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The Death of Common Sense and the Rise of the Clever Sillies

It works for politics as well.

Although it appears that the country…even the world has gone off it’s rocker and the the inmates are currently running the asylum,  what really maybe happening is that we have jettisoned a very basic part of the human condition while perusing with great gusto the fruits of intellect and knowledge. That which was an innate part of the life experience call common sense

Merriam-Webster Online defines common sense as beliefs or propositions that most people consider prudent and of sound judgment, without reliance on esoteric knowledge or study or research, but based upon what they see as knowledge held by people “in common”. Thus “common sense” (in this view) equates to the knowledge and experience which most people already have, or which the person using the term believes that they do or should have. According to Cambridge Dictionary, the phrase is good sense and sound judgment in practical matters (the basic level of practical knowledge and judgment that we all need to help us live in a reasonable and safe way).

Which leads, hopefully to wisdom and good judgment. 

Wisdom is a deep understanding and realizing of people, things, events or situations, resulting in the ability to choose or act or inspire to consistently produce the optimum results with a minimum of time, energy or thought. It is the ability to optimally (effectively and efficiently) apply perceptions and knowledge and so produce the desired results. Wisdom is also the comprehension of what is true or right coupled with optimum judgment as to action. Synonyms include: sagacity, discernment, or insight. Wisdom often requires control of one’s emotional reactions (the “passions”) so that one’s principles, reason and knowledge prevail to determine one’s actions.

Bruce G. Charlton gives an explanation of this lack of common sense in those with higher intelligence, though I think this may also apply to those of just above average intelligence as well.  He calls them “The Clever Sillies”

In previous editorials I have written about the absent-minded and socially-inept ‘nutty professor’ stereotype in science, and the phenomenon of ‘psychological neoteny’ whereby intelligent modern people (including scientists) decline to grow-up and instead remain in a state of perpetual novelty-seeking adolescence. These can be seen as specific examples of the general phenomenon of ‘clever sillies’ whereby intelligent people with high levels of technical ability are seen (by the majority of the rest of the population) as having foolish ideas and behaviours outside the realm of their professional expertise. In short, it has often been observed that high IQ types are lacking in ‘common sense’ – and especially when it comes to dealing with other human beings.

He goes on to state that high intelligence, though necessary for solving the problems of quantum mechanics and molecular biology, falls short when dealing with people and everyday problems.

As examples of how IQ may help with evolutionary novelties, it has been abundantly-demonstrated that increasing measures of IQ are strongly and positively correlated with a wide range of abilities which require abstract reasoning and rapid learning of new knowledge and skills; such as educational outcomes, and abilities at most complex modern jobs [1], [2], [3], [4], [5] and [11]. Science and mathematics are classic examples of problem-solving activities that arose only recently in human evolutionary history and in which differential ability is very strongly predicted by relative general intelligence [12].

However, there are also many human tasks which our human ancestors did encounter repeatedly and over manifold generations, and natural selection has often produced ‘instinctive’, spontaneous ways of dealing with these. Since humans are social primates, one major such category is social problems, which have to do with understanding, predicting and manipulating the behaviours of other human beings [13], [14], [15] and [16]. Being able to behave adaptively in dealing with these basic human situations is what I will term having ‘common sense’.

And there is a strong tendency for those with higher intelligence to favor this above the use of common sense. When dealing with social issues, this is can lead to erroneous results.

So, the greater cognitive ability of higher IQ is also accompanied by a somewhat distinctive high IQ personality type. My suggested explanation for this association is that an increasing level of IQ brings with it an increased tendency to use general intelligence in problem-solving; i.e. to over-ride those instinctive and spontaneous forms of evolved behaviour which could be termed common sense.

The over-use of abstract reasoning may be most obvious in the social domain, where normal humans are richly equipped with evolved psychological mechanisms both for here-and-now interactions (e.g. rapidly reading emotions from facial expression, gesture and posture, and speech intonation) and for ‘strategic’ modelling of social interactions to understand predict and manipulate the behaviour of others [16]. Social strategies deploy inferred knowledge about the dispositions, motivations and intentions of others. When the most intelligent people over-ride the social intelligence systems and apply generic, abstract and systematic reasoning of the kind which is enhanced among higher IQ people, they are ignoring an ‘expert system’ in favour of a non-expert system.


Indeed, I suggest that higher levels of the personality trait of Openness in higher IQ people may the flip-side of this over-use of abstraction. I regard Openness as the result of deploying abstract analysis for social problems to yield unstable and unpredictable results, when innate social intelligence would tend to yield predictable and stable results.

In the past if one survived long enough, one would gain the experience needed to acquire common sense and hopefully the wisdom to use it regardless of ones intellect.  Now a days people have the ability to avoid this experience to the detriment of their overall understanding of life and society. And championing some intellectual ideology that is best left in the classroom.   Unfortunately we seek out these people for our leaders and representatives, confusing intellect with wisdom.
Worse yet we now encourage our youth to pursue knowledge an intellect over experience and wisdom, when they all are necessary.


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