Thursday, March 25, 2010

On Being Good at Seeming Smart

Once upon a time, there was a graduate student at UC Riverside whom I will call Student X. (If you are associated with UCR and think you can guess who Student X is, I think you will probably guess wrong.) There seemed to be a general sense among the faculty that Student X was particularly promising. For example, after a colloquium at which the student had asked a question, one faculty member expressed to me how impressive the student was. I was struck by that remark because I had thought the student's question had actually been pretty poor. But it occurred to me that the question had seemed, superficially, to be smart. That is, if you didn't think too much about the content but rather just about the tone and delivery, you probably would get a strong impression of smartness. In fact, my overall view of this student was that he was about average -- neither particularly good nor particularly bad -- but that he was a master of seeming smart: He had the confidence, the delivery, the style, all the paraphernalia of smartness, without an especially large dose of the actual thing.

Since then, I have been collecting anecdotal data on seeming smart. One thing I've noticed is what sort of person tends spontaneously to be described, in my presence, as "seeming smart". A very striking pattern emerges: In every case I have noted the smart-seeming person has been a young white male. Now my sample size is small and philosophy is about 75% white male anyway, so I want to be cautious in this inference. Women and minorities must sometimes "seem smart". And older people maybe have already proven or failed to prove their brilliance so that remarks about their apparent intelligence aren't as natural. (Maybe also it is less our place to evaluate them.) But still I would guess that there is something real behind that pattern, to wit:

Seeming smart is probably to a large extent about activating people's associations with intelligence. This is probably especially true when one is overhearing a comment about a complex subject that isn't exactly in one's expertise, so that the quality of the comment is hard to evaluate. And what do people associate with intelligence? Some things that are good: Poise, confidence (but not defensiveness), giving a moderate amount of detail but not too much, providing some frame and jargon, etc. But also, unfortunately, I suspect: whiteness, maleness, a certain physical bearing, a certain dialect (one American type, one British type), certain patterns of prosody -- all of which favor, I suspect, upper- to upper-middle class white men. If you look and sound like Lisa Kudrow and end every sentence with a rising intonation, it is going to be much harder to seem smart than if you look and sound like Matt Damon. But Lisa might actually be the smarter one. (I don't think there is a single trait of smartness, or even of being a smart philosopher, but let's bracket that for now.)

Here's the twist: Student X actually ended up doing very well in the program and writing an excellent dissertation. I suspect that's not because he started out with better tools but rather because he rose to his teachers' expectations. There is ample evidence in educational psychology that student performance tends to shift toward teacher expectations. Tell girls that girls on average do less well on math tests than do boys and the girls will in fact do less well. Tell a teacher that a particular student will do well and the change in the teacher's expectations will cause that student to actually do better (the Pygmalion effect). Life's not fair.

I hereby resolve to view skeptically all judgments of "seeming smart".


Anonymous said...

Did Student X really rise to the expectation of the teacher or did he perform as the rest of the faculty thought he would? Was the teacher wrong in his/her initial assessment and of Student X and instead of accepting that, spins it as Student X rose to the occasion? Life isn't fair…

Manuel Vargas said...

I can't resist saying that your analysis here seems pretty smart.


Badda Being said...

Book smarts, street smarts?

Badda Being said...

Life is fair if it's chaotic.

Anonymous said...

This definitely seems to have a large chunk of truth in it to me. Maybe you should shift the blame around though and say the student was a master of being a specific kind of young white male, and this specific kind of young white male activates normative ideas of smartness. Would hate to blame someone for 'faking' smarts when that person is just being themselves.

Anonymous said...

What were his GRE scores?

peter kirwan said...

So there are probably a bunch of different factors going on here rather than just one but two occur to me immediately regarding the accumulation of small advantages.

1) there is what you might call a ripple effect. So apparently studies had shown (or at least we thought they had in 1998, data changes so quickly *sigh*) that if the people sitting around Person X react positively or negatively to what that person says it will affect the reaction of other people to what Person X says. I suppose if you fit the right implicit triggers and you have 'poise' that might be enough to get the ball rolling with people sitting around you at least with their immediate reaction.

