Without taking an Intelligence Quotient test, what traits, thoughts patterns, or behaviors would a high IQ person show?
When we observe or interact with people, we don’t typically know their IQ scores. We observe their behavior, learn their history, and judge what they say or do. We look for observable signs of intelligence that seem practical, not theoretical.
- What is IQ or intelligence?
- Positive signs of high intelligence
- Negative signs of high intelligence
- Personality traits of highly intelligent people
- Characteristics of genius and gifted people
- Can you become more intelligent?
What is IQ or intelligence?
Psychologists have studied intelligence for a long time and have come up with a number of tests to measure a general mental capacity to solve problems, adapt to life, and progress in life. They called that mental capacity general intelligence. These tests give a score that compares your mental capacity to others in domains like reasoning, memory, verbal ability, performance, attention, problem-solving, and pattern recognition, with a purposefully defined average of 100. This score is called the Intelligence Quotient (IQ). Typically, 70% of all people will have an IQ between 80-120. About 95% of all people will have an IQ between 70-130. High-IQ people usually score above 130 IQ points, depending on which test is used. The top 0.1% of intelligent people in the world, according to these tests, have an IQ of over 145.
IQ tests gained popularity to figure out who has low intelligence because it is clinically important. Especially for mental health and life-long adjustment. Intelligence testing then became about screening people for their future performance.
And now, it appears like a low-key humble brag on social media.
Intelligence exists 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).
There are many other types of intelligence, like emotional intelligence and social intelligence. They, too, are signs of overall general intelligence.
When we judge someone as intelligent, we don’t usually judge their IQ test score. We look at a practical combination of many types of intelligence like Cognitive capacity, Emotional intelligence, Specific expertise, etc.
Positive signs of high intelligence
Research shows that the 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, good intuition, and problem-solving.
I’ve explained the research cited above in the next section.
1. Good memory and thinking ability
There are many types of memory, and we typically observe a person’s working memory, access and flexibility of remembering things, and accuracy & reliability of declarative memory. Working memory is the short-term temporary memory used to hold and manipulate information in the mind, like calculating tips and remembering directions & OTPs. Access and flexibility of remembering things are all about how easily a person can think flexibly and access previously learned information. Declarative memory describes our ability to remember experiences, facts, and trivia. Remembering that information usually creates an impression that one is smart and well-learned. These 3 types of memories help people think in a useful, problem-solving, or innovative way – a sign of both crystallized intelligence (knowledge) and fluid intelligence (active thinking).
There is a personality trait called “need for cognition” which describes a person’s interest in deep thinking, analysis, and mental activity. While all intelligent people are not necessarily interested in deep thinking, research shows someone is likely to be intelligent when they show a high need for cognition.
2. Good attitude and hard-working nature
People tend to believe that a significant portion of intelligence comes from hard work and a good attitude toward many things like learning, relationships, social life, criticism, feedback, etc. Essentially, both emotional intelligence characteristics like working hard and having a good attitude help people grow. Hard work (consistency & growing through failure) is a non-optional way to achieve expertise, regardless of how genetically lucky one is.
3. General and Tacit Knowledge
Outside theory, intelligence is a practical concern in job performance, academic success, self-management, social growth, etc. These dimensions of life require general knowledge and tacit knowledge, which is the ability to understand things that are not always said out loud. Cultural sensitivity, flirting, conversational dynamics, etc. depend on tacit knowledge that we acquire through body language, actions, trial & error, life experience, observation, and some deductive reasoning. For example – When is it right to pick a debate? When is a bad time to ask someone out on a date? Tacit knowledge is heavily dependent on the context and what that context tells us.
Related: How to improve memory for facts
4. Good language proficiency and reasoning skills
Intelligence tests usually measure verbal ability, reasoning ability, and problem-solving ability. However, many tests try to eliminate the influence of language by testing reasoning & problem-solving without the use of language – by asking people to predict patterns. Regardless of how intelligence is measured, language plays a role in how we think and communicate. At least superficially, being articulate and well-spoken often indicates a person has learned the art of communication. This includes a large vocabulary and methods of explaining their thoughts. That demonstrates many types of intelligence.
5. Reliable decision-making
A hallmark of an expert is the ability to make decisions that prove effective most of the time. This reliability requires experience, knowledge, and 2 levels of analysis: Global & local. A global analysis is looking at the big picture, and local analysis is understanding the details. Reliability also comes from understanding the nuanced consequences of past decisions and anticipating future outcomes correctly. An intelligent expert can accurately estimate how things could turn out in the future or predict realistic possibilities with confidence. With that, the expert can then evaluate decisions. One could say that an expert develops superior intuition, and research does suggest that people with a high cognitive capacity have even better intuition.
