Wednesday, July 05, 2006


This is a subject that seems to recur regularly on the Mensa mailing list.

Why is it socially acceptable to brag about certain things, but not about others?

If I were a talented athlete with a preference for rugby, it would be practically expected that I engage in a career of professional sport. My aptitude for the sport would make me a shoe-in, and no-one would think it at all strange or unfair that I got to play for a professional team.

Meeting people socially, it would be expected that I talk about rugby, and share my experiences and knowledge of the professional rugby scene with anyone I met. People would read magazine articles about me and fanatics would memorise statistics detailing my performance.

Being a professional musician is much the same. Or even an amateur one. It doesn’t seem at all arrogant when musicians discuss their artistic achievements or innovations. We buy their CDs and marvel at their genius with as much enthusiasm as sports-fans watch game after game after game.

So why is it that intelligent people aren’t able to talk about their intelligence without coming off as pompous?

Look at these examples:

“I can bench-press 150kg.”

“I have an IQ of 150.”

The usual response to the first one of these is “Wow, where do you train?” or something to that effect. The usual response to the second is silence and an unspoken “Oooo… big deal! You think you’re so smart!”

Another set of examples: in a workplace situation it’s not unusual for a co-worker to ask “What are you doing tonight?” Below are three responses to that question.

1. “I’m going to hit the gym… tonight it’s back and shoulders with a bit of cardio. I’m on this new program I got from Fitness magazine. I’ve improved my BMI significantly.”

2. “I’ve got band-practice. We’re getting ready for a gig next Saturday. You should come check it out. It’s at that new club on Smith street.”

3. “Tonight is our monthly Mensa meeting. There’s a guest speaker from the Astronomy department at Wits University coming to give us a talk on Extrasolar Planets.”

Is it my imagination, but does only the third one come off as arrogant?

I understand that as soon as you mention a quantifiable fact that indicates that you might be more intelligent than the person you’re talking to, they get intimidated and envious. I certainly experience that.

But why do we experience that when it comes to intelligence, but not sports ability?

I don’t see any difference in the two: your genes determine whether you have an aptitude for either one or not. Either one can be worked on and improved, or neglected and allowed to stagnate.

I don’t have the physique of an athlete… it’s a simple fact. My arms and legs are hopelessly out of proportion with my body – I’m just not built for running, lifting, jumping, swimming or anything like that. It’s a fact I came to terms with at a very young age. That doesn’t mean I can’t do those things at all, it just means that it’s more difficult for me to do them than someone who is a natural athlete.

With discipline and a lot of hard work I could probably achieve a level of mediocrity in some or other sport, but I’d probably never be considered good at it.

Because of that, I’d probably be perfectly justified in being envious of professional athletes – they can do something with ease that I would struggle to do, if at all. But I’m not.

Yet I (and other Mensans) frequently encounter envy from people we deal with. For that reason, many Mensans choose not to disclose the fact that they are such. A pity.

The irony is that most of the people I work and socialise with (and whose envy I have to put up with) would easily pass the Mensa exam if they tried. It makes sense: because I am so intelligent, I tend to gravitate towards jobs that require intelligence and circles of people who are also intelligent.

Perhaps as a result of low self esteem, my brainy compatriots don’t believe they could pass the test, or are too afraid to try in case they fail.

Perhaps the negative stigma comes from ignorance: everyone knows you can improve your physical performance through exercise, but maybe people just don’t know that it’s just as easy to improve your mental performance (called “cognitive reserve”) through exercise as well.

Of course, as with physical exercise, your maximum potential is limited by your brain’s capacity, which varies from person to person. But there’s no reason why each of us can’t exceed our current capability.