Is there any reliable way to distinguish between low IQ and insanity? 

I see claims like this surprisingly often:

Of course there are smart people who are insane, and dumb people who are completely rational. But if we define intelligence as having something to do with accurately understanding and interpreting the information we constantly receive from the world, necessary to make accurate predictions about the future and how one’s interactions with others will go, there’s a clear correlation between accurately understanding the world and being sane.

In other words, a sufficiently dumb person, even a very sane one, will be unable to distinguish between accurate and inaccurate depictions of reality and so can easily espouse beliefs that sound, to others, completely insane.

Is there any way to distinguish between a dumb person who believes wrong things by accident and a smart person who believes wrong things because they are insane?

Digression: I have a friend who was homeless for many years. Eventually he was diagnosed as mentally ill and given a disability check.

“Why?” he asked, but received no answer. He struggled (and failed) for years to prove that he was not disabled.

Eventually he started hearing voices, was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and put on medication. Today he is not homeless, due at least in part to the positive effects of anti-psychotics.

The Last Psychiatrist has an interesting post (deleted from his blog, but re-posted elsewhere,) on how SSI is determined:

Say you’re poor and have never worked. You apply for Welfare/cash payments and state Medicaid. You are obligated to try and find work or be enrolled in a jobs program in order to receive these benefits. But who needs that? Have a doctor fill out a form saying you are Temporarily Incapacitated due to Medical Illness. Yes, just like 3rd grade. The doc will note the diagnosis, however, it doesn’t matter what your diagnosis is, it only matters that a doctor says you are Temporarily Incapacitated. So cancer and depression both get you the same benefits.

Nor does it matter if he medicates you, or even believes you, so long as he signs the form and writes “depression.”(1) The doc can give you as much time off as he wants (6 months is typical) and you can return, repeatedly, to get another filled out. You can be on state medicaid and receive cash payments for up to 5 years. So as long as you show up to your psych appointments, you’ll can receive benefits with no work obligation.

“That’s not how it works for me”

you might say, which brings us to the whole point: it’s not for you. It is for the entire class of people we label as poor, about whom comic Greg Geraldo joked: “it’s easy to forget there’s so much poverty in the United States, because the poor people look just like black people.” Include inner city whites and hispanics, and this is how the government fights the War On Poverty.

In the inner cities, the system is completely automated. Poor person rolls in to the clinic, fills out the paperwork (doc signs a stack of them at the end of the day), he sees a therapist therapist, a doctor, +/- medications, and gets his benefits.

There’s no accountability, at all. I have never once been asked by the government whether the person deserved the money, the basis for my diagnosis– they don’t audit the charts, all that exists is my sig on a two page form. The system just is.

see if you can find the one poor person hidden in this picture (Last Psychiatrist)

Enter SSI, Supplemental Security Income. You can earn lifetime SSI benefits (about $600/mo + medical insurance) if “you” can “show” you are “Permanently Disabled” due to a “medical illness.”
You“= your doc who fills out a packet with specific questions; and maybe a lawyer who processes the massive amounts of other paperwork, and argues your case, and charges about 20% of a year’s award.

show” has a very specific legal definition: whatever the judge feels like that day. I have been involved in thousands of these SSI cases, and to describe the system as arbitrary is to describe Blake Lively as “ordinary.”

Permanently disabled” means the illness prevents you from ever working. “But what happens when you get cured?” What is this, the future? You can’t cure bipolar.

Medical illness” means anything. The diagnosis doesn’t matter, only that “you” show how the diagnosis makes it impossible for you to work. Some diagnoses are easier than others, but none are impossible. “Unable to work” has specific meaning, and specific questions are asked: ability to concentrate, ability to complete a workweek, work around others, take criticism from supervisors, remember and execute simple/moderately difficult/complex requests and tasks, etc.

Fortunately, your chances of being awarded SSI are 100%…

It’s a good post. You should read the whole thing.

TLP’s point is not that the poor are uniformly mentally ill, but that our country is using the disability system as a means of routing money to poor people in order to pacify them (and maybe make their lives better.)

I’ve been playing a bit of sleight of hand, here, subbing in “poor” and “dumb.” But they are categories that highly overlap, given that dumb people have trouble getting jobs that pay well. Despite TLP’s point, many of the extremely poor are, by the standards of the middle class and above, mentally disabled. We know because they can’t keep a job and pay their bills on time.

