency to rate intelligence based on the person’s ability to see my intelligence. Which definitely renders this whole thing completely moot, but tells me that I might be one of the dumb ones.
  • Dumb people tend to overestimate themselves and smart people tend to underestimate themselves, compared to other people around them. This option has somewhat been proven to be true in general, even though this doesn’t make it necessarily true or false in that specific case.
  • I have a strong tendency to rate intelligence as inversely proportional to a person’s ego.
  • This is a complete coincidence, and I should stop looking for patterns in unscientific anecdotal evidence.