Humility and Intelligence

I’ll just come out and say it – I find it rather odd how people, including me, are expected to downplay their intelligence.

When you do better than someone else on a test, you’re not supposed to brag about it. You say that “It’s just because I test well,” or that “I just have good memory,” or (strangest of all) “I’m just good in {that particular subject}.” If you study a lot, you’re supposed to say that you do well just because you study – you’re not really smart. If you do well because you’re smart, you treat it as dumb luck – genetics and all that. You never actually take credit for intelligence. Basically, you’re supposed to make the other person feel like they’re really just as good as you are, you just happened to do better for some reason beyond either of your control.

I understand that humility is a virtue. I don’t think that if you’re intelligent you should go out and proclaim “I am smart, much smarter than you, Hibbert!” But I don’t think we’re right in our current approach. The problem I have is that it seems like false humility to claim that you don’t possess a virtue you actually do.

And the current approach is, I think, rather dangerous for the egos of all involved.  At least I know it’s given me a giant one. The problem is that it convinces the listeners, to a certain extent, but it doesn’t convince the speakers.

Here’s what I mean – Whenever I say stuff like the above, I may appear to others to be humble. But I know what I’m saying is kind of nonsensical. It goes the other way too. When I meet someone who might perhaps be smarter than me, I don’t treat those explanations as nonsense. If they understand an area of math I haven’t learned yet, I say it’s just because they’re had that class and I haven’t. If they’re doing well in a class and I’m not (at least not as well), I’ll say it’s just because they’re working hard and I’m not – but if I wanted to, I say to myself, I could easily do just as well as them. I suspect it is the same for other people – though perhaps this is just me and other people are perfectly willing to admit there are a bunch of people much smarter than they are.

I’m not sure. But I bet that if we didn’t perform this charade, people might appear more arrogant, but they would actually be more humble. So here, I’ll say it – I’m intelligent. I’m not going to qualify that with a “fairly”, or a “most people consider me”. I am. I have other flaws I need to work on, but there’s no point in denying my intelligence just to make other people feel better. I’m not saying we the intelligent ones are better than the less-intelligent ones (I know several people I consider myself smarter than whom I also consider much better people than me, on a few different levels), just that we are indeed more intelligent and that it isn’t good for us to deny this.

Now that I’ve gone and been arrogant, does my above description seem like an accurate portrayal of how smart people are expected to act? And does my interpretation of its effects sound right?


6 Responses to Humility and Intelligence

  1. aporia24 says:

    the thing is saying “i think im smart” in whatever causes a context-relative problem. If someone says, “You’re smart” i seem to be able to get away with “Yea, but..”
    yet if i say, “yea i know im quite smart in that” it might make the listener think you really just haven’t seen enough of the world to know any better. The whole to be humble i think is to let the other know that you Are aware of the even smarter ones :]

  2. Stephen Wang says:

    Interesting approach, really, but I’m totally not surprised hearing that from you… haha… I’m not going to say you’re wrong or anything, since I haven’t thought about the issue enough. However, one flaw, I believe, in saying “I am intelligent” is that the level of intelligence specified becomes pretty ambiguous. Some people might take it to mean you’re absolutely intelligent, while some may have a more moderate understanding. When you use it around friends who know you better, then okay, we know how intelligent the speaker is and can understand and acknowledge what he means by intelligent. But not everyone will have the same perspective.

  3. Baufo says:

    I can entirely confirm your observations. I am also supposed to blame my good grades on hard work (although it is well known that I definitely do not work hard or learn a lot) and people are really shocked if I break this taboo. For instance I once was asked by one of my classmates (who I know is not a very good student) how I found a test and I, not wanting to get him down because I knew he would find all tests hard, told him that I found the test easy, however I knew I usually did not set the benchmark of how hard a test is. So even though I was only indirectly claiming that I found the test easy because I was smart my classmate was totally outraged about my arrogance.

    And I also know the inversion of this phenomenon. When encountering someone who does something better than me I usually just tell me I could do that too if I only wanted to.

    So yes, I think you are describing how smart people are expected to act quite accurately. To judge if this good or not I think I have not thought enough about this problem though.

    PS: Have you noticed that sportsmen usually also say that they succeeded because of their hard exercises and not because they have a lot of talent for the sport they do?

  4. Urs says:


    Regarding the example of tests, I find it completly different in my school. People will openly admit if they found it hard or easy, and share their grades. Some people are definetly better than others in some subjects, but weaker in others. But anyway: We don’t use the worked hard/didn’t work hard mask. At least not to justify having a better grade, only to justify a worse grade.

    Probably that’s because at my school tend to act a bit arrogant, while not actually being all that arrogant. Also, the school I go to is a highly academic school, so everybody is basically on equal level. Crap, now I feel arrogant saying that. |-:

  5. random person says:

    I know what you mean, but I always say things like that anyway, because I have a phlegmatic personality and I always feel the need to make people feel better about themselves. :) Plus, I suspect it’s a subconscious effort on my part to keep myself from feeling bad about the fact that I am the laziest person I know. (I really am.) I can make As without studying in most academic classes, so that is what I do. That way I can put all my time and effort into art, which is where I really want to do well. Meanwhile, my friends work themselves to death for Cs and Bs. But the way I see it, I don’t deserve to be intelligent. I didn’t do anything to get my brains, just like I didn’t do anything to get my health or my family or anything else in life. Any of that could be taken from me in a minute- I could get in a car wreck and suffer brain damage, or lose a limb, or any number of unpleasant things. So it’s nice that people think it’s nice that I’m smart, I often thank God that I am, and I sure wouldn’t prefer to be less so, but I sometimes feel bad that my intelligence is just part of me and I didn’t earn it. Maybe my SAT scores were great, but I didn’t do anything more than sit in a classroom for a few hours to get them that way.

  6. e7th04sh (was kshinji) says:

    I decided not to be false humble, but naturally admitting your positive traits might lead to real arrogancy. Now when talking about if i am good at something or bad, i just say ‘that’s the way the world works’ and change the subject of conversation.

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