2) Is a sort of ripple effect across time predicted by Valian in Ch7 of 'Why so slow'. So Student X says something on day one and (partly) as a result of implicit bias his comment is well received. People who are aware that this first comment was well received are more inclined to receive the next thing Student X says well and so on. The idea is that if you fit the right implicit bias triggers you are more likely to get the initial good response that gets the ball rolling (certainly rolling faster than for those who fit the negative triggers) for the others.

Both 1 and 2 are discussed in the Valian's Why So Slow. Valian references specific data for 1, I didn't see any for 2. I forget if it is in an earlier chapter or if it is just a prediction.

CP said...

There is still such a thing as practical philosophy - face to face discussions, encouraging one another to self-criticism and self-justification - which begins where the philosophy practised in journal articles ends. Seeming smart is important in practical philosophy - you are aiming to affect the opinions and actions of others, and how you seem is a factor in achieving this. (Of course, being smart is still important too.)

Perhaps Student X was objectively better at practical philosophy. Perhaps young white males have an objective advantage in practice. After all, the greatest difference between young white males and non-young non-white non-males is how they seem. If Socrates had been a Persian lady, he would have had less impact - and he was aiming for impact, not possession of the right answers.

The question is, could we/should we alter how people seem to us? Are young white males pre-eminent in practical philosophy because they seem smarter, or do they seem smarter because they are pre-eminent?

I think I'll always afford people somewhat more authority if they are physically bigger than me (hence being non-young or non-male might hold you back, but being non-white isn't such a problem). Perhaps if someone stands up to speak, their utterance is better suited to changing my mind than another utterance with the same content but made from a sitting position, just because standing makes them more physically imposing.

Brad C said...

Hi Eric,

Interesting and helpfully troubling.

I suspect it might be right, but I have a question/worry about the informal study.

Consider this possibility: people are more prone to reclassify people (from "was smart" to "merely seemed smart") with certain features (e.g. being white, male, young, etc) than others and this tendency is not grounded in their sensitivity to the evidence for being a "seeming smart person".

If this is a possibility, then in order to find out who "merely seems smart", you might need to do more than ask people who they think of as merely seeming smart.

This is a live worry, I think, because it is not a far out possibility that more white, young, men are subject to this reclassification tendency than others -- there are some speculative explanations in the offing.

An obvious one is that it seems to be bad-form to think or say this of people in some groups. So there might be resistance to reclassify those who *lack* the characteristics your study picked up on.

Do you see the worry? Did your questions circumvent it?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all the comments, folks!

Manuel: Thanks?

Badda: "Smart" smarts. I like it.

Anon 7:24: No blame of Student X intended. I'm sorry if it came off that way.

Anon 10:28: I don't know. I'm not a big believer in GREs anyway.

Peter: That seems plausible, and thanks for the tip on Valian.

CP: Yeah, I don't see anything wrong with cultivating the skill at seeming smart -- except maybe for a worry that one would be taking advantage of people's biases. From an evaluator's point of view, though, I think caution is warranted.

Brad C: A legitimate concern. It's informal observation, so I haven't been rigorous about it, but my intention has been only to classify reports as "seeming smart" reports if I thought they meant something like "probably smart" rather than "*merely* seems smart". I also classified some claims as "seems smart" claims even without an explicit qualifier like "seems" if it was clear that the judgment was based on a superficial impression.

Anonymous said...

I think of myself as smart. Not pure smart but a kind of out-preforming-my-peers smart. On the other hand I have never been a good writer. Still I did very well in college and received good grades in all of my philosophy classes. So being a somewhat physically imposing white male my worry is that I only seem to be smart. How then could I introspectively find out whether or not my seeming intelligence is actual intelligence or just a kind personal charisma?

Anonymous said...

A compatible point worth noting:

Persons who aren't white males can come across, albeit more rarely, as "seeming smart...." The catch, I believe (based on personal and observational experience), is that when this is extended to women and (especially) to historically disadvantaged minorities, it often comes with a tacit qualification: "...for an X." (Cf. the wonder of the dancing bear, or "articulate" blacks.)

This phenomenon can account at once for two competing tendencies: the overestimation of reasonably intelligent women and minorities, and a lower upper bound on the estimation of remarkably intelligent women and minorities.

Jean Kazez said...

"In every case I have noted the smart-seeming person has been a young white male."

