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What is smart?

Have you ever called someone smart? Been called smart yourself?


Probably most of us have. But have you ever stopped to think about what that means? What leads you to think one person is smart relative to another?


We say things like “book smart” and “street smart.” We say oh she’s really smart, but she doesn’t test well. Or he sounds smart, but that’s only because he uses big words. So which is it? Are they smart or not and how do we know?


As part of my work for about the last decade, I sometimes have to start with a literature search. I try to assess all of the available evidence to make some sort of conclusion (which is often that I can’t conclude anything) about a topic or the answer to a question.


A literature search, however, is fraught with bias.


There is my own personal set of biases that lead to how I ask the question, what search terms I use, and how I wade through the search results, for instance. Like one of the first things I might do is to apply a language filter so I only get results in English - already you can see how this can be problematic.


First, if I’m not reading studies written in French, I might miss some relevant pieces of data. But also in my own native English, I am much more likely to assign meaning and emotion to what I’m reading vs a language with which I am less familiar. Or let’s say perhaps I know a little French so I decide to include those studies, in this case I might actually miss meaning that was intended because I am only able to read the words literally.


There are also external biases like the database I’m using and who created it and what’s included and how the included material was indexed or whether the results were even published at all.


But still, a literature search is a way to prevent other types of bias - like my reaching a conclusion simply based on my own small sliver of reality - and it is part of my training, which is perhaps why when I’m thinking about a question like “what is smart” I do a literature search of sorts.


I go to the dictionary.


And already we’ll see my bias in the definition I include here because there are several, but I am choosing here only the one that I think is most relevant to our discussion.


Smart - having or showing a high degree of mental ability, intelligent, bright.


And one more level down for good measure:


Intelligent - having or indicating a high or satisfactory degree of intelligence and mental capacity; revealing or reflecting good judgment or sound thought, skillful; possessing intelligence; guided or directed by intellect, rational.


Does this help?


Maybe a little. I can pull some specifics from this definition like good judgment and rational that might help me point to why I think someone is smart.


But what about recall of facts? This is what is required for multiple-choice tests in school, for instance, and if someone consistently does well on these and thus gets good grades, would you call that smart?


What about someone who is less able to recall detailed facts, but is good at putting facts together to synthesize information? This person might not do well on a test that makes them recall specifics but would excel on tests with essay questions where broad concepts are more important.

Which of the above abilities do you think happens quicker? So is the speed with which someone can articulate a response likely to affect whether they are considered smart?


And, of course, neither ability is exclusive of the other so what about someone who is both able to recall facts in great detail and synthesize them to see things that no one else does - is this person smarter?


Honestly, I could go on and on.


Because there is no answer.


The reality is that there is a complex set of judgments that go into how we choose to describe someone or how they choose to describe us. But also that we are basing our judgments on only the tiny fraction of this person that we are able to observe.


And that all of these judgments about others are colored by our own biases.


That the picture you paint in your mind of someone else is never the whole story.


This is not to say that any of this is wrong or bad in itself. Making snap judgments is what our brains do and for the most part it is necessary; it helps us take in and process massive amounts of information we are mostly unaware of, which keeps us from overloading.


But when applied to people, if we want to be more kind and fair and compassionate, we need to be aware that our judgments are ours, and can actually have little to do with who someone truly is or what they are capable of or how they see themselves.


And so, perhaps it’s worth taking a moment to recognize both what we mean when we say someone is smart or not and so on, and why we might think as we do.


Worth it and I think, really smart.

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