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October 4, 2006 5:53 PM   Subscribe

How do you determine how smart someone is?

In an initial causal conversation or interview, without having the opportunity to review his or her actual work, how do you determine about how smart (or not) someone is?


Can people "cheat", seeming more intelligent than they really are, or "cheat" to make you underestimate their intelligence? If so, how do you detect either form of cheating.

What distinguishes smart from "merely clever"?
posted by orthogonality to Human Relations (58 answers total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
The ability to understand your jokes.
posted by dydecker at 5:58 PM on October 4, 2006 [4 favorites]

I find that I can tell if someone is smart pretty much immediately upon speaking with them. I don't think this is a particular talent of mine -- my point is that intelligence is almost as immediately apparent as beauty or confidence.

That said, I think people can "cheat," as you say. There have been a couple of people I've met that have seemed really smart at first, but on repeated exposure, I've noticed they keep repeating the same thoughts, ideas, phrases. These are not spontaneous syntheses, they are practiced platforms. That's the kind of thing that can seem smart the first time you hear it, but reveals itself to be something else with prolonged exposure.
posted by TonyRobots at 6:00 PM on October 4, 2006 [2 favorites]

plus, the ability to understand your jokes. seriously.

posted by TonyRobots at 6:01 PM on October 4, 2006

Response by poster: Note, to ward off accusations of chat-filter or lack of specific purpose: while this is a general interest question, I'm interested in techniques because I'm interviewing for jobs, and in times past have been the interviewer as well.
posted by orthogonality at 6:01 PM on October 4, 2006

(high five, dydecker)
posted by TonyRobots at 6:01 PM on October 4, 2006

In casual conversation? I suppose I'd go by their diction. If they display a wide vocabulary and (more importantly) precise word choice, it's a fair sign that they're at least verbally intelligent. Conversely, you can sometimes tell when someone's trying to "cheat" at seeming intelligent by how they use big words imprecisely or nonsensically.
posted by Iridic at 6:07 PM on October 4, 2006 [2 favorites]

Intelligence is accuracy of thought. Speed is secondary. Somebody with a good memory can fool people into overestimating their intelligence, but many intelligent people also have good memories. Somebody with good language skills can do the same. You need to put them in a new or unusual situation to separate the two. Imagine letting a mechanic bring his toolbox to the interview, but having him work on a machine he's never seen before.

If a bright person wanted you to underestimate their intelligence, it would be difficult to detect. Say a person spoke two languages and wanted to fool you into thinking they only spoke one, how could you tell? Well, there's waterboarding.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 6:15 PM on October 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

I dunno about the jokes criteria, actually. Different people have different senses of humor, smart or no. I'd tend to agree with Iridic--language use is probably the best criteria (though still not perfect).

I saw an interview with a porn star recently (I know, long story), and she certainly looked the part--blonde, big boobs, etc.. She had a really bubbly personality which made me think "airhead" immediately. But after a few minutes, I noticed the way she would answer questions quickly and efficiently, with direct and creative language, and I changed my mind. She must be pretty smart, me thought. Sure enough, later in the interview she revealed that she had a 160 IQ.

Language plays a big part.
posted by zardoz at 6:16 PM on October 4, 2006

dydecker writes "The ability to understand your jokes."

This one only works on people from a cultural background similar to your own. I work with a lot of people from a lot of different countries, and this technique would be useless to me.

If you seriously want to find out how "intellegent" an interviewee is, you need to do two things: 1) Figure out what you mean by "intellegence". Is it problem solving ability, spatial reasoning, verbal fluency (another tricky one if your working cross-culturally), creativity, or something else? 2) Ask specific, quiz-like questions that probe for those abilities. Tech and consulting firms ask questions like this all the time.

I find that the best technique for appearing intellegent is to say "I don't know" when you don't know. 'Cause if the interviewer does know, you'll look like an ass trying to make something up.

As for smart vs. clever, I again think you need to be more specific. I think of cleverness as a certain sort of creativity or ingenuity. A problem-solving approach that finds nonobvious solutions. I value this quality pretty much as highly as possibly, so I'd be loath to dismiss it with a "merely". You might mean something else by it, though. Again, "smart" can mean all sorts of things. Really good at abstract math? Encyclopedic knowledge? Quick comedic wit? These are not necessarily correlated.
posted by mr_roboto at 6:17 PM on October 4, 2006

I usually give them a hypothetical work related situation and ask them to talk about a solution for it.

When I'm the interviewer, the question is often less hypothetical, and more "I've got this problem I'm working on, and I could use someone else's point of view..."

Using that technique I usually find out pretty quickly not only if someone is smart, but if they can actually use their brain in a practical fashion.
posted by tkolar at 6:17 PM on October 4, 2006

Their ability to distinguish the credible from the incredible. Bring up the subject of horoscopes, psychic powers, the healing power of crystals, or anything else not verifiable. If they try to make the case that these things are a science, they're just not very bright.

I have known people who have been around smart people long enough to feign intelligence; they have a broad vocabulary and a basic grasp of the sorts of conversations their smart friends have. I can't think of any way to see through it until you've known them for a while.
posted by Astro Zombie at 6:17 PM on October 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

Accurate spelling is not a good indicator of intellegence or intelligence.
posted by mr_roboto at 6:18 PM on October 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

It's very hard to estimate intelligence at first glance. Some people are extremely intelligent, but not 'quick'. They take a few minutes to get or grasp a concept, but once they have it, you will be surprised at the depth of analysis. I would strongly caution you from drawing quick conclusions when interviewing someone, as you could make a big mistake. On the other hand, somebody 'quick', who makes quick statements and decisions, can appear very intelligent, but may lack depth of analysis.
I have no facts to back these statements of course. I made it up. But it sounds good.
And yeah, see if they get your jokes. At least they have a similar sense of humor!
posted by defcom1 at 6:19 PM on October 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: For the purposes of a job interview, or any kind of formal meeting, I think intelligence is conveyed as much by what you say as how you say it. A disposition of relaxed confidence, precision, directness, and a subtle social acuity can make you seem intelligent, even if you say something stupid, or take time to think things through. This could be considered "cheating", or could be a sign of social intelligence, according to your preference.

As far as the sub question goes, I think you need to consider your terms, and what exactly it is you're talking about; 'smart', 'intelligent' and 'clever' can mean very different things to different people (see: street smarts, stupid clever people, social/emotional intelligence etc).

Intelligence, or the concept in question, may be understood variously as; knowledge (depth and breadth), wisdom (ability to apply knowledge usefully), creativity (recombining and extending knowledge), ability to learn, processing ability (speed of thought), so and on so forth.

Each, to some extent, is used to compensate for the other, depending on the individual in question. What is "cheating", depends entirely on which elements you wish to test for, and which you wish to exclude.
posted by MetaMonkey at 6:24 PM on October 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

Look to see if they're wearing glasses.

I expect the problem of cheating to exaggerate intelligence is far more common, and unintentional disguising of intelligence still more so. I'd guess the most important thing to do is to consciously suspend any prejudices you may even conceivably harbor -- race and gender, certainly, but also beauty, grooming, etc. -- so as to allow differences to be revealed. Then I would focus on whether the person seems attentive, says something thoughtful, and understands when I am joking (whether or not he or she shares my sense of humor).

As to people cheating to understate their intelligence, the leading indicator in all cases I have personally encountered is a southern accent.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 6:27 PM on October 4, 2006

How little talking is necessary for that person to accomplish teamwork. One kind of "smart" I look for is interpersonal intelligence and implemented intuition.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 6:29 PM on October 4, 2006

Short Answer: you can't always tell.

Also, you have to be clear as to what you mean by intelligence. Someone who has done the job they're interviewing for may have all the right answers, but little ability to think on their own. They have high "job intelligence", if you will.
posted by chrisamiller at 6:30 PM on October 4, 2006

Best answer: A few points:

1) We may be limited in such estimations by our own level of smarts. Things that people much brighter than ourselves do may be incomprehensible and thereby seem dumb or surreal. The idea is often kicked around that communication can be difficult between those whose IQs differ by 2 standard deviations (~30 points).

2) Those below you are likely to differ from you in abilities that may be measurable in real time. Look for more "g-loaded" tests like: 1) how many items they can juggle in working memory (eg. a list of to-do items, driving directions, etc.); 2) how well they do at remembering at a later time unfamiliar items mentioned/seen earlier in the conversation; 3) how quickly and well they do at solving novel problems of logic, assessed during situations you set up or describe. Compare you own performance and estimate accordingly.

3) Something that throws a wrench in such estimations is that many highly intelligent people are introverts. Interpersonal interactions are not their forte, and in some cases this seriously interferes with mental performance.

4) Reaction time has been argued to correlate strongly with intelligence. That is certainly a factor that you could easily play around with in social settings.
posted by O Blitiri at 6:31 PM on October 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As these comments demonstrate, we evaluate others' intelligence based on highly subjective, even idiosyncratic, criteria. (And that's before we've even really nailed down what we mean by "intelligence.")

You could say or do something that impresses the hell out of me, while TonyRoberts feels kinda "meh" about you, and Clyde can't get away from you fast enough. So if you wanted to impress all three of us in interviews, you'd have to read us accurately, predict what we'd consider signs of intelligence, and adapt yourself accordingly -- on the fly. You can probably learn how to get better at this but I have know idea what the techniques and tips would be.
posted by vetiver at 6:34 PM on October 4, 2006

arrgh s/what you say as how you say it/how you say it as what you say/that's how to look less intelligent
posted by MetaMonkey at 6:41 PM on October 4, 2006

Best answer: The only thing I consciously do in order to appear more intelligent is to avoid using cliched expressions, even in casual speech. I think this does subconsciously register with people.
posted by teleskiving at 6:46 PM on October 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

Howard Gardner discusses this at some length in his very readable book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Gardner is an interesting guy, being a 1981 MacArthur Fellow and John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor in Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

While he is not the first to postulate practical theories involving various kinds of human intelligence, much of what he has to say is useful in understanding how various aspects of mental capacity contribute to our overall sense of intelligence. For discussion sake, he divides human intellignence into a number of categories, these being:

Linguistic Intelligence
Musical Intelligence
Logical-Mathematical Intelligence
Spatial Intelligence
Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence
Personal Intelligence

He thinks particular capabilities in human thinking are associated with capabilities in each of these areas, and that the relative strengths of our minds corrolate not only with our absolute gifts in any area, but in the degree to which we can be facile in using all we have.

So he'd expect that a broadly intelligent person would be confident in basic math skills, a good conversationalist, able to mentally manipulate spatial representations, evidence some degree of musicality, and have a reasonably body ethic and coordination. Observing for all these areas, and rating them against others provides some basis for judging the relative practical intelligence of individuals.
posted by paulsc at 6:47 PM on October 4, 2006 [2 favorites]

Critical thinking skills. Can you detect baloney when someone hands it to you.

O.J. did it. Oswald did it. Nineteen hijackers did it. If you believe anything else, you're just not using that thing between your ears very well.
posted by frogan at 6:57 PM on October 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

I knew a guy who was always categorizing people in terms of how smart they were.

On observation it turned out his criteria was how much they were willing to listen to his point of view and agree with him.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 6:59 PM on October 4, 2006 [4 favorites]

Are you asking this in terms of being the interviewer or the interviewee? If you are trying to judge intelligence, then I think that you need to nail down what "kind" of intelligence is important for the job. If you are trying to convince someone else that you are smart, then just be yourself. I've been lurking for a long time and I have read many of your posts. I don't think that you are a dummy.

As for me, I am "merely clever" ;)
posted by SteveTheRed at 7:03 PM on October 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

Mm. I've been thinking a lot about this lately, as I'm in the midst of writing a piece about my boss. He's the kind of person you can immediately tell is sentient. It's all in the way he looks at you—you can tell he's awake and aware. (He's also an incredible judge of intelligence himself—the people he chooses to work for him are invariably the most intelligent people in the store.)

I'm able to tell pretty quickly who's got their act together and who doesn't, especially after working in retail for a while. A lot of it is in the way one looks at you—do they look directly at you? Or do they avoid focusing on you (or anything else) in the room? Further, when you talk to them, are they able to read your tone and adapt to it? Do they chuckle if you make an offhand witty comment or joke, or do they just look confused?

You can also tell a lot from the way a person speaks—do they enunciate carefully, or do they create their words carelessly? I'm not talking about regional or dialectical variations in speech—I've known people who were too lazy to even fully pronounce their words or finish their sentences. Do they craft their sentences with a goal in mind, and do they choose their words well? How do they dress—do they look like some thought went into choosing their clothes, or are they just wearing the "it" rag of the moment? If you give them a form to fill out, do they pay attention to detail? Can they follow directions and ask questions where appropriate? Do they appear to understand the words you're saying to them (or even care if you're talking to them)?