Eric, I'm not sure how you're defining "smart-seeming." There's a certain sort of smart-ass behavior that does typically come from young white males. But smart-seeming is surely not the same thing as smart-ass. Are you seriously saying you have never had an initial impression of a female student as "seeming smart"? I've had plenty of female students (and male) who initially seemed smart to me. Some lived up to the initial image and some didn't, but it's not rare for female students to strike me as seeming smart. No offense, but could it be that your "seems smart" detector needs a tune up? To be specific--I'm thinking right now of some female students in a class I'm teaching. They're focused, articulate, inquiring, and make extremely good points. They're not smart-ass (cocky, show-offy, combative, etc) but definitely seem smart. Surely you have female students like that!

J said...

The race-baiting's sort of ....unnecessary (not to say a rather small sample). Why not design a study...or play a few games of chess and find out?

OR say post his GRE scores.

Though you are correct many gullible people mistake jargon-spouting for profundity. Sort of like how people mistake a frat-boy business major such as Brian Leither for a dee-eep philosophical mind, merely because he can parrot Nietzsche on demand.

Levi said...

I suspect that's not because he started out with better tools but rather because he rose to his teachers' expectations.

Contra: Isn't there something to be said of creating expectations? It's a nice story when an outcast rises to greatness, but I am not sure that is a particularly good model for individuals to aspire to. Presenting yourself in such a way that you create expectations seems like a good way of forcing yourself to achieve.

It is recommended that students study in groups, intelligently selected groups, partially because you will learn better when you both teach others and have outside perspectives on the topics being studied. But partially it is because it creates an expectation of an acceptable level of preparation prior to going to the study group. If you know that you will let your group members down, you will increase the chances that you actually do quality prep.

Anonymous said...

I think this is pretty spot-on. I'm a young woman of color in philosophy. Despite being, by any reasonable standards, fairly successful at what I do, I have historically been subject to the kind of "seeming" judgments you describe here. While doing my MA, I "didn't seem serious about my work" -- despite attending seminars, writing papers, presenting at a couple grad conferences, and participating actively in department events and social life.

I strongly suspect this had to do with my personality -- cheerful, out-going, fairly generous to other people -- together with my race, gender, and age (minority woman aged 21 at the time of Master's). Although I certainly had short-comings at the time, my short-comings were no worse than those of my slightly older (mid-20s) white and/or male peers. Yet I suffered extreme consequences (think funding, status in department) of not "seeming serious".

Another friend -- a female grad student in the Classics department -- had a particularly morose manner (she was a retired goth girl) suffered similar consequences as me for "seeming negative and sad" despite the fact that her work (and her somewhat dark and solemn manner) was comparable to her peers in the Classics department, and she was a well-reviewed teacher. It's a classic example of the double-bind of oppression. Women who are solemn and serious are "sad and negative" but women who are cheerful and upbeat are "vapid and flaky". How am I supposed to act?

Both of us -- incidentally -- have been highly successful in environments outside our academic/scholastic communities where problems with discrimination and diversity policies are given high priority, and people no longer cling to the myth of pure meritocracy. Despite my successes (which included transfer to an academic department superior to my first one, and receiving tenure at my CC job before even defending my prospectus), I still get the feeling that most people don't perceive me as "serious" about my work.

One indication of this is that when I do actually talk to people about my work, they seem to express shock and surprise that what I'm doing is genuinely interesting and novel. Another is that people often don't take my philosophical positions and views seriously, though they are perfectly content to take my professional advice very seriously. I'm never asked to look at papers by my peers, but I am often asked to review cover letters, CVs, and give advice on interviews. I think people are obviously thinking, consciously or not, that I didn't get where I am because I'm serious about philosophy, but because I have professional skills that make me look smarter than I am.

gapingwhole said...

As a student, its good to know that professors notice these things too. I've encountered a couple people (white males) who 'seem smart'. It usually takes being in a few classes with them to realize that they're not actually saying much when they talk. In most of the cases I've seen, however, the students didn't end up doing very well. In one case, in fact, the student who 'seemed smart' was pretty much the only student who spoke in class but he also dropped after the first assignment.

Gin said...