6. Trusted by others
Because of traits like reliable decision-making, knowledge, memory, and problem-solving skills, people tend to trust them and look for their guidance. So a trusted person is likely to have earned that trust by demonstrating some form of intelligence.
7. High Creativity
All intelligent people may not be creative, but creative people are necessarily intelligent, according to research. Creativity & intelligence (often mistaken for logical ability) are not 2 different mental abilities. Creativity depends on baseline intelligence because any form of creative work requires at least problem-solving, broad and narrow thinking, attention to detail, specialized skills and knowledge, and an active imagination. All of these are fundamental cognitive abilities. For the sake of this point, creativity is not the same as doing some form of art. Creativity is the ability to construct something novel, unique, or innovative that does not seem immediately obvious. Engaging in any form of art often helps us get creative but doing any art is not technically creativity.
8. High Achievements
All intelligent people may not have high achievements but people who have high achievements have probably earned them with their intelligence. At least according to traditional psychology research, intelligence “predicts” future achievement. A lot of the IQ fuss comes through this. People tend to believe success comes from good habits, perfect timing, and smart decisions – practical intelligence. But, we do grossly underestimate just how important luck and randomness are in our success. It’s fair to say successful people aren’t just lucky because of their success, they are successful because they were lucky…. and sometimes intelligent.
If we look at the definition of intelligence, problem-solving is a part of it. Intelligence is about successfully adapting, processing information, and applying learning in useful ways. All of those are, effectively, ways to solve problems. Naturally, we observe how people solve problems, not what is happening inside their heads. Intelligence tests are also problem-solving tests. If you see people solve difficult problems in any area – kitchen, engineering, sales & marketing, mathematics, or communication, it is easy to believe they are intelligent. Problem-solving begins with pattern recognition in many cases and that is a fundamental brain ability. IQ tests often assess how people identify & predict patterns.
Researchers have compelling evidence to show that smart people – those who have a high cognitive capacity – are better at finding intuitive correct solutions than correcting or reasoning over incorrect intuitions to solve problems. A generalization of this is – Intelligent people may have better intuitive reasoning than deliberate reasoning. We think of intuition as the opposite of logic. While that may be true to an extent, our brain produces both – intuition & logical reasoning. It could be that all the processes that give people their intelligence also give them a more refined automatic ability to understand things intuitively. Intuition is largely unconscious, it’s how the brain processes things without your awareness. If that processing is better, intuition gets better.
Negative signs of high intelligence
There are many cliches like super-intelligent people are prone to mental disorders, are impulsive, have anxiety-induced mental performance issues, or are romantically less desirable. All of these are at least partly supported by evidence. It’s not that average or low IQ people don’t have these problems, they do. However, sometimes, specifically, high intelligence contributes to these problems in unique ways.
I’ve explained the research cited above in the next section.
1. Prone to mental illnesses
A less popular theory in psychology is the hyper-brain/hyper-body theory which suggests that those who have high IQ are also at a higher risk of physical and mental illnesses. Research does show that high IQ (Mensa members) have an added risk of developing mood disorders like bipolar, anxiety, and depression, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), Autism spectrum disorder, and immunity problems like allergies, asthma, and autoimmune diseases. One reason this could happen is that those with high IQ might overthink, worry a lot, or overreact to environmental stress, which also creates physiological excitability (stress hormone, cytokines). So a high IQ brain could be hypersensitive to the environment as well as internal bodily changes, which only magnifies worry and anxiety.
2. Anxiety-induced performance issues
A large component of intelligence is working memory. It is our ability to hold and manipulate information in the mind for a short duration. Our current thoughts, self-talk, factual data, neutral information like login OTPs, etc. rest in our working memory. Research shows that people with high working memory can have a lot of anxious thoughts while performing tasks when the stakes are high. So when the consequences of performing have a lot of value, it tends to choke-up working memory with negative thoughts. Working memory helps us perform well and when it is choked up, our performance drops.
3. Difficulty having romantic success
People love to say they want an intelligent partner, but surveys show a limit to how intelligent. Up to the 90th percentile in intelligence (120 IQ), people find intelligence desirable. But for higher intelligence (top 10%), they begin to show concerns about social skills and compatibility. This doesn’t necessarily reflect intelligent people are bad at socializing; it just shows people have these concerns before making dating decisions. There seems to be no such limit for emotional intelligence. People straight-up find emotional intelligence desirable up to the 99th percentile. They also find emotional intelligence just a tad bit more attractive than cognitive intelligence. A combination of high emotional intelligence and not extremely high intelligence would be quite attractive. Read more about the psychology of love and romance here.
4. Difficulty controlling impulses
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.) Low scores on delay discounting mean it is more difficult to avoid instant gratification, or there is a preference for immediate rewards or devalues future rewards. Intelligent people might rely on their intelligence to afford the risk of not preparing enough or “repairing” the negative consequences of impulsive actions. It could also be a form of sense-making with the belief that intelligence can somehow compensate for impulsivity-related drawbacks.
