The XX Factor

Americans Think They’re Smarter Than Average, Especially Rich White Guy Americans

Because I’m smarter, that’s why.

Photo by auremar/Shutterstock

You may think you’re smart, but you’re dumb. I’m simplifying (’cause you’re dumb), but that is the cheering overall conclusion of a new survey by the research organization YouGov. The online questionnaire of 991 Americans finds that 55 percent believe they are smarter than the average person. (Or, as writer Peter Moore sardonically phrases it, “the average American thinks they are smarter than the average American.”) Meanwhile, “a third of the country (34%) say that they are about as smart as the average person, while only four percent say that they are less intelligent than average Americans.” As a country, it’s strange that we are so intelligent yet not astute enough to see when we’re inflating our own brainpower.

Break down the data further, and additional patterns emerge. As the National Journal points out, men are likelier than women to consider themselves “much more intelligent” than Joe or Jane American. (This reminds me of attribution studies that reveal how men often ascribe their successes to skill and hard work, whereas women usually credit fate/the stars/fairy godmothers/anything but themselves.) White people prove likelier to tout their intellects than black and Hispanic people. The wealthy—those earning over $100,000 a year—far more frequently deem their fellow Americans unintelligent. For poor respondents (those earning under $40,000 a year), the opposite is true: They tend to perceive other citizens as wise. 

Har dee har. It is pretty funny that we overestimate our brilliance, we dim bulbs in the string above the bathroom mirror. But if you focus on who exactly feels so confident in their smarts, these results seem less like a punchline and more like the trap door into an entire unseen network of justifications for inequality. What does it mean when people of privilege—the white, male, and wealthy—disproportionally think they’ve aced the bell curve? I don’t want to read too much into one poll, but there is plenty of other research to back up the numbers. As psychologist Michael Kraus finds, those with higher social status more often hold “essentialist” ideas about class structure—they believe that one’s genes determine one’s place on the economic ladder. Disadvantaged people generally disagree: They tell researchers that social status drops down onto individuals like a net from the sky.

I understand the comfort of assuming that your triumphs reflect your native worth (and that your failures speak to cosmic fickleness). But as author Daniel Goleman explains in an article for the New York Times (clicky headline: “Rich People Just Care Less”), the sense of entitlement on the part of the well-to-do—money cannot resist the gravitational pull of my big brain!—is self-perpetuating. Goleman writes about how men and women of privilege withhold “empathetic attention” from those they perceive to have lower social status. In conversation, these titans of income interrupt more, express less sympathy for misfortune, let their eyes wander, and don’t smile. Meanwhile, Goleman argues, “poor people are better attuned to interpersonal relations—with those of the same strata, and the more powerful … because they have to be.” (For the desperate, no resource—including a social tie—is invisible.) When you don’t bother to get to know someone who seems different, innate ingroup and outgroup biases fog your judgments. Rich-person myths about the shiftlessness of the poor flourish in the empathy gap.

So privilege erases the need to acknowledge the needy, ignorance of others breeds contempt, and the end result is that a lot of rich white guys polled by YouGov think their fellow Americans are a bunch of dum-dums. Why this matters: As we know, inequality is perhaps the biggest issue facing the United States in 2014. It has reached Gilded Age levels. It is only growing more intractable. One of the huge obstacles to addressing it with the full measure of our American souls is the conviction that it reflects a kind of justice. “Sociologically, America today may be the worst of all worlds for those who are neither top income earners nor top wealth successors: you are poor, and depicted as dumb and undeserving,” writes Brad DeLong in a review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. While, as Piketty observes, “nobody was trying to depict Ancien Regime inequality as fair,” the American Dream supposedly converts intelligence and virtue into mansions and trust funds. If you haven’t made it yet, the argument goes, you’re just not dreaming hard enough. (This kind of thinking also works its way into the advice given to women and minorities: Unhappy with your lot in life? Lean in! Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!) The national reverence for intelligence is a beautiful thing, but not when it blurs out the advantages conferred by the right gender, race, and class.