I'd like to go back to Anon's comment from Friday March 26 12:29pm. I too have been told frequently that I am smart from people who hardly know me. However, I'm a young, non-white (south asian) female, currently doing a double major (English and Communication Studies) and hopefully going on to do Law. I too would like to know if it is possible to have an objective understanding of one's smartness, seeing as one's perception of one's own smarts is influenced, to a degree, by everyone else's perception of the one's smarts. Do note that I do not intend to seems smart but merely state my mind. Admittedly, there have been times I've said completely average stuff that has been perceived as an intelligent comment but I'm unsure as to whether I underestimated the content of my comment through now naturalized self-depreciative tendencies or if it was in fact an average comment.

So, in short, how are smart people supposed to know if they're smart, taking into consideration your observations?

irvingprime said...

All your thoughts about "seeming" smart fall down if the reason the person who made you start thinking that way performed well, was because he really was smart but you failed to see it.

Insert joking reference to your intelligence here.

svetlana said...

This makes sense. Interesting post, Eric.
Just came across a fun snippet about Elena Kagan's smartness:

"Richard Fallon was in his fourth year of teaching at Harvard Law when Kagan arrived in his federal courts class. She asked quick, probing questions. "I can remember seeing her hand go up, and the sight . . . would trigger both excitement and a pang of terror," Fallon said. "I knew she would say something really smart. The terror was, her questions were so penetrating that my knees would wobble. What would I say to rescue myself after she was done? She's that smart.""

bjdouble said...

In Gadamer's autobiography he has a passage about a young female student who seemed especially smart. Then he read her paper and realized that she had been able to fool him all semester.

sheehanc said...

It's the truth, ruth

T. said...

An interview of a german professor on intellectual simulation as academic skill.

Anonymous said...

I think you're totally right. If you're not a white male (preferably with an Ivy League undergrad degree) you will have to fight like hell to be recognized. And when you are recognized, you might just find that you got to be recognized because you learned to perfectly mimic how young white males from Ivy League schools sound smart. So even if you do end up cracking the code to sounding smart, you do so at a terrible price to your integrity.

Anonymous said...

I think the general point that white males have an easier time seeming smart is probably correct. But I also wonder if this isn`t especially relevant in philosophy, where the ability to draw on a certain canon, and relate to a particular set of examples, matters. If I can draw on Plato and Aristotle, and intuitively relate to a particular epistemological problem, then my comments will not simply "seem" smart - they are much more likely to be smart. That is to say, it will be clear that I "get it". I will have reached the base-line for making a useful contribution to the discussion.

If that is right, it both points to a bias in the discipline (which is hardly a new or shocking insight), and raises I think an interesting question about whether, in a subject like philosophy, we can meaningfully distinguish between "smart" and "seemingly smart".

There probably is such a thing as genuinely excellent, as opposed to merely good-seeming, work in philosophy. But most of what students do is not that. We are evaluated on our ability to understand a given idea or philosopher, and relate it meaningfully to other ideas.

I think I belong to the category of smart-seeming white males. But I think one of the main reasons for that is my intuitive ability to "get" what philosophers are talking about. I enjoy philosophy precisely because the issues I encounter in my life are so often reflected in the issues I discuss in the philosophy classroom. What most often distinguishes me from my peers is (I think) that they cannot so easily make that link.

I think the fact that I was raised in a Christian household, that I engaged in a certain kind of competitive argumentation throughout my childhood, that I read for pleasure a particular kind of stories, are all important reasons why I am able to relate to philosophy. They are also consequence of a particular kind of up-binging. But does that make me smart, or smart-seeming?

I recognize that the original post was more about superficial demeanor, but I think the issue goes beyond that - to what actually constitutes a "smart" contribution. I also recognized that being socialized in a certain way is not the same as being "white" or "male". But it seems to me that we're really talking about a certain set of behaviors, which are often but not always found in white males. So the points stand.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Anon! I agree with what I take to be your general point: Factors like general background training and knowledge relate both to seeming smart and to being, well, if not exactly smart at least well informed (and the two are probably not as different as they seem). And furthermore a certain kind of background training, useful in philosophy, happens to be associated statistically with class especially (maybe to a lesser extent gender and race). So the whole business is quite a tangle! Despite all that, I think my overall point stands.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how well your speculation about "seeming smart" applies to areas where discrepancies between say, genders, are most pronounced.

In the STEM fields for example, it's a little hard to understand how "seeming smart" comes out as critical to ultimate success as it might in philosophy. Problem solving ability is really paramount in STEM fields, and the opportunity to impress purely on the basis of manner is far, far less.

