What makes "smart people" socially awkward?

So I’m watching the trailer for that new movie Limitless where Bradly Cooper is a failing writer who takes a pill that lets him use 100% of his brain and turns him into a supremely confident, ultra charming and sophisticated megagenius.

Except I’m thinking that IRL, many people who I’ve known who were identified as extremely intelligent don’t act like Bradley Cooper or Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark / Sherlock Holmes. They are either extremely pompous and annoying pedants like Lisa Simpson or socially awkward like Mark Zuckerberg. Even the ones who are highly socialized seem like they are slightly “off” somehow.

Many of them are extremely dull. Like trying to have any sort of conversation with them is extremely tedious, like having your teeth pulled.
Why is that? I would think that being extremely intelligent, one would be able to pick up on and learn social cues much faster. Or be able to discuss nearly any topic like a walking Wikipedia. Or that they would be able to manipulate people into doing their bidding the way one might manipulate a small child.

One theory is time spent learning to be “smart” is time spent not learning to be popular. See this well-known article on the subject Why Nerds are Unpopular . Another way of thinking about it is that people who are really good at manipulating people and being popular are smart - smart enough to disguise their off-putting intelligence.

What you’re hoping for (smart people being really good at manipulating people) occurs in a story by Ted Chiang, available legally here Understand - a novelette by Ted Chiang

I was a smart little kid and I was in college when I was 15 and begin to have problems. My mother than gave me the best piece of advice I ever got.

She said, “Mark there’s a huge difference between showing people how SMART you are and how DUMB they are.”

I don’t think a lot of intelligent people ever learn this.

Social skills have to be learned just like anything else. Smart people often think they can get by on their intellect. On the other hand there are a lot of charming people that think they can get by on that. Or good looking people that try and get by on that.

It’s really just one part of a bigger issue, learning to rely too much on one aspect of one’s personality

I suspect many of them suffer from “delicate genius” syndrome. Basically they are kind of sheltered and segregated from the general population their entire lives and constantly told how special they are.

In addition to the above, I think smart people are too smart to understand people. Understanding people is generally illogical and animalistic. One example would be a bar fight. You are much less likely to get into a bar fight if you are bigger than the instigator. While it is illogical that size means strength, it’s very common. Also, take the examples of “playground rules,” “keeping it real” or “getting dissed.” Makes no sense at all to an intelligent person, but it basically is the rule on the street.

I would think some of it’s the same reason “not so smart people” can be socially awkward.

You have to know how to approach people and try to keep the conversation on their level. Without sounding like a smarty-pants, or a dimwit.

I don’t think smart people are any more or less socially awkward than less intelligent people.

Confirmation bias.

This has to be true. My first thought on reading the thread title was about my lifelong friend, an extremely intelligent and academically gifted woman who is now a physician. She was told in college that she’d be very apt as a brain surgeon, being as she so well understood the psychological aspects as well as the anatomical (and this was before she ever even went to medical school). She didn’t become one, opting to serve as a family practice physician.

Think also of the highly intelligent, smooth-operator swindler types who have always been with us — those who use their intellect and charisma to bilk people out of their money. Politicians? Public appeal is half their qualifications (though many people think it’s all). Many of the most charismatic leaders were also gifted academically (I’m thinking of Bill Clinton here).

Having known several highly intelligent people (I am not one of them), I think many of them know that in their fields, their intellect is far more important than their social skills. Thus, they don’t have to go through the same social ballet we all do every day to get what we need from people.

It’s like House, albeit on a much smaller scale. Some people choose to ignore social norms because they know they don’t have to obey them to keep their jobs or advance. Their smarts let them choose their jobs.

It’s funny that this topic came up because this is one of the issues I’m dealing with in therapy. I think of myself as a pretty socially adept person. I am good at reading people and making small talk, and any time I’ve set out to make a friend I have been successful. My students have told me that I’m much “warmer” than other teachers they have had who teach quantitative subjects.


Sometimes I wish I were as smart as those people around me who don’t (seem to) give a shit about social norms. I know plenty of people in my field who seem to have no social skills, no sense of what’s appropriate to say to others or not. I think part of the attraction is, as was said above, that social stuff isn’t logical, and it can be exhausting trying to navigate appropriate moves in an irrational decision space. It tires me out sometimes, and I wish that sometimes I could turn it off. But, if I lose my ability to get along with others, I will have lost perhaps the most important skill that I have.

Still working through this in therapy…YMMV.

I’m not a hypergenius, but I’m smart. And, you know, I’d trade some of that smartness for social skills. I have friends who are smarter than me and have social skills; they have much happier lives.