“Disabled” is a harsh word to some ears. Who’s to say they aren’t equally able, just in different ways?

Living under a bridge isn’t being differently-abled. It just sucks.

Normativity bias happens when you assume that everyone else is just like you. Middle and upper-middle class people tend to assume that everyone else thinks like they do, and the exceptions, like guys who think the CIA is trying to communicate with them via the fillings in their teeth, are few and far between.

As for the vast legions of America’s unfortunates, they assume that these folks are basically just like themselves. If they aren’t very bright, this only means they do their mental calculations a little slower–nothing a little hard work, grit, mindfulness, and dedication can’t make up for. The fact that anyone remains poor, then, has to be the fault of either personal failure (immorality) or outside forces like racism keeping people down.

These same people often express the notion that academia or Mensa are crawling with high-IQ weirdos who can barely tie their shoes and are incapable of socializing with normal humans, to which I always respond that furries exist. 

These people need to get out more if they think a guy successfully holding down a job that took 25 years of work in the same field to obtain and that requires daily interaction with peers and students is a “weirdo.” Maybe he wears more interesting t-shirts than a middle manager at BigCorp, but you should see what the Black Hebrew Israelites wear.

I strongly suspect that what we would essentially call “mental illness” among the middle and upper classes is far more common than people realize among the lower classes.

As I’ve mentioned before, there are multiple kinds of intellectual retardation. Some people suffer physical injuries (like shaken baby syndrome or encephalitis), some have genetic defects like Down’s Syndrome, and some are simply dull people born to dull parents. Intelligence is part genetic, so just as some people are gifted with lucky smart genes, some people are visited by the stupid fairy, who only leaves dumb ones. Life isn’t fair.

Different kinds of retardation manifest differently, with different levels of overall impairment in life skills. There are whole communities where the average person tests as mentally retarded, yet people in these communities go providing for themselves, building homes, raising their children, etc. They do not do so in the same ways as we would–and there is an eternal chicken and egg debate about whether the environment they are raised in causes their scores, or their scores cause their environment–but nevertheless, they do.

All of us humans are descended from people who were significantly less intelligent than ourselves. Australopithecines were little smarter than chimps, after all. The smartest adult pygmy chimps, (bonobos) like Kanzi, only know about 3,000 words, which is about the same as a 3 or 4 year old human. (We marvel that chimps can do things a kindergartener finds trivial, like turn on the TV.) Over the past few million years, our ancestors got a lot smarter.

How do chimps think about the world? We have no particular reason to assume that they think about it in ways that substantially resemble our own. While they can make tools and immediately use them, they cannot plan for tomorrow (dolphins probably beat them at planning.) They do not make sentences of more than a few words, much less express complex ideas.

Different humans (and groups of humans) also think about the world in very different ways from each other–which is horrifyingly obvious if you’ve spent any time talking to criminals. (The same people who think nerds are weird and bad at socializing ignore the existence of criminals, despite strategically moving to neighborhoods with fewer of them.)

Even non-criminals communities have all sorts of strange practices, including cannibalism, human sacrifice, wife burning, genital mutilation, coprophagy, etc. Anthropologists (and economists) have devoted a lot of effort to trying to understand and explain these practices as logical within their particular contexts–but a different explanation is possible: that different people sometimes think in very different ways.

For example, some people think there used to be Twa Pygmies in Ireland, before that nefarious St. Patrick got there and drove out all of the snakes. (Note: Ireland did’t have snakes when Patrick arrived.)

(My apologies for this being a bit of a ramble, but I’m hoping for feedback from other people on what they’ve observed.)


10 thoughts on “Is there any reliable way to distinguish between low IQ and insanity? 

  1. The assumption that dumb people are half-functional is rooted in an essential midwit delusion – that *they* are functional.

    At the midwit IQ range, people tend to believe they are very smart and competent, capable of doing everything well. They learn how to do things, then they do them. Being able to do things you’ve learned how to do instills a high level of confidence. It is, unfortunately, an illusion. People don’t know how to do things because people are dumb. Having self-conceptualized themselves as essentially competent, they imagine the very smart to be gods and worship them.

