10 signs someone is more intelligent than they look, according to psychology

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Have you ever met someone who didn’t strike you as particularly intelligent at first glance but then they end up completely blowing you away with their smarts?

It’s easy to underestimate people based on their appearance, but intelligence can manifest in many subtle and surprising ways.

That said, let’s look into 10 unconventional signs that someone may be more intelligent than they appear.

As always, we’ll back this up with expert opinion from a panel of psychologists and experts in the field.

So, let’s dive in and learn how to spot the often overlooked signs that someone is more intelligent than they look:

1) They ask a lot of questions

Curiosity is a telltale sign of intelligence.

People who constantly ask questions are often those who are deeply dedicated to understanding the world around them.

They aren’t satisfied with superficial knowledge and are always seeking to learn more.

My cousin is exactly like this.

As a young child, she had so many questions about everything, from how the oven worked to why we only had seven days in a week.

During her teenage years, her questions became deeper to the point that she has been misinterpreted as being nosy at times. 

But now, as an adult, she has become what we call our “walking encyclopedia”.

Her curiosity paid off as she has become incredibly knowledgeable in a wide range of topics.

But this isn’t just about my experience with my cousin. 

Psychologist Jeremy Dean also backs this up, stating that curiosity shows intelligence and might even predict future achievements.

2) They enjoy being alone

Intelligent people often value their own time. 

That curious cousin that I talked about earlier? Her younger sister is the quiet, solitude-loving one. 

Yet both of them are equally intelligent.

Unfortunately, she often comes across as antisocial because of her preference of being alone. 

But thankfully, science has proven this otherwise. 

A study published in the British Journal of Psychology found that highly intelligent people often feel less happy with frequent socializing. 

They might be labelled loners, but the thing is, for most intelligent people, a lot of their best ideas and solutions come to them when they’re lost in their own thoughts. 

3) They admit when they don’t know something

The popular notion is that intelligent people are know-it-alls.

And whether that is taken in a positive or negative light, it couldn’t be further from the truth.

Here’s why:

Truly intelligent people know that they don’t know everything, and they’re not afraid to admit this. 

According to a recent study by psychologists published in 2023, this shows intelligence because it reflects intellectual humility, which means recognizing your own knowledge limits. 

This trait is linked to being open-minded and willing to learn, which are key aspects of being genuinely smart. 

4) They can find humor in almost anything

Would you believe me if I told you that there is actual scientific evidence clearly linking humor to intelligence?

But do you really need scientific proof? 

I mean, think of your favorite comedian.

Don’t you think it requires wit to come up with those hilarious jokes that make you laugh uncontrollably?

But if you really need the science, here you go:

A study from the University of Mexico psychologists and anthropologists has shown that intelligence predicts humor ability.

This, in turn, leads to greater mating success, suggesting that humor evolved as an indicator of intelligence.

So while some people love acting like a clown, they may actually be geniuses hiding behind those funny faces.

5) They zone out frequently

In the same way that you shouldn’t overlook the intelligence of comedians, you shouldn’t also be too quick to judge someone as absent minded. 


Because what might seem like absent-mindedness can actually be a sign of a highly creative and intelligent brain processing ideas.

This isn’t just me making things up myself.

Here’s research that backs this up:

In 2015, neuropsychologists from Georgia Tech conducted a study related to daydreaming. 

They discovered that daydreamers have unique brain connections linking areas responsible for deep thoughts and creativity. 

Their study indicates that daydreaming is more than just moments lost in thought. 

It’s a sign of being sharper and more creative, particularly in solving complex puzzles and generating new ideas.

How’s that for an excuse to daydream more?

6) They’re organized, but not necessarily neat

My brother’s desk has always been cluttered with papers, gadgets, and what-nots. But the funny thing is, he always knows where everything is.

And apparently, this is a sign of high intelligence, if a study published in the Association for Psychological Science is to be believed.

According to the study, a messy environment can stimulate creativity and new ideas, two key aspects of intelligence.

I’ve always known that my brother was smart, but having read the science around it gives it more sense as to how someone as smart as he is can have a desk as chaotic as his.

7) They worry a lot more than others

Do you know someone who worries a lot?

It’s probably the last thing you’d associate with a smart individual but it turns out worrying a lot can actually be an unconventional sign of intelligence.

Look at it this way:

People who worry often think deeply about potential problems and future scenarios, which requires a high level of cognitive functioning.

In fact, research conducted by neuropsychoparmacologists found that people with generalized anxiety disorder tend to have higher IQs than those without anxiety. 

Apparently, this heightened worry can drive them to be more prepared and cautious, ultimately leading to better problem-solving skills and foresight. 

So, if someone you know tends to worry a lot, it could be a sign of their sharp, analytical mind at work.

8) They enjoy playing devil’s advocate

It can be annoying if someone’s always trying to challenge your perspectives (or the opinion of others), but experts say this could actually be a sign of intelligence.

In her book In Defense of Troublemakers, Professor Charlan Nemeth from the University of California Berkeley Psychology, shows that challenging popular views can improve decision-making and stimulate deeper thinking.

Playing devil’s advocate, or arguing against the majority or questioning common assumptions, requires critical thinking and is therefore, an unpopular sign of intelligence.

So if someone’s always trying to antagonize you, don’t take it personally. 

For all you know, that may just be them exercising their hidden smarts.

9) They’re risk takers

I must admit, I used to think that risk takers had reckless mindsets. 

But my experience in dealing with them as well as reading the science below has definitely corrected this misconception.

A 2018 study has shown that smarter people tend to take risks in situations where they can gain a lot.

They’re good at weighing the pros and cons, which means they make decisions that others might avoid.

And more often than not, this results in better outcomes in life and work. 

10) They’re prosocial

What is prosocial to begin with?

It’s any behavior that’s intended to benefit others, like helping, sharing, or cooperating. It’s essentially being considerate of others’ needs and acting to support them.

Now let’s look into why this points to intelligence:

Research indicates that smarter people are often more prosocial because they’re better at understanding and empathizing with others.

Let’s break it down further:

Higher intelligence enhances emotional sensitivity, allowing individuals to perceive and respond to the feelings of those around them.

In simpler terms, intelligent people are better at putting themselves in others’ shoes and recognizing the importance of helping, which is a sign of both empathy and moral identity.

So if you know a person who goes out of their way to help others, they’re probably more than just really kind – they must also be really smart.

The takeaway

Intelligence isn’t always about having the highest grades or knowing the most facts.

It’s often about how one approaches the world, interacts with others, and solves problems.

The signs we’ve discussed above highlight that intelligence can manifest in the most unique and unexpected ways. 

Whether it’s through a curious mind, an empathetic heart, or a witty sense of humor, these traits reveal a deeper intelligence that goes beyond appearances.

So the next time you meet someone new, pay attention to these subtle signs – you might