But I think that, for a certain range of smartness, socal skills are more important for personal happiness than intelligence. Above that range, as statsman1982 says, people are willing to put up with bad social skills to take advantage of smartness. Below that range, even the best social skills won’t compensate for problems.

Because we find the rest of you tedious and dull.

Most of the smart people I know are also socially confident.

There are some people who know a lot about specific topics who mistake that for intelligence and who are often socially awkward along with that. Sort of a one-track-mind problem.

I’m just normal, but my father is genuinely gifted. He was an inventor, has a crazy number of patents blahblah, graduated 2nd in his class from an IIT etc. It is sometimes humbling to be around him. My brother-in-law is also like this (his grandfather is a reasonably famous mathmatician).

Not sure about what happens today, but back when my father was a kid growing up in the third world they just didn’t have programs to properly integrate gifted children into the educational system. He was skipped several grades, which impeded social development. He was already smaller than everyone else, then skipped multiple grades so his classmates weren’t particularly keen to incorporate him into the social networks around sports etc. Then his parents had to ship him off to Bombay at a very young age because he had already outstripped the educational resources for the area and needed better educational options. He had to actively work to learn social skills once he was packed off to the big city. I’ll give him some credit-my dad was the only dedicated scientist on the sales team at his company, but only because he made the effort to learn those soft skills.

I strongly suspect that gifted children continue to face the same type of problems today. People think of them as miniature adults, but they’re really not and their social development is as important as their intellectual development. I have yet to manifest the type of giftedness by father continues to show into his 60s (he is teaching himself medical engineering WTF??), but because of his experience he was pretty careful about making sure we turned out more “well rounded” and not super socially awkward etc.

If I make a list of everyone I know or have ever known, which is a lot of people, to be honest, the OP’s thesis just does not stand up to scrutiny. For the most part, if anything, the really smart ones might be a bit more likely to be socially capable, and the socially awkward ones have no tendency towards intelligence.

I would guess in part because regular social interaction do not interest most extremely smart people, they’d probably find it boring or vapid. So they never learn the skills. But that is an assumption.

I’m smart. I’m not socially awkward. But I do get tired of having to have discussions with people that aren’t of my caliber. It takes extreme effort not to smack people down with logic and facts. And what’s worse is that it’s really hard not to make people look like imbeciles when you exchange anything more than banalities with them.

Case in point: My acting boss hands me a paper and says “Want to kill a few brain cells? Here. Read this over and let me know what you think.” It was a Ph.D. analyzing a particular procedure. My boss then turns to page 8 and begins to mock the math in the paper. He kept making comments along the lines of how he couldn’t possibly understand what the doctor was saying, and how silly the doctor was to think that anyone could understand it.

It was fucking addition. It was basically just “The relevance score of this plus the relevance score of that equals how relevant the whole thing is.” The most complicated expression in the whole thing was basically 3x+z.

Now you tell me how I’m not supposed to lose respect for my boss when he implies that addition kills brain cells, that thinking is bad, that arithmetic is hard, and then tops it off by assuming I can’t do it.
He’s not alone. There are thousands of people just like him. Smart people meet them every day. And these people get offended when smart people have the audacity to actually demonstrate their superior cognitive abilities. Nothing will set a person outside a social circle faster than perceived superiority to the group.

So it’s easy to see why smart people are awkward when society defines “awkward” as “acting smart” and “normal” as “stupid”.

My WAG would be that the same part of your brain that makes you interested in hitting the books hard, reading, studying, and learning by definition will make you tend toward being alone and in a quiet area. That’s what makes you happy and that’s why you do it.

So, if you are put into a social situation you are out of your comfort zone, nervous, and come across as being weird.

Sounds like when I sat in front of my branch manager and the sales force explaining how we determine what product was sent in what quantities to a book fair (standard deviations) and how adding “extra” was already part of the calculation.

It isn’t rocket scence by any means, and its an awesome tool for what we do. Yet here I have 6 people looking at me like I sprouted another head, all of whom I would not be allowed to have their jobs due to me not meeting the educational requirements of the position… :mad:

I make no claims to being especially smart, but I tend to find small talk pretty tedious. I get to school early, and by the time my assistant teacher arrives I have fielded a number of phone calls and emails, and there are several pressing things I need to do/discuss with her before the kids arrive for school. But she wants to tell a long, funny story about something her dog did last night. I feel rude if I continue typing a message to my boss while she is narrating her tale, but really, we are at work! And she does this every day! But I try to find a balance because I recognize that maintaining friendly social ties is important in the workplace.

If I was really smart I could listen to her story and type up a report at the same time.