If you make a mistake or leave off a direction, do they catch it—and if they catch it, how do they tell or ask you about it?

It's a combination of your attitude and your approach to tasks and other people. It's in how you carry yourself and how you speak. It's in the way you write, and especially in the way you ask questions.

A lot of it comes down to self-awareness. Do you know the appearance you're projecting? Can you imagine how you sound or look or how well you're communicating from someone else's point of view? Can you move outside yourself long enough to figure out a problem someone else is having in understanding something? Self-awareness is such a crucial thing.

Some of being able to tell if someone's intelligent, however, is a trick of fast processing—one of the kind of things Malcolm Gladwell talks about in "Blink." I can read others' moods and intelligence level very easily—but I don't always know what I'm picking up on when I do that sort of thing. It is possible to trick someone like me—it's certainly happened to me, and I know it's happened to my boss. But you can't trick us for very long.
posted by limeonaire at 7:05 PM on October 4, 2006 [7 favorites]

Also, if you wish to sound smart, don't say "like" or "y'know." For some reason, people find that distinctive, even if they don't actually notice the omission.
posted by limeonaire at 7:08 PM on October 4, 2006

Interviews are a poor way to assess raw intelligence; intelligence can appear inflated by good preparation, strong social skills, or excellent interview strategy, and can appear depressed by the opposite.

The best indicator of raw intelligence is achievements which you know to be highly dependent on strong standardized test scores: for example, in New York, you can always count on someone who went to Stuyvessant or Bronx Science to be bright, because admission is purely based on test.
posted by MattD at 7:16 PM on October 4, 2006

I used to be on the Speech team in high school, and my specialty was "impromptu speaking". You'd walk into a room, get handed a topic, and after thirty seconds you were expected to give a five minute speech on it. At one meet, I noticed a competitor I hadn't seen before. His topic was something vague like "freedom" and he turned around and gave an amazing speech that compared the topic from the point of view of the ancient Greeks, the transcendentalists, and the beat poets. He had dates, quotes, everything. We were all blown away.

Later that day, I ended up in another round with him. The topic was "Should Tonya Harding be allowed to compete in the Olympics?" (Now, that dates me.) He proceeded to give the EXACT SAME SPEECH, twisting all his quotes around and trying to hypothesize what Allen Ginsburg would think about Nancy Kerrigan's knee. It was ridiculous, and all of the competitors realized in two seconds that he'd just memorized one page of information and was using it for every single topic. Our estimation of his intelligence dropped about a hundred notches. He was clever, but not smart.

So yeah, I think you can fake it. I just don't think you can fake it for very long. If somebody blags their way through an interview, they're going to get tripped up eventually.

As for what flags I look for to denote intelligence - don't we all just look for the things we think show off our own brains? I'm all about spelling and grammar, so those are big ones for me. Pronunciation too to an extent (i.e. saying things like "pacifically"). Being able to speak at ease on just about any topic. Knowing where to look up the information that I don't know. That sort of thing.
posted by web-goddess at 7:24 PM on October 4, 2006 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I don't have a unified theory of intelligence to offer. I will say that I informally judge people to be 'unintelligent' to the extent that they exhibit these characteristics:

* their ideas and opinions are either pat answers or originate (uncredited!) from things I have read, and that a well-read layperson should be expected to have read as well
* their analyses of multivariate problems is either limited to first-order effects or, worse, exhibits the 'an increase plus a decrease equals a washout' brand of innumeracy
* an oversimplistic relationship between the words used to describe something and the thing itself. I am not sure exactly how precisely to describe this characteristic, but it seems fair to say that those exhibiting it will tend to treat the words used to label something as subsitutes for the thing itself. As an example, if something is for lack of a better term called an X, the person will then go about their merry way ascribing attributes of a generic X to the thing even if the thing does not in fact possess those attributes. This characteristic bleeds into:
* a general overfondness for reasoning by analogy or an overeasy willingness to accept results arrived at by analyzing the analogy (as opposed to the object of analysis itself): most difficult subjects are difficult because the subject has an internal logic without obvious analogy to a more familiar subject; someone with an overeagerness for reasoning-by-analogy or an overconfidence in the utility of reasoning-by-analogy comes across as someone who has never learned anything truly difficult.

At its core I feel 'unintelligent' people act as though they do not so much think as cycle through ideas they've heard before, conversational snippets they've (unconsciously?) filed for later use, and routines that have worked in the past; if you wish to come across as intelligent you should avoid behavior that will appear similar to the above.

For conducting interviews:

My first test is to give directions with what I would consider to be minimal specifity and see how they respond -- if they jump in and understand 'what I meant' me I consider it a plus but not conclusive evidence for intelligence, if they ask precise, helpful questions I consider it a strong positive sign, and if they stall completely or ask for unspecific help I consider them marginally unintelligent.

A second test I like to use is to have the person conducting the prior round communicate something to the interviewee -- say, the job description or some strategic overview; I then ask the interviewee to tell me what they were told. High degrees of factual accuracy are better than low degrees of accuracy, but I am more interested in the mental picture they have developed of the structural and functional relationships in what they have been told.

The third test I use is to have them offer ideas or suggestions for improvement in some business process or technical system. I don't care much for what they have to say, but am interested to see how many different considerations they bring into play, and how they justify their decisions.

I don't put much weight on classical brainteasers -- the kind of intelligence they identify is not very impressive to me, as it seems to be only a very small, very minor component of some general ability to solve novel problems.
posted by little miss manners at 7:39 PM on October 4, 2006 [21 favorites]

Asked them how they solved P=NP.
posted by Kickstart70 at 7:41 PM on October 4, 2006 [2 favorites]

On post: I agree with MattD that the standardized tests -- or achievement that tracks with them -- convey information about intelligence difficult to spoof (I don't know of anyone with very high scores on SAT and GRE who turned out to be unintelligent). I'm not sure why this is, but it's true, and surprising given the simplicity of the tests.
posted by little miss manners at 7:43 PM on October 4, 2006

I have a co-worker that I've worked with for about 6 months now, and I still can't tell how intelligent he is. He seems to flip-flop between pretty smart and rather dull. He has this odd habit of staring into space, looking at nothing, for minutes at a time...just like Elaine's boyfriend on Seinfeld. I can interpret this as a) he's dumb, and his brain is on a kind of "shut-down" mode, or b) he's thinking some pretty profound thoughts, and is merely distracted by outside stimuli.

Other examples: once he was working on a crossword, and was stuck and asked me for help, and I was able to finish the ones he couldn't pretty easily--this wasn't the NYT crossword, just one of those easier ones. So his language skills aren't all there. One the other hand, he often brings books to read, and some are pretty weighty philosophy and sociology texts, not exactly Dan Brown-type stuff (which I read at times). He's a confident person (to the point of arrogance, actually), and I think this is a kind of intelligence in itself. Just being confident can lead people to think you're smart, and if people think you're smart, it has a kind of feedback loop that builds more confidence, and so on.

So it can be hard to tell even with a person you've talked to a lot, and with a person like that, in one interview it would be very hard.
posted by zardoz at 7:43 PM on October 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

Good use of metaphor.
posted by delmoi at 7:47 PM on October 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

Huh, I would, I assume, suck at crossword puzzles too.

I think that there are people who are inarticulate, yet pretty intelligent. I think Donald trump might be one such person. Similarly, there is a certan kind of mental retardation where the person is actually amazingly good at the use of language, but in every other way retarded. It was fascinating to read some of their writing, simple ideas written as if they were written by Hemingway.
posted by delmoi at 7:50 PM on October 4, 2006

Another oft-used technique for creating a better assessment of your intelligence in the mind of an interviewer than you might otherwise present, is simply to manage your own stress in the interview situation, so as to be listen actively, and question for information, yourself, in the moment. Too often, a person in an interview situation is focused on answering an interviewer's questions, when in fact, their own questions to the interviewer would not only be tolerated, but would give them substantial additional information about how best to respond to the interviewer, and mark them as a person facile enough on their feet to be remembered or remarked to others.

And essentially, it's a "free" technique, in that trying it doesn't cost you "points" with the vast majority of interviewers, so long as you don't push for information they don't want to reveal, if you are actually rebuffed. Sometimes, particularly in case study type interviews, the ability to ask great questions, and listen for the answers is the majority of the case study scoring, as little miss manners indicated above.

And in general, the people who ask us the most interesting questions, and pay full attention to us for our answers, are often the people we think of as most intelligent. There is certianly some positive confirmation bias going on in this, as it is flattering to have another person expressing interest in us, and paying attention to what we think. We want to credit them with greater intelligence than they may actually possess, because we want them to have used greater than average discrimination in singling us out for attention.
posted by paulsc at 7:52 PM on October 4, 2006

little miss manners: I think your confusing 'unintelligence' with 'unclear thinking'. The person you described may be able to work through complicated problems with fixed, verifiable solutions, while being unable to apply rational thought to the real world.

Of course the kind of people you described seem to dominate the world, due to their ability to dazzle less intelligent people with rhetoric.
posted by delmoi at 7:54 PM on October 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Determining intelligence within a conversation is tough. Probably my best guess comes from the following areas:

-Do they grasp what I'm saying? How quickly? (This assumes the speaker's intelligible.)

-Do they offer ideas of their own, or just nod and agree with what I'm saying?

-If they offer ideas, which direction do they bring the conversation -- shallower or deeper? If I say "Look, they're shooting a movie over there," do they say, "Gosh, it must be for a rainy scene" or "Yeah, I found a sign that said it was for X movie"?

-How logical are they? Which way do they solve sudoku? If they come out of a subway and realize they're lost, what will they do? You can have people who are logical, but plodding -- but people who are clever without being logical aren't really intelligent.

-Are they interested in learning for fun? Do they know useless trivia (and make use of it)? Having interest, and making time, for learning that doesn't seem immediately useful is a sign of an active, searching intelligence.

I've known people who were too lazy to even fully pronounce their words or finish their sentences

Or are they so smart they're already thinking two sentences ahead of their too-slow mouths, and trying to catch up? Are they just caring more about their ideas than about their enunciation?

I know that at times I'm not great in face-to-face situations; it can feel like chronic esprit d'escalier. I'm always going back to clarify what I've said or to substitute exactly the right word. But in a different situation -- by e-mail or IM -- I could respond more quickly and more precisely the first time.

A conversation is only going to give you a rough idea of someone's intelligence. The best you can do is set them up with a standardized test and check out the results.
posted by booksandlibretti at 7:56 PM on October 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

people who are clever without being logical -- by "clever" here, I'm referring to a kind of flashy quickness. I never claimed to be immune to esprit d'escalier online!
posted by booksandlibretti at 8:00 PM on October 4, 2006

You can probably place people into rough groups talking to them. Speed, depth, logic. But you just can't really judge how smart people are.

Have you ever seen a really good writer, mathematician or physicist or some such who is a lousy, boring speaker? Would you pick them as intelligent in a two minute conversation?
posted by sien at 8:13 PM on October 4, 2006

My feeling is that smart people think about things, for fun. Unless they're total mad scientist or rainman smart, you can usually talk to them about ideas and ask their opinion and they will have one, and not in that windbag "listen to me and my good ideas" way but in a "oh hey here is what I was thinking about that" way. That said, there are many different sorts of smart.

- empathy smart
- works with machines smart
- social smart
- big words/classics smart
- problem solver smart
- boss smart
- quick thinker smart
- numbers, calculator, computer smart


One of the traits that I see in smart people is the ability to be able to gracefully talk to people of many different skill and intelligence levels without making the person they're talking to feel "Oh this person is a real braniac." There is a sort of social intelligence that involves being attenuated to the person you are talking to so that you can communicate with them both on their level, whatever it might be, and on your own. This should work, for smart people, whether the person they're talking to is smarter, or not as smart.
posted by jessamyn at 8:29 PM on October 4, 2006 [10 favorites]

I would be cautious using humor as a guide in a job interview. Either or both parties may find the situation stressful, and thus not have the sense of humor they otherwise would. Plus, some very smart people just aren't disposed to respond to humor, even if they understand it.

As many others have pointed out, there are many kinds of intelligence. Perhaps if you identify the ones most relevant to the job, you could also focus your assessment technique accordingly?
posted by owhydididoit at 9:10 PM on October 4, 2006

sorry, I should have said:

Perhaps...you could also focus on highlighting those aspects of your intelligence?
posted by owhydididoit at 9:12 PM on October 4, 2006

From the other side - "It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt". Mark Twian said that
posted by growabrain at 9:28 PM on October 4, 2006

IMHO, it is absurd to believe one's intelligence accurately can be judged in the unrealistic interview scenario. The more cunning the interviewer in her attempts to stump or make uncomfortable the interviewee, the less accurate the interviewer's assumptions about the interviewee's intelligence are likely to be. The interviewer is not the one trying to display her intelligence - and those who do end up hiring some half-wit whose subjective responses to the particular questions posed on that particular day happened to satisfy her. You can understand a lot more about a person by merely observing her during casual conversation. If she has the personal achievements to back up her confident demeanor, why does the interviewer feel the need to spend countless time developing questions with the objective of stumping an intelligent person on the spot?
posted by orangeshoe at 9:32 PM on October 4, 2006

Spend time really listening to them, and make your judgement later. You'll totally miss out if you try to judge them when you're doing the interview. As others have said, speed is not necessarily intelligence, it just passes for it upon first glance. Coming from a small Southern town, I have to emphasize this point.

By far, the biggest way someone will fool you into thinking they're smart is by using big words. You can always tell, though, because eventually they'll use one where it just doesn't fit. Don't get me wrong; I've been known to pepper my speech with words like orthogonal and moiety, but...

jessamyn: "There is a sort of social intelligence that involves being attenuated to the person you are talking to..."

Making jokes and not having to spell out the punch line to your listeners is another sign.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 9:35 PM on October 4, 2006

booksandlibretti: I've known people who wouldn't finish sentences when they knew I knew what they were talking about, and they didn't need to further explain. But that's not the kind of person I'm talking about.

The people I'm talking about are this kind I run into all the time on the nearby college campus who talk like those plastic groan tubes: "Eoh, like, eoh moy gaahhhwd. Eoh can yew hold awn for uh second? Yah uh [reaches out to me] do yew wark heyer? [ignoring the name tag I'm wearing]" It's like their lips are just flapping as they talk, so a lot of their words come out sounding hinged somehow. And they usually don't understand how loud they are, or how their speech sounds to other people. They don't look where they're going as they yak into their cell phones. And you usually can't have a conversation with these people—they don't seem to be attuned to how conversations work. They're the people who, when you talk to them on AIM, don't actually bother to write words, but rather write some kludge of, "ok ill c u latr 0,- oh wait did u heer aaabout ..." It's like they can't be bothered to move their fingers well enough to type the words.

If I catch a hint of that kind of pervasive carelessness, I assume the person has problems I wouldn't want to deal with in a job situation.
posted by limeonaire at 9:56 PM on October 4, 2006

How do you define "smart"? I was tracked in public schools, and wound up going to a high school that didn't accept any students with IQs below 140. But now that I'm in the so-called "real world," I've been blown away by the number of people who lack in vocabulary or math skills, but have deep understanding of human relations or business operations. Lots of people who never learned history or science have more common sense than 1600 SAT-ers and are better at getting along in life than the geniuses I went to school with.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:34 PM on October 4, 2006 [7 favorites]

To paraphrase several previous posters, make sure you speak one of these.

On a related note, your innitial subjective judgements of intelligence (in my opinion) are likely to be as much a product of your (perhaps unconscious) bias as a product of how "smart" the target is.
posted by Bizurke at 11:12 PM on October 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'd bet that being tall and attractive makes people's estimates of your IQ jump a standard deviation or so.
posted by callmejay at 2:15 AM on October 5, 2006

I don't think smart == intelligent, necessarily. One could be book smart but street stupid.

This would perfectly sum up an ex-girlfriend of mine.

Very intelligent, MENSA-qualifying IQ and big-time university degree but could never learn to drive. One may argue that one does not really need to be smart to drive, but she's going to have to be standing in the rain waiting for her bus tomorrow and I will be in the shelter of my auto-mo-bile, SO WHO IS THE SMART ONE NOW, DUMMY?

