HBD: Smart but Nerdy?


A persistent theme (or is it a theme from a persistent blogger?) of HBDsphere is that higher IQ means less charisma (a nerdish personality).

Is it true? This nerdy blogger investigates.

This is one of a series where I discuss issues and elements of what is referred to as HBD. Similar to my Random Thoughts series these posts will be more personal and less scholarly. If you want deeply footnoted reference work, please look elsewhere. Disclaimer aside, I do hope to give a passable overview of the subject.

“Big brain but small charisma” is one of those ideas that seems like it could be true, after all nerdy types tend to be interested in “smart” things such as science and technology. At the very least, some feel that if not true, it should be. I think a driver for this belief is the nature-is-fair fallacy, the belief that nature runs some kind of balanced book, that if you have the gift of brains you must have an offsetting deficit to balance the book. Sadly, nature is not fair; on some she will lavish gifts with an open hand, while others merely get the back of her hand.

I do not believe there is anything in intelligence that guarantees a lack of charisma. Charisma, like intelligence, is distributed in a bell curve; some have little, some have a lot, and most have about the same as everybody else. This means we will end up with combinations of high charisma/high intelligence (we call these lucky bastards); low charisma/low intelligence (we call these sad bastards); and every combination in between.

The smart but nerdy belief comes from our perceptions of the various combinations. The low charisma/low intelligence types are mostly invisible, they lack the achievements or charm that makes us notice them; the same holds true for average types (most of us). High charisma/high intelligence types will tend to gain attention for their charisma, we will tend to attribute their success to their charisma more than their intelligence (e.g., Steve Jobs). It is not that we consider them unintelligent, it is just that we tend not to consider their intelligence as we focus on their charisma. Low charisma/high intelligence types (nerds) will, by their nature, have achievements in more nerdy realms (e.g., Andrew Wiles). What we notice is their intelligence, because intelligence, more than charisma, brought them success.
[I am not claiming that Wiles is some kind of asocial freak (he seems a pleasant, but perhaps reserved gentleman), merely that he is an example of one whose success is more intellectual than charismatic, the type “smart but nerdy” proponents might point to.]

While large gaps in cognitive abilities may make communication between individuals more difficult, I believe that the smart-but-nerdy idea is more about perception than reality. Most smart individuals will be able to navigate the social world with no greater problems than anyone else. Within the population of smart people, it is likely that the distribution of charisma is exactly as same as for the rest of us.

[Added: March 31, 2011]
Somewhere between planning (perhaps a slightly aggrandizing description for the shuffling of ideas in my head) and writing, I dropped this case for the prosecution (smart=nerdy). It was a genuine mistake your honor.

If there is a link between developmental time and cortex growth (slower development time leading to thicker cortex) then we might have a route for the smart-but-nerdy thesis. Delayed, or longer, puberty might offer more time for brain development but will likely lead to social stunting (being the smallest, most childish, and thus lowest status member of the group).

While the late developer is building a better brain, he is not developing social skills; indeed, he is learning to be the low status member of the pack. The constant small loses that low status imposes, place a stress burden on the social/emotional parts of his development.

Given that, along with intelligence, other aspects of personality have a heritable component, it is reasonable to speculate that the same genes that promote intelligence might also affect other parts of the personality. If such a link did exist it might be through the pathway of executive function. Executive function is as much about what not to do as it is about what to do. An over eager executive function could lead to excessively inhibited, or nerdish, social interactions.


I have no idea if Asperger’s or autism has any relationship to intelligence. I would suggest that smarter Aspie types (not real sufferers of the syndrome) become visible because they are better able to make some impact in the world; less intelligent Aspie types become either invisible, or end up labeled as “troubled.”

Lack of intelligence will tend to magnify any deficit, while higher intelligence may offset it. High intelligence will likely leverage any positive whereas lower intelligence may blunt it.


5 Responses to “HBD: Smart but Nerdy?”

  1. Xamuel Says:

    I’ve thought a lot about this. I would say, no, there is no correlation between intelligence and nerdiness, or rather, the correlation is inverse– provided you could actually measure intelligence correctly.

    Intelligence is just the means of leveraging your thoughts to achieve your goals. Unless your goal is to be a social outcast, if you’re a nerd, you did something dumb. TL;DR: If Poindexter’s so smart, why isn’t he banging cheerleaders.

    Shameless self-trumpet: http://www.xamuel.com/what-is-true-intelligence/

  2. Default User Says:

    I do remember reading that piece and liking it. While I did not consciously copy it, it most likely provided some seeds for the thoughts that became this post. Thank you.

    I have some, slight, sympathy for the multiple intelligences idea, even if it is overplayed in attempt to make people feel good. I believe it likely that there is such a thing as general intelligence (g) that comes into play across most skills. While intelligence can be generalized (or at least have a large general component), that does not mean skills are; although an important thing, intelligence is not the only thing.

    I am not sure that I would call a world class chess player who is unable to improve his tennis (despite desiring that result) stupid. In other words, even a high general intelligence does not translate to high (or even moderate) skills in everything.

    I think that IQ tests focus abstract reasoning because; it is easy to measure via a test (how do you test for charisma in a one hour test?); and its very abstract nature precludes the ability to make deep improvements via practice (you can probably somewhat boost your score via practice and an understanding of test layout and methods, but I doubt you can make massive gains – of course such practice is itself a measure of intelligence).

    I like your idea that the dateless nerd is stupid because he cannot get the results he wants. The problem I see is that it pretty much leaves us all as stupid, as few of us can achieve all the results we want.

    If I had to define multiple intelligences, I might break them out this way: abstract versus practical, and real-time versus contemplative.

    The smart-but-nerdy would be high abstract/contemplative. Successful players would be high practical/real-time. Investigation is a contemplative activity while socializing is a real-time one.

  3. Hope Says:

    I think after a certain level of intelligence, “charisma” typically seems lessened due to the lack of commonality with those who are not in the big middle part of the bell curve. Most women cluster around the middle, and so those men who are 2 SD above the mean do less well with women.

    I actually find highly intelligent men highly charismatic, because I suspect I fall into the right side of the bell curve as well. There’s a feeling of “I get what you mean” when we communicate, which does not happen with dumber but supposedly “charismatic” people.

    It is said that leaders need charisma, but it is also said that if the leader has a 20-point or bigger IQ gap with the follower in either direction, the relationship breaks down. So this effect applies to both men and women.

  4. David Collard Says:

    Andrew Wiles is an Englishman, and that is what they are like. There is a strain of that reserved style in some Australians too, like me. Don’t let it fool you. We can be quite tough. Wiles was dogged and smart, he is a professor at Princeton, and he married, by all accounts, to a nice looking brunette of some intelligence herself.

    Smart people can learn to understand people quite well. I actually think I have very good social understanding and read people well. I also know how to keep my own counsel, and move when I am ready. Social skills can be learned, and intelligence helps learning.
    [DU: I agree. I used “charisma” to express the more showy form of presentation, the one that most would offer as a counterpoint to “nerdy.” While there is a lot to recommend a more understated presentation, it is not what most would call charismatic; the fact that these understateds may actually have as much influence does not matter. What you say about Wiles is most likely true; it takes a lot of confidence to single-handedly attack a problem as he did. I wanted a less showy example to counterpoint Steve Jobs who was not named Bill Gates. I hope it was clear from my post that despite seeing its plausibility, I reject the claim of smart always means nerdy.]

  5. HBD: Dumb Conservatives? « Default User Says:

    […] User Currently in beta test. « HBD: Smart but Nerdy? HBD: The Jewish Question […]

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