There is a general stereotype that intelligent people are childish or immature.
Why is that? Apart from the fact that some people appear childish and some of them are intelligent, is there any link between the two? Let’s explore 2 things in this post – What makes someone intelligent? and What makes someone appear childish?
Let’s assume that this notion is partially true – Some Intelligent people are childish, just like some unintelligent people are childish. We are only looking at why some intelligent people appear childish or why this stereotype is believable. We should first ask ourselves what is it that makes any person childish and intelligent at the same time.
Is it their behavior? Their thought process? Their speech? Their dreams and ideas? All of it, perhaps?
Who appears intelligent (regardless of age)?
Signs of intelligence
We should also look at intelligence from a general point of view because when we judge others as intelligent, we aren’t putting them through tests. Intelligence is the ability to adapt, reason, and solve new problems and we judge people as intelligent or not intelligent based on certain tell-tale signs. We use cues that we associate with intelligence based on common sense, knowledge, or experience (which overlap well with scientifically supported correlates of intelligence). These signs of intelligence are usually – good memory and thinking ability, good attitude and hard-working nature, general and tacit knowledge, language proficiency and reasoning, decision-making, trust, creativity, achievements, and problem-solving.
All of these help a person adapt to a new situation and cope with problems. So judging someone as intelligent is an educated guess based on what cues you value and what you think intelligence looks like.
Intelligence comes on many levels. It can be the ability to reason, think, and solve problems on-demand (fluid intelligence). It can be the ability to use previously learned skills, knowledge, and methods (crystallized intelligence). And, it can be domain-based such as music, art, mathematics, language, sports, etc. Or it could be a general off-shoot of cognitive abilities (mental processes). If we see hints of excellence or achievement in any of these in other people, we tend to label them as intelligent people.
Stereotypes and judgments of intelligence
Some people tend to think of intelligence as a counter-balance to other deficits – to justify or rationalize something. You’d hear mothers describing their children as – “he is very impulsive and reckless, but he is smart, he can focus when he loves to do something.” Another possible perspective on a child’s intelligence – “My kid is very impulsive and odd, maybe he is a genius??”
So judgments of intelligence are not always true reflections of intelligence – they are sense-making judgments. These are extended to evidence-based cliches like super-intelligent people are prone to mental disorders, have anxiety-induced mental performance issues, or are romantically less desirable.
While they are not necessarily true for all intelligent people, there is a shred of truth in them. Some people can even rationalize other people’s intelligence by counter-balancing it with less desirable adult traits. Such as being naive, immature, or a pain-in-the-ass.
These negative words describe a child, but a child is expected to be naive (innocent), immature (yet to develop), or a pain-in-the-ass (a whole lotta work, because mammals; you know?)
Let’s look at 4 childish personality traits now. These tendencies or traits that adults have can make them appear childish to others.
Adult personality traits that make them appear childish
1. Impulsivity: High intelligence is closely associated with Impulsive behavior which appears childish to some.
Children tend to be impulsive and go after things they desire. If you see this in adults, you might consider the adult to be childish. A part of impulsivity called “Delay discounting” is associated with intelligence. Low scores on Delay discounting means you prefer immediate rewards and devalue future rewards, even if future rewards are greater. Something like – if you have the chance to get 100 dollars today or wait for a month and get 200 dollars, you’d choose 100 dollars. For adults, high intelligence is associated with 2 important aspects of impulsivity – low scores on delay discounting and high scores on non-planning (improvising, winging it, going unprepared to shop, etc.) Why would this be the case? Let’s go back to what intelligence means – a general ability to adapt and solve problems. Faith in adaptability and problem-solving could permit intelligent people to take such risks without too many negative consequences. An impulsive purchase can be balanced by eliminating the need to purchase something else or spending effort (not money) to solve another problem.
2. Emotional expression: An intelligent person appears childish when emotional expressions are bold, free, honest, and unrestricted
Emotional regulation – a subset of emotional intelligence – is how we manage, express, filter, and understand our emotions in acceptable ways. Children are yet to learn these because of fewer life experiences. Emotional intelligence grows with age-related experience, for most people. However, if an adult lacks emotional intelligence – commonly dubbed as emotional maturity – the adult appears childish and immature. Children typically have bold emotional and facial expressions, but adults have them contained, inhibited, or restricted.
When adults demonstrate bold emotions, they may be perceived as child-like. The cliche that intelligent people are emotionally immature may be more false than true because research does show that emotional intelligence is associated with academic achievement and academic achievement is an indication of intelligence.
Adults who end up expressing their desires boldly or reacting emotionally may indicate that they lack emotional regulation or don’t adhere to emotional norms like containing emotions in public gatherings. For example, not “adulting,” freely enjoying or expressing honestly. Adults have norms that restrict some emotional expression but children express them freely.
3. High curiosity and exploration: Well-read and skilled people tend to be curious like children and have a thirst for exploration
Children are curious creatures. That’s how they learn. Curiosity is a way to make more sense of anything; more than what you already know. It’s about closing the knowledge gap between what you know and what you don’t know. Boredom, on the other hand, is the absence of this sense-making process and goes hand-in-hand with boredom.
Curiosity can kill boredom and the lack of it can induce boredom – something is typically seen in children. Curiosity, especially for seemingly insignificant things, can make others feel that the curious person lacks a complete goal-oriented focus. However, curiosity is one of the deepest mechanisms of quality learning. So if not a true genius, a curious person is likely to be a skilled and knowledgeable person. They may ask dozens of basic questions like children do – like the continuous “why?”
4. Dependent on others: Intelligent adults who depend on others for basic activities may appear childish
A typical child is dependent on adults. If another adult is wholly independent and self-reliant, the adult is seen as a strong independent adult. However, a highly dependent or needy person, even if intelligent, is seen as a childish person.
Most theories agree that a parent-child attachment affects adult attachment patterns – how we depend on others, how dependable others are, how secure you feel, etc.
Any form of an insecure attachment pattern could suggest that the person is perceived as not mature (whether or not it is true). And the jump from not mature to childlike is not a big one if other hints of childishness like strong emotional expressions exist.
Biases fuel the childish-immature-intelligent person stereotype
Ultimately, if an adult has any or all of the 4 traits and is intelligent, we tend to think that intelligent people are childish. Some of those traits like curiosity and impulsivity are more closely related to intelligence and childishness than other traits like emotional expression and dependence.
We then go through a confirmation bias when we see examples of such people and remember them better because they fit our preconceived notions. Another thinking error that biases our memory is the survivorship bias – For a few intelligent but childish people who stand out, there could be a hundred more who appear ordinary and don’t stand out.
That could draw our attention to the few which do stand out and bias our memory toward them – fueling a stereotype and assuming that childish-intelligent people are overrepresented.