Personality traits of highly intelligent people
Research on intelligence and personality is quite common and we can say a few things.
Cognitive intelligence & personality: They are curious and open to experiences
There is only a weak association between personality traits and intelligence. So most intelligent people would have personalities similar to most other people. A major personality trait – openness to experience – is probably the only personality trait associated with high intelligence in general. One reason could be people who are open to new experiences could also be curious, willing to learn, and try new things out. All of these factors are important to learn efficiently and gain new skills & knowledge.
Emotional intelligence & personality: Their personality makes relationships easy
Emotional stability, extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness are also weakly linked to emotional intelligence. One reason is that emotionally stable extroverts or those who are likable and mindful generally have good relationships. Emotional intelligence can develop through meaningful interactions with people.
Characteristics of genius and gifted people
Beyond those considered highly intelligent, there are a group of people called genius, gifted, or profoundly gifted. Their IQs are generally above 145 points. Researchers have defined their giftedness as extremely high general intelligence that affects most parts of life and a specific intelligence in one or two areas where they excel. Some of the common themes in their lives are listed below.
Note: These traits are common in gifted and highly intelligent people, but non-gifted and average-intelligence people (IQ between 80-120) also show these, perhaps to a less degree.
Their cognitive characteristics:
- Learn very rapidly and show high curiosity and depth of understanding
- Think deeply about patterns and the inner workings of things in life
- Have long concentration ability for things that interest them
- Offer creative or unusual solutions
- Think abstractly
- Wide general knowledge in at least a few domains
- Easy to take multiple perspectives
- High problem-solving, analytical, and reasoning capacity
- Have personal reasons and motivations for doing things that may seem odd to others
- Highly perceptive, intuitive, and observant
- Quick to spot errors or problems
Their social characteristics:
- Question authority and the status quo
- Sees problems in society when others don’t
- Find it hard to relate to everyone, prone to loneliness
- Unusual humor and peculiar manner of speaking
- Range from silent to outspoken personality
- Intrinsically motivated to help, sometimes without the goal of helping (personal curiosity, thrill, etc.)
Their mental health characteristics:
- Prone to boredom
- Have weak emotional regulation with possible rage problems
- Find it hard to belong
- Unhealthy perfectionist tendencies
- Prone to depression, anxiety, and suicide
- Highly sensitive or highly insensitive
Most studies have looked at gifted people in White economically healthy populations. However, studies show that giftedness in minorities and underprivileged groups looks similar across different cultures, except for language use. Some gifted people are silent, and some are talkative, which is affected by culture and upbringing. 10 broad cognitive areas showcase their giftedness: communication skills, imagination/creativity, humor, inquiry, insight, interests, memory, motivation, problem-solving, and reasoning.
Can you become more intelligent?
Everyone’s intelligence, in the practical sense, is unique. And there is good reason to believe we can change intelligence.
Intelligence is only partly genetic
The most crucial combo is IQ + Hard-work + Motivation. All 3 together give us our highest potential. And all 3 are partly inherited. A huge study on the genetics of intelligence done on nearly 280,000 people identified approximately 1000 genes that determine a portion of our intelligence – neurogenesis, and plasticity.
There is a 0.3 correlation between a child’s IQ with their mother or father’s IQ. That number is small. That means the parent’s IQ explains about 10% of the child’s IQ.
According to one study, genes tend to explain about 45 -76% of general intelligence, about 60% of verbal intelligence, and just 19% of performance intelligence.
Intelligence is trainable
People’s brains are not hardwired. They are soft-wired. Brains can rewire themselves and dramatically change how their neurons behave based on how and what they learn.
To know what you can do to increase intelligence (real & perceived), or parts of intelligence such as memory or learning ability, follow the guides listed below.
- Scientifically reviewed ways to improve memory and counter cognitive decline
- 50 lifestyle habits to foster mental growth (indirectly, intelligence)
- Best and worst ways to study for academics
- Best ways to learn anything casually
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Hey! Thank you for reading; hope you enjoyed the article. I run Cognition Today to paint a holistic picture of psychology. My content here is referenced and featured in NY Times, Forbes, CNET, Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, 10-15 books, academic courses, and research papers.
I’m a full-time psychology blogger, part-time Edtech and cyberpsychology consultant, guitar trainer, and also overtime impostor. I’ve studied at NIMHANS Bangalore (positive psychology), Savitribai Phule Pune University (clinical psychology), and IIM Ahmedabad (marketing psychology).
I’m based in Pune, India. Love sci-fi, horror media; Love rock, metal, synthwave, and pop music; can’t whistle; can play 2 guitars at a time.