It’s a head-scratcher

Richard Wiseman is very fond of conducting psychological research on his blog, and I have to appreciate his latest. He asks, very simply, that if you had the power to make a child either smart or pleasant (but not both,) which would you choose? I’m going to examine this a little after the jump, so if you prefer to participate unbiased by my thoughts, go there now before proceeding.

The comments after the poll results are also interesting, so make sure you read those too.

While I certainly place a lot of emphasis on being smart, I also know how our society works, and intelligence is not exactly a respected commodity in US culture. Sometimes we’re in awe of remarkable intelligence, but all too often we find ourselves in competition with someone smarter than we are. I can easily point out how annoyed most people are over encountering pedantic corrections to our spelling or word usage, and caution people that advocating critical thinking and skepticism may often result in placing them into a position of contention. Yet, it can hardly be denied that having intelligence is a distinct asset, and the lack of it can even be fatal.

In the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, characters have various attributes, and right alongside Intelligence is Wisdom. When describing the difference, I often resorted to using phrases like “book learning” and “street smarts.” An intelligent person can know the difference between “your” and “you’re”- a wise person may know when not to correct someone else about this. This does make Wiseman’s definition of “smart” up for interpretation, though.

Pleasant people, on the other hand, may progress in today’s marketplace without even being qualified for their position, and can obtain numerous positions simply on the basis of being pleasant (not working for DMV, perhaps, but there are others.) We remember pleasant people more, we prefer by far to interact with them, and we avoid those that are not. I may be going a bit far with this, but you have to be quite incompetent to get fired as a pleasant person, but have only a tiny screwup if you’re annoying, regardless of your level of intelligence. Smart politicians rarely go anywhere, but folksy ones will. Which is a frightening trait of humanity, to be sure.

I am also aware of one particular curse of being intelligent, without really knowing how widespread it is: being surrounded by people who make poor decisions is frustrating. Being smart is not necessarily going to make someone happy, and stands an uncertain chance of making them rather grouchy.

Personally, I have no idea where I fall on the pleasantness scale. I suspect it’s somewhere around average – I have little difficulty getting along with coworkers and photo students, and can be pretty agreeable when I try (that’s not the purpose of a blog, mind you, so don’t try judging from this.) But I am opinionated, and frequently take the opportunity to correct lousy thinking. I try to be non-confrontational where necessary, but I don’t shy away from confrontation either, especially when I think the subject matter is important and damaging. I really don’t care about socializing and put no value on it whatsoever. I’m starting to sound like a horoscope…

The point is, I doubt I could learn to be pleasant, at least at this stage in my life. But I can teach anyone to be smart. This might simply be a reflection of my personality in the first place – others may find social skills far easier to teach. What this means is, even thought I greatly value being smart, I chose “pleasant” as my poll answer. My thoughts were that this was the most effective way to accomplish both.

And of course, there’s the idea that being asocial and confrontational doesn’t qualify as smart at all, so choosing “smart” would infer at least a little ability to interact with people.

So, there’s the big question: what is going to be most useful to a child, considering our culture and environment? And not only from the standpoint of what’s useful, but what’s best for the child, also considering happiness and success? And can it even be answered in a useful way? News anchors make more money that university professors, but I know I would never be happy with something that vacuous, myself, so presuming that we’re talking about my own child (of which I have none,) then it depends on what kind of values I’m already instilling in them, doesn’t it? Wiseman did not specify one’s own child though, so this could simply mean some child on the street. Which adds, what street, in what neighborhood?

I’m so confused right now…

1 comment to It’s a head-scratcher