So suppose that one tries to explain the relative success of white males in disciplines like philosophy, where there's at least a plausible argument that "seeming smart" plays a major role. Why is it, then, that the relative success of white males seems to be if anything even greater in STEM areas where it would appear that "seeming smart" plays a distinctly less powerful role?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon: Numerous factors will be in play that will privilege some groups over others, of which being good at seeming smart is only one. That could explain the phenomenon. But I'm also not sure about the empirical facts you cite. Are science, technology, engineering, and math as gender biased as philosophy? My sense is that philosophy is more gender biased than the median "STEM" subfield (at least if one includes the life sciences). See for example here:

And I'm not at all confident that seeming smart is less important to success in those fields than it is in philosophy. There's a politics to getting attention, getting into a lab, and getting away with hand-waving and technical intimidation in one's presentations, and some of the most male-dominated fields are also fields with a bit of a cult of the young genius. There certainly needs to be a very high base level of performance to succeed at all, but the difference between average graduate student and seeming genius might be very subjective.

Anonymous said...


Let me grant that if you throw in the life sciences, there may not be a significant difference in representation between philosophy and the STEM areas.

But the problem is that if one focuses especially on those areas where the sort of advantages of "seeming smart" might apply least, then the representation of males (forget about the white for the nonce) goes up, not down. Thus, in physics, math, computer engineering and science, the representation of males is at about its greatest dominance as in any discipline.

Yes, raising one's hand, getting the extra lab space, hand waving explanations, etc. have some impact in any area, but it's pretty obvious, I believe, that in the context of the disciplines of physics, math, computer engineering and science, they have considerably less impact than in virtually all others. The ability to solve problems either posed in tests or in the context of research really does dominate; something either works or it doesn't.

My point is that this would seem to be the exact opposite of the prediction that your "seeming smart" theory would appear to suggest.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon: that might be so, and if so, I agree it's interesting (though not incompatible with my thesis if we assume that other factors are at work countervailing the difference in importance of seeming smart). But it's an empirical claim. Remember that some of the most famous research on student performance shifting toward expectations has concerns mathematics. It also doesn't seem like math and physics students are on the whole any less good at seeming smart, as one might expect if seeming smart were irrelevant. (Or do they seem smart simply because they are smart?)

Anonymous said...

I agree it's not true that "smart is as smart does," because someone can do something smart without knowing it, and in that case you can't conclude that the person really is being smart. But a similar inference in the case "stupid is as stupid does" _is_ valid, because if you do something stupid without realizing it, then you really are being stupid. Call that the Hanks / Damon dichotomy.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

How about "smart is as smart does" but treated in terms of counterfactual conditionals? One can luck into a smart action or comment, or an action or comment that is identical to the action or comment that would be made by a smart person; but if it happens reliably across counterfactual situations, that's sufficient for genuine intelligence. (Caveat: This comment treats intelligence as more of a unified thing than I am comfortable doing. Maybe intelligence-about-X would serve a bit better.)

Anonymous said...

Doesn't almost everyone try to seem smarter than they are, or at least think they are? Isn't that what we laud as persuasiveness?

Anonymous said...


This just echoes Jean's point from above, but I'm sort of horrified that you've never encountered a non-white-male that "seemed smart" (initially, etc.). I did my Ph.D. at Notre Dame, which certainly has no reputation as a bastion for non-white-males, but there were several non-white-males that I encountered there--both professors and students--that seemed terrifyingly smart. And they seemed smart right away, etc. (And they were terrifyingly smart too, I might add.) In any case, I agree that seeming smart doesn't perfectly correlate with being smart, and there might be weird cultural stuff going on, but I can hardly believe that you've never encountered a non-white-male that seemed smart.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Nov 28: Thanks for the comment, Anon. Let me clarify: I am keeping track of other people's verbal expressions in front of me, not my own subjective impressions.

Also, I think it's worth keeping clearly in mind the difference between "seeming smart" as (at one extreme) a kind of one-second time-slice snap-judgment (e.g., potentially of a very brief video clip) and "seeming smart" based upon broader impressions of the content of a person's verbal expressions. I think it plausible -- based on my knowledge of the implicit bias and snap-judgment literature -- that, within philosophy at least, upper-middle-class white men have a major advantage in the former kind of case. The question, then, is to what extent that has a distorting influence on people's actual judgments about real people in real life.