    I have an amusing party trick. I can observe someone for a little while then tell you what socio-economic stratum they grew up in. People are amazed. I nod sagely, sniffing haughtily through my nose as I project an image of hieratic majeste. In truth, I am looking for very obvious clues like… are they wearing a shirt only poor people wear? Do they use a word poor people use? This party trick is the culmination of nearly ten years of thought percolating, and it may actually turn out to be my life’s work. It is no more complicated than reading a sign stapled to someone’s forehead saying “I am poor”. It certainly does not approach the deductions of the detective Holmes, who combines multiple facts together to reach a conclusion. I’m not sure such a thing is possible – perhaps for a mind like Terence Tao’s?

    I test pretty consistently between 140 and 145, SD15.

    I am amazed by the price of milk. If you want to know what my “genius” amounts to, it is that.

    You see, when the price of a gallon is over $6, I clutch my chest and cry out, “My God, this is outrageous!” When it is under $6, I think nothing of it, even if the price may be $5. My shock is not based on any accounting of my income and the utils I can derive – I just have a mental rule that milk over $6 costs way too much money. I will no doubt spend my doddering old age shouting at robo-postboys that the milk is too expensive, even though it will not be any more expensive in real terms. I don’t like sandwiches that cost more than $7 because I’ve been pegged to the $5 footlong forever. They say Man is the Wise Man, the thinking ape. I don’t believe this is true. Man is not the Wise Man, he is the Heuristic Monkey.

    Thinking is hard.

    I sat at the feet of the student of the student of Wittgenstein, and I learned one thing: Words are hard and they make my brain hurt.

    I have had to spend a long time with a person of average intelligence. She is my mother, and she regularly falls for Nigerian and other scams. If I tell her she that we are going to a store, she will be amazed that, twenty minutes later, we are at a store. This woman completed a college degree in a difficult subject back when that meant something and is probably in the top 10% of her field, making the solid six figure income that put me through school. She has never had run-ins with the law, nor has she ever failed to pay a bill on time. In an empirical sense, she is “very successful” and significantly more functional than vast swathes of society. Many of those vast swathes also fall for thickly accented robocalls, which is why they keep doing it and why the FBI has a webpage urging people not to give thousands of dollars to Indian voices claiming to the IRS. If I think about that, my head makes the pain noises, so I try not to think about that.

    The midwit mistake is ultimately to mistake reading for thinking, and thus heuristic for understanding. I can read rather quickly. To get along well in college, one must read about a book a day. By reading, I am able to absorb the author’s heuristics, even if I don’t understand them. It may be a mistake to unquestioningly absorb these heuristics. I rarely have a better choice. Thinking is… exponentially more difficult than this. Nicholas Nassim Taleb says a smart person probably has one idea in their life. That sounds about right. Very smart people probably have two or three. One day, I hope to write my idea down in condensed heuristic form, in the vain hope some future person will pick it up and understand the theory and not just the rules. Hey, it worked for Fussell, didn’t it?

    I have a funny job where I sit in a box and they throw money at me. I have this job because a long, long time ago, my ancestor had the big brain idea to use a sharper metal stick than his adversaries and thus was able to become ruler of the rest of the apes. Time and time again, my personal experience proves the truth of Gregory Clark’s book about social mobility, as I bump into friends, peers, and colleagues who also had ancestors who violently disemboweled other apes before being disemboweled. For that, their distant descendants are hailed as Masters of the Universe with special divinely blessed blue blood which makes them better than everyone else. Besides this one crazy belief, they often have many other crazy and strange beliefs about many crazy and strange things. The only thing more terrifying than this story is the thought that it might be true.

    The weird thing isn’t that poor people are disproportionately dumb and crazy because everyone is dumb and crazy, with intelligent moments being the rare shining light that pushes the train jerkingly forward. The weird thing is that lots of people don’t realize that they are dumb and crazy.

    Sorry for the length. Brevity is the soul of wit, and I am a witless fool.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Weird… I was having a similar conversation with my mother a few weeks ago.

    She is a child of the 60s hippy, who happens to be very bright. Worked as a computer programmer for decades, all for big corporations.

    I, to no avail, was trying to explain to her how she has no idea what its likes for people with low IQ. Her idea was they were like the dimmer people at the corporations that she worked at.

