Research suggests that a high intellect isn’t the only thing that smart people have in common. In fact, experts believe they’ve identified 20 surprising personality traits that can prove you’re an intellectual. Some of them come completely out of left field, though, so you might be taken aback by how clever you are.
20. They read a lot
Let’s kick off with an obvious one: some of the smartest people love to get lost in a good book. Of course, it depends on the contents. An informative text is likely a greater indication of intelligence than a Where’s Waldo?, for example. But hey, everyone’s got to start somewhere.
Moreover, there’s evidence to suggest reading itself can help to increase your intelligence. According to the U.K.’s Twins Early Development Study, sets of twins who read displayed higher intelligence than those who didn’t. One of the researchers, Stuart Ritchie, told Medical News Today as much in 2014. He also considered it “surprising that there were effects on non-verbal intelligence.”
19. They’re curious
It turns out that Curious George might have been something of a rogue scholar. Apparently, displaying an insatiable curiosity is an indication that you’re one of the smartest among us. At least, that’s what U.K. researchers concluded in a report in The Journal of Individual Differences in 2016.
Of all the children the study documented, the most intelligent ones at age 11 showed greater curiosity in later life. As a result, it’s thought that there’s a direct correlation between curiosity and intelligence. Essentially, if you have a passion for learning, you’ll learn more because you want to. And that’s a great motivator.
18. They think outside the box
Many famously intelligent people have been considered weird or eccentric by their peers. Take Einstein, for example, with his crazy hair and strange ideas. However, eventually he became widely regarded as a genius who was ahead of his time. Part of that is because he, like many other intellectuals, thought outside the proverbial box.
As a result, the smartest people have a tendency to consider rules and traditions as mere guidelines. This might make them seem odd or even arrogant at times, but it’s a part of intellectual puzzle-solving. People who aren’t limited by rigid thought processes can find solutions and overcome problems more efficiently.
17. They’re observant
Although classic detectives such as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot are fictional, the writers who devised them nonetheless knew how to portray intelligence. These characters all display keen observational skills, which is one of the defining traits of smart people. But what exactly is it about noticing details that indicates you have a high IQ?
According to psychologist Dr. Catherine Jackson, it’s all down to how the brain processes information. Observation allows you to pick up on subtle details that other people overlook. She told Bustle in 2019 that intelligent people focused less on trying to talk themselves up and more on taking note of the world around them.
16. They exhibit self-control
At times we’re all slaves to impulses, but studies show that people with higher IQs can curb them better. The reason for this probably lies in being able to think ahead in order to achieve good results. Indeed, Psychological Science printed results from an experiment in 2009 to support this theory.
The study in question involved offering test groups two options: one with smaller but immediate results or a greater prize further down the line. The participants with the higher intelligence scores opted to wait, displaying greater restraint than the rest. The research team suspected that a certain cortex in the brain was responsible for this trait.
15. They’re creative
It’s easy to think of intelligence and creativity as different beasts because they’re controlled by opposite brain hemispheres. Actually, though, it’s quite the opposite: clever people use both qualities in conjunction to achieve their goals. This allows them to explore options that wouldn’t usually be associated with the task in hand.
Take our recurring friend Albert Einstein, for example. During a 1929 feature by The Saturday Evening Post headlined “What Life Means to Einstein,” the scientist explained how he used creativity. “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” he said. “For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”
14. They’re night owls
Do you stay up late into the night and like to sleep in the next morning? Then here’s some good news; it means you could be an intellectual. The late-to-bed-and-late-to-rise lifestyle is often somewhat disparaged. But there’s reason to believe that nocturnal humans are smarter than their early-rising counterparts.
A theory featured in Psychology Today suggested that the more intelligent among us can break our biological clocks. The concept is that doing so allows us to be more able to reach personal targets. A 2009 study, which focused on the sleeping patterns of a test group, also seemed to corroborate this hypothesis.
13. They like their own company
They say that no man or woman is an island, but people with high IQs may argue otherwise. This seems to go against everything we know about our species, of course, which is by its very nature a social one. However, a 2016 study by evolutionary psychologists Norman P. Li and Satoshi Kanazawa found an exception to the rule.
In their “savanna theory of happiness,” Li and Kanazawa propose that happiness decreases with the size of the community. When people spend time with friends, though, happiness increases. Their findings suggest this rule doesn’t apply to those with high IQs, however, who instead feel unhappier around friends. They apparently relish seclusion.
12. They know their limits
You might assume that smarter people are less likely to say “I don’t know” when a problem confronts them. But according to multiple sources, intellectuals know when to fold ’em, so to speak. Both Jackson and Jim Winer on Quora have stated that clever people are more likely to admit to gaps in their knowledge.
“If they don’t know it, they can learn it,” Winer stated in 2018. “That’s the pay-off.” Jackson’s own comments also concurred with Winer’s when she discussed the subject with Bustle in June 2019. “They know their limits and can admit it,” she said. “This allows them to be open to learning more from others and/or situations.”
11. They’re open-minded
With regards to opinions, studies from Yale University have indicated that those with higher IQs are receptive to new ideas. In 2008 one of the college’s research teams found that clever people listen to all sides of an argument. Only then, when presented with a diverse selection of opinions, do they make up their own minds.
The process is called delay discounting, and it’s another behavior associated with the aforementioned anterior prefrontal cortex. In addition, smart people are less likely to be swayed from their opinion after it’s been reached. If they’ve already made a considered and calculated choice, they trust their judgment and stick with it.
10. They’re messy
There are many adages along the lines of a cluttered desk being a sign of a cluttered mind. People may have thought that way in the past, but times are seemingly changing. Now it’s thought that the opposite is true, and messy desks are in fact indicative of smarter people – according to academic investigations.