I kid, but you know? Every time I read something about chess masters I always think, "so bright, yet so stupid"
posted by Ogre Lawless at 2:42 AM on October 5, 2006

"I'd bet that being tall and attractive makes people's estimates of your IQ jump a standard deviation or so."
Yes, but in which direction? It may depend on gender. Attractive women can have a much harder time getting people to take their ideas seriously.
posted by mbrubeck at 6:42 AM on October 5, 2006

But now that I'm in the so-called "real world," I've been blown away by the number of people who lack in vocabulary or math skills, but have deep understanding of human relations or business operations. Lots of people who never learned history or science have more common sense than 1600 SAT-ers and are better at getting along in life than the geniuses I went to school with.

This is my favorite comment in the thread thus far. Unless you can distinguish between "high SAT" intelligence and real-world intelligence, your own intelligence is not doing you much good.
posted by languagehat at 6:55 AM on October 5, 2006

I'd like to add to jessamyn's comment and say that I always thought a real test of one's knowledge of something is how well one can explain it to a person who doesn't know it. Or a child who's twelve... and then a child who's eight.

Absolutely speaking, I suspect that human intelligence is much less variable than people think; it's just obscured by socio-economic and emotional factors.

On the other hand, when you're talking about employment you're not concerned about actual human potential, but about humans whose potential is accessible to you for your purposes. Which is cruel.

So a person might be really intelligent, but are they a crossword whiz, or are they a whiz at the job that's being hired for? Are they interested in doing that job, even when things are confusing or frustrating? Are they interested in communicating to other people about the job they're doing?

A lot of interviewers don't select on these criteria. I don't think that kind of interviewing gives good results.
posted by halonine at 9:03 AM on October 5, 2006

In terms of problem-solving smarts, when presented with a hypothetical problem a good candidate should ask a lot of questions. The answers to the questions may
(a) seem obvious to the interviewer
or (b) may not even be relevant to the solution
but (a) shows they aren't making assumptions and (b) shows that they're considering a wide range of possible solutions.

Even stock interview questions like "you notice a coworker is falling behind in their work, what would you do about it?" should prompt a cascade of such questions.
posted by juv3nal at 9:57 AM on October 5, 2006 [1 favorite]

I don't make the decision here but I do get asked to talk to candidates and give my yea or nay.

Primarily I have a dialog with people about what we're doing and what they've done. I ask about the hows and the whys and for suggestions. My goal is to determine if they can communicate effectively and if they can break down a task into discrete parts, even if they can't tell me the exact How of a particular part.

An ability to express oneself may not necessarily go along with intelligence but I'm not interested in working with someone who can't. A brilliant person who can only effectively work alone is far less useful to me than an merely good one who can be an effective team member. At least in our field, ortho, I find that the ability to examine a problem and determine the steps and procedure to attack it is a near perfect indicator of programming competence.
posted by phearlez at 10:28 AM on October 5, 2006

I'm surprised not one person pointed this out. People are notoriously poor judges of intelligence in themselves. Because most people tend to think themselves above average, more of their peers/ (especially folks they wish to disparage) are easy to dismiss as "stupid."

One highlight of the article is that smart people don't overestimate their own intelligence as greatly as the truly stupid.

A second highlight of the study is the inability among stupid people to correct their estimate of themselves once they've seen answers given by those who did better, or worse, combined with their failure to change those estimations when presented with where those other scores fell in the bell curve.

So, even though this may not help you tell how smart a candidate happens to be, it may help you formulate some questions to help you figure out how smart they think they are. (Always good to know whether you're hiring a know it all, a know nothing, or someone who is curious and is equipped to ask appropriate questions.)
posted by bilabial at 1:44 PM on October 6, 2006 [1 favorite]

Animals, people their eyes give them away. I think of it in terms of 'glaze' and 'snaps.' Like when the fog clears and you can see things clicking over faster than you could measure in different directions simultaneously until... an epiphany is born.

I love it! I just want to breathe it in even if it's not mine. How could you not love to learn things? Anyone who doesn't like to learn - is dumb.

And I have a suggestion. Reading - leads to vocabulary (though not pronunciation) spelling, grammar ect. Also a general knowledge of things. Which is crucial to most jokes. (Or something along these type of lines)

For example I was raised Jehovahs Witness. SO doesn't pick up on all religious references (But catches the odd non-specific one I miss) The point is though, if the useless information wasn't tucked away neither of us would know that it was meant to be funny. Ignorance is bliss? I think not!
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 10:19 AM on September 26, 2007

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