Are There Really “Smart” and “Dumb” People In Our World?

Carolyn Wang
5 min readJan 2, 2021
Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash

In 8th grade, I remember sitting in a group of three students as our teacher passed back a science test we took the week before. As naive as we all were in middle school, we began comparing answers and test scores the second we got our exams back.

The exact scores? I’ve long since forgotten. But I do remember one particular detail: one student got very high marks, while the other student got considerably low marks.

After class ended, that classmate with the lower score told me something along the lines of this:

“I could’ve done well too you know, but it’s just that I didn’t feel like studying. [The other classmate] isn’t actually smart. She only got a good score because she studies all the time.”

At the time, I didn’t dwell much on the implications of the comment. Surely, all of us have gotten sad at one point or another for doing poorly on an exam, and we were young and considerably ineffective at reacting in the best way to our failures. But as I’ve grown into high school and begun observing the patterns of supposedly “smart” classmates, her comment has grown into a nagging question in the back of my mind.

What does “smart” really mean?

Many people have probably heard the term IQ coined at one point or another in their life. But in case you haven’t, here’s the formal definition from our old internet buddy Wikipedia:

“An intelligence quotient (IQ) is a total score derived from a set of standardized tests or subtests designed to assess human intelligence.”

Say what now? Yes, there is a test that quantifies the abstract idea of “human intelligence,” one requiring the assessment of an assortment of factors including memory, verbal comprehension, visual-spatial ability and many other factors I won’t be diving into. But the important thing about the IQ test is that the results follow a normal distribution.

Or in other words, most people fall between the score of 70 and 135.

Image Credit: content.ashford.edu

Using that as a basis, can we really define “smartness” using the IQ test? If so, then most people would be born with approximately the same levels of intelligence, excluding the further ends of the graph. That in turn, wouldn’t explain why we humans can so easily classify people as “smart” and “not smart” if most people lie in the same category. Therefore, there must be some other factor that plays into our unconscious classification of other people’s intelligence.

Perhaps, the answer to that question lies back in the remark my classmate made all those years ago.

“I could’ve done well too you know, but it’s just that I didn’t feel like studying. [The other classmate] isn’t actually smart. She only got a good score because she studies all the time.”

Think about it. Of course my classmate could’ve done well on that test. Anyone could have! But what makes the difference between the classmate with the higher score and the lower score isn’t “smartness” per se, but rather what they decided to do with that “smartness. And that is my answer to the question I posed in the headline and passage above. Are there really “smart” and “dumb” people in our world?

Yes, of course there are! But not in the way you think.

If we define people as being “smart” based on their natural intelligence levels, as did my innocent classmate, there wouldn’t be much of a difference between people. However, if we define people as being “smart” based on what they decide to “do” with their actions, that gives us a reason as to why we can categorize people by their intelligence so easily.

Take my two classmates for example. Both are 8th grade students with the same teacher, same resources, and presumably same IQ levels, yet we intuitively classify the student with the higher test score to be the smarter one. Our explanation for why that is can thus be: The “smarter” student decided to study for her test while the other student decided not to.

This same principle can be applied to other scenarios as well. For example, let’s say there are two athletes: one who has a naturally better build and one who is less so. We might categorize the athlete with the better build as the “smart athlete” for now, but the ultimate determining factor lies in what they decide to do with the skillsets they are naturally born with, rather than what they already have genetically.

Perhaps this thought is discouraging for some people. If we perceive intelligence and skill based on the actions and decisions we take to accomplish a goal, rather than our natural intelligence, would that mean that I am “dumb” if I am not making the decisions I know I ought to be making in my life? What if I am that person who is used to deciding that I don’t want to study, or that I don’t want to exercise, or that I don’t want to go on a diet?

Never fear. That is the true beauty of viewing intelligence as a growing and changing phenomenon based on our decisions rather than a fixed, predefined number. We can change, even if we are not born with the best abilities or harbor the best habits. We can become smart if we decide to study and work hard, even if we originally didn’t do so.

All you have to remember is this. Whenever you feel like you are not “smart” enough for an assignment, not “outgoing” enough for a speaking role, or not “qualified” enough for a leadership position, it’s not about what you naturally can do. It’s about what you decide to do. There may always be a select few people who are truly geniuses, but for the rest of us, our smartness or dumbness is defined by our decisions. Not by what we are born with.

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Carolyn Wang

CS + Public Policy @ UC Berkeley. Writer, musician, triathlete, & explorer. Learn more here: carolynwangjy.medium.com/ae3eb5de2324