In their 2012 research project the Netherlands’ University of Groningen found that people thrive intellectually in a cluttered environment. The disorganization helps, in fact, because the brain’s forced to focus more. In addition, the University of Minnesota found students with messy desks demonstrated a higher degree of creativity. And some of the smartest people to have lived, including Einstein, Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison, worked among clutter.
9. They’re really funny
Any good writer or comedian can tell you comedy is hard. But if research from the University of New Mexico is anything to go by, it’s easier for intellectuals. In 2011, the academy’s researchers concluded that comedic writers had high verbal intelligence scores. A follow-up study also found the same is true of stand-ups.
That’s not all though – keen minds have noticed a pattern in the humor smart people share. Both verbal and non-verbal intelligence high scorers were more receptive to black comedy while displaying no troubled personality traits. They just seem to enjoy off-color jokes according to a 2017 feature in the Cognitive Processing journal.
8. They’re empathetic
For the longest time, experts considered IQ and emotional intelligence as unconnected. It’s become something of a stereotype that clever people are often lacking in social skills. Indeed, it’s been a trope covered by many TV series, such as the titular detective of BBC’s Sherlock and sitcoms such as The Big Bang Theory.
But in 2014 a study printed in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience contested this consensus. The team studied the neural pathways of volunteers who were all former armed-forces personnel who’d suffered head wounds. The conclusion indicated that we might not know as much about empathy as we think. In fact, it’s closely associated with intelligence and could be a sign of a high-level IQ.
7. They talk to themselves
So it turns out that talking to yourself isn’t the first sign of madness – in fact, it’s an indicator of intelligence. Just don’t do different voices, because that makes people scared. The University of Wisconsin’s associate professor of psychology, Gary Lupyan, told the BBC in 2017 that self-talk is normal. “It’s not an irrational thing to do,” Lupyan stated.
“You don’t know everything you’re going to say,” the professor continued. “You can even surprise yourself. Saying a name out loud is a powerful retrieval cue. Think of it as a pointer to a chunk of information in your mind. Hearing the name exaggerates what might normally happen if you just bring something to mind. Language boosts that process.”
6. They’re modest
Yes, that’s right – despite knowing more than the rest of us, an intelligent person won’t tell you so! We’re joking, of course, but it’s true that smarter people tend to be more modest. Psychologists are aware that there’s a correlation between intelligence and modesty. They even have a name for it: the Dunning-Kruger effect.
Basically, it’s all related to a person’s ability level and their own self-awareness. The minds behind the concept – David Dunning and Justin Kruger – tested their theories in a psychology class. They found that the most competent students under-estimated their competence because they found the tasks easy. Conversely, the less skilled ones showed undue confidence and overvalued themselves.
5. They’re cat people
People fight like cats and dogs over which pet is the most superior: cats or dogs. But while a dog is allegedly man’s best friend, the smartest among us actually prefer cats. At least, that’s what an expert from Wisconsin’s Carroll University, Denise Guastello, found during a personality study.
It’s all about cats and dogs suiting different personality types. In 2014 Gustello told LiveScience, “It makes sense that a dog person is going to be more lively. Because they’re going to want to be out there, outside, talking to people, bringing their dog. Whereas, if you’re more introverted and sensitive, maybe you’re more at home reading a book, and your cat doesn’t need to go outside for a walk.”
4. They’re anxious
Good news, worriers: high levels of anxiety have a connection with verbal intelligence levels. In 2015 Ontario’s Lakehead University studied 44 volunteers and found something interesting. Among those taking part, the most intelligent participants worried more over past social situations. But don’t despair if that doesn’t sound like you, because there’s more to those results.
For people without some form of diagnosed anxiety syndrome, not worrying about the past at all indicated intelligence. The two extremes are both signs of a higher intellect, then – it just depends on your general state of mind. These feelings all come from your subcortical white matter for those interested in the biology. Either way, frequently ruminating on or waving off the past means you’re smart.
3. They swear a lot
There’s a common misconception that if someone swears a lot, it’s because they have a limited vocabulary. Well, experts say the opposite actually holds true, and cussing is a sign of high verbal intelligence. In 2014, researchers discovered that sailor talk shows intellectuals have a wide vocabulary. And they’re not afraid to use it.
The study’s psychologists – Timothy and Kristin Jay of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts – elaborated on this point in their conclusion. “The overall finding of this set of studies, that taboo fluency is positively correlated with other measures of verbal fluency, undermines the [normal] view of swearing,” they wrote. So, having confidence to use controversial words is an IQ power move.
2. They’re first-borns
Surely a cause for yet more sibling rivalry is the news that eldest children are usually the smarter ones. Norway’s National Institute of Occupational Health hosted a study in 2007 that suggests eldest siblings really do know best. However, the project lead, Professor Petter Kristensen, doesn’t think genetics are the cause.
Instead, Kristensen believes that it’s due to how firstborns are raised compared to other children. The theory is that the family environment is somehow more conducive to intellectual development for the firstborn. Other studies support this hypothesis, although it remains just that for the moment at least. Kristensen informed the Daily Mail, “We are cautious because we did not have data on the social and psychological climate in [test families].”
1. They were breastfed
Don’t begrudge people who breastfeed their babies in public – they’re creating geniuses. Several tests show that breastfed babies are around six IQ points smarter than their counterparts. For example, a study featured on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, better known as PNAS, supports this.
There is a caveat to this, though. It seems that only babies with a specific gene – known as FADS2 – receive such benefits. The 2007 study postulates that babies with this trait metabolize certain acids in breast milk more efficiently. Additional research is needed into the topic to confirm its veracity, though, but it’s certainly interesting.