    I tried to explain to her that these people were most likely simply average intelligent people.

    I work in the energy field, side by side with blue collar welders/ mill-wrights, laborers. Even the people I work with are selected to at least come from above the 35 to 40 percentiles.


  3. Yes.

    People with low IQ but high (relative) sanity can and do function within groups of highly effective people. They find something that they can do well ~ shovel coal, foot massage, painting of fingernails or styling of hair… and they do it consistently every day. And they develop consistent personalities so other people are not surprised or alarmed by them. Angry shoe shine guy – if he’s consistently angry and consistently fast at shining shoes he is fine. If one day he shines your shoes cheerfully and the next he sets the cuff of your pants on fire he is going to be cast out.

    The same goes for high IQ people, except that a few of them have some talent that is so rare and valuable that it leads other people to indulge some extraordinarily unsociable behaviors. So it takes longer for them to get cast out, or a wilder breaking of standards and taboos to get cast out. And they are given longer periods of credit where they can sit in a sanatorium and drool or take psychoanalysis and find themselves, and eventually return to productivity.

    IQ is a tremendously useful measure of a tremendously useful human ability. Basically the ability to understand THINGS. But the most useful human ability is the ability to understand PEOPLE.

    I have a god daughter who has Angelman Syndrome. She is certainly at the low end of the IQ scale, with a vocabulary of several words plus a hundred or more animal names. She is also very personable and even charming. So she can fit into society.

    The SSI recipients are NOT examples of high IQ combined with poor reality testing. They may be perfectly sane. On the other hand, some legislators, most of whom completed law school, decided that Rudyard Kipling and his ilk are a backward relic of the past, of superstition and ignorance, a symbol of some cosmic injustice and safely ignored on the path to the glorious progressive paradise to come. And they set up SSI along with the rest of the New Deal and Great Society madness.

    Its not the SSI recipients who have poor reality-testing. Its the people who enable them.


  4. I’ve heard of people claiming the Druids had origins in Egyptian priests/sorcerers, but don’y know any details along those lines of reasoning.

    Of course there are British legends about Lost Tribes of Israel and the Stone of Destiny and all kind of things…

    I can’t find the article now but remember something about a tribe of short people hiding in Irish catacombs, like the Leprechauns?

    Maybe those afro-centrists are just mixing up their legends. I see what is happening now, they are mixing up the “Twa” with the “Batwa”.


  5. Baron, where do you live, Switzerland? Walmart and Aldi sell milk for $1.50 a gallon where I live, in the northeast USA. When I first started living on my own 25 years ago, the best price I could find was $1.99.

    For most of a century, the USA was the richest, most powerful nation in the history of the world. This good fortune was entirely due to several high-IQ, high-functioning subsets of the British population sailing across a vast ocean, landing on a verdant continent thinly populated with Stone Age tribes (with whom they did not interbreed), and bearing large families until all the good land was settled.

    Random mutations, mean reversion, and mass low-IQ immigration were bound to catch up with us sooner or later. In a hundred years the USA will be a mediocre middling-IQ over-populated tribal mess like Pakistan is today. At least then we’ll be firmly connected to reality, what with white liberals and their silly ideas about “rights” and “equality” being long dead and forgotten. There will still be people who can’t work, but starvation will keep their numbers in check, and any who get violent will be quickly shot dead.

    Or maybe we’ll get hit with another Great Plague that burns out the dead wood and allows another Renaissance.


  6. Well, here is an example of a guy who was both fairly smart and pretty badly insane.

    Terry Davis must have been fairly smart to get an electrical engineering degree and program that operating system. But he was obviously insane and delusional as well. I suppose you only really need one example to show that insanity and intelligence aren’t mutually exclusive, or that insanity is only the Provence of the dumb.

    So, I suppose the question is what sort of definition of insanity captures what terry has, as well as however a similar thing is expressed in the less intelligent as its obviously a different thing from intelligence. “mental illness” is too broad. If you have met certain autistic people, ya they have issues but I don’t think I would describe them as insane (or not all of them, and certainly not like terry is insane). There would almost certainly be a social component to help figure it out. If a person is severely unable to socially adapt to peers you would expect him to be able to within his cultural/intelligence/economic range that is probably a big clue. Though not enough by itself.


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