Skip to content

Thinking Smart, Acting Dumb

June 14, 2012

Good judgment comes from experience.  Experience comes from bad judgment.

It is not enough to have a good mind; the main thing is to use it well. – Rene Descartes

The aim of education should be to teach us rather how to think, than what to think – rather to improve our minds, so as to enable us to think for ourselves, than to load the memory with thoughts of other men. – Bill Beattie

Have you ever been astonished by the bone-headed mistakes of someone very smart?  Ever wondered how a person can seem both intelligent and brain dead at the same time?  We’ve all known that person.  Many of us have been that person.  But why is this the case?

Keith E. Stanovich in his book What Intelligence Tests Miss: The psychology of rational thought proposes that rationality and IQ are separate scales.  While I don’t necessarily disagree with this, I believe that this disparity has a great deal to do with how we raise gifted children.

Irrational thought is often the result of lazy thinking.  Instead of following a process to arrive at an answer, the person jumps to a conclusion that has not fully considered the issue or the evidence.  Unfortunately, this is a method often used by gifted students.  When the problems are too easy for them, they can just intuitively answer them while skipping over a number of steps that a typical student would take.  Their minds will determine the answer subconsciously.  For example, a typical student may go through a number of mathematical calculations to determine which fraction is larger, whereas a gifted student may know at a glance.  However, this subconscious decision-making may fail in other instances where a stepped approach succeeds.  If gifted students are given problems at their academic level, they will learn how to use a stepped approach to derive an answer.  Forcing them through stepped thinking on unchallenging problems will not cause them to learn this process, as they will still intuit the answer and fill in the blanks to placate the teacher and her red pen.

Also due to relying on their intuitive mind, many gifted children often have not learned various methods of thinking.  Some don’t develop techniques in logical analysis, risk assessment, collaborative thinking, or other approaches as their minds naturally do it at the level required in their classroom or see the approach as pointless.  A gifted learner placed in a homogeneous work group may find collaborative thought frustrating when they guide the group through steps to a conclusion they already arrived at.  These techniques will often be dismissed as irrelevant because they haven’t added to the classroom experience.  When a gifted person is in a situation that requires the use of one of these methods, he may not have the background to draw on them.

Gifted students also get trained in subduing boredom.  While the teacher drones on about a subject, repeating so that all may gain understanding, the gifted student usually tunes out.  The gifted learner ignores the details the teacher is presenting, knowing that anything important will be repeated numerous times.  He does work for other classes, sketches, or daydreams, knowing that should the teacher call on him, he can probably still provide an intelligent answer.  Once in the work world, this habit continues as the gifted adult pays little attention to business conversations and ignores the details, which can be more vital now.  George W. Bush, whose IQ places him in the moderately gifted zone, was notorious for glazing over when presented with details, a habit he probably learned at a much younger age.

Gifted children also often have a strong feeling of invincibility.  They rely on their intelligence to get them out of jams caused by lack of studying or poor decisions.  They are also often treated differently by parents, teachers, and administrators.  An action that may earn a struggling student detention may not merit the same consequence for the star student who has been easy to teach and may one day bring the school honor through his achievements.  Being able to extract themselves from bad situations either by intelligence or preference leads them to believe that their hasty or poor decisions will not significantly affect them.

Even if we improve education for gifted students so that they are challenged and learn thinking techniques, present material so they increase their attention span, and remove their feelings of invincibility, highly intelligent people will still continue to make stupid mistakes.  We will still continue to ask “How can that genius be so dumb?”  Making errors in judgment is a part of life and when someone who is typically brilliant has an average foible, it will stick out because it is uncharacteristic and because we relish that they have proved themselves human like the rest of us.  We may easily overlook the average gaffes of the average man, but the stupidity of the intelligent will be remembered.

When your gifted child screws up – and he will – don’t ask “How can you make such a dumb mistake???”  Instead, ask yourself whether you are expecting him to be smart in all areas simply because he is brilliant in some.  Ask yourself whether he is being educated to apply his thinking to make rational decisions or if he doesn’t normally have to.  And ask yourself if his errors stick out because they are uncharacteristic or rare.  But most of all, remind yourself that to err is human and that your child enjoys the same imperfect existence all of us do.

Thank you for reading Rochester SAGE.  Together, we can make a difference for gifted children!

This post is part of the #NZGAW Blog Tour.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 14, 2012 10:03 AM

    “..many gifted children often have not learned various methods of thinking. Some don’t develop techniques in logical analysis, risk assessment, collaborative thinking, or other approaches as their minds naturally do it at the level required in their classroom or see the approach as pointless…”

    I love this! Thank you. Will be sharing!

  2. June 14, 2012 10:39 AM

    Excellent post about very important aspects of education and needs for gifted kids to learn process. I agree that sometimes they don’t learn this and need to find an outlet where they do have to think and work at something. Thanks for this..I will be sharing also!

  3. July 22, 2012 12:29 AM

    Thanks, Joshua, for this blog post, and for supporting #NZGAW. I have used one sentence in the photoquotes project. See

  4. July 22, 2012 6:42 AM

    Thank you for this interesting blog!
    Kind regards,
    Roya Klingner
    Head of the Global Center for Gifted & Talented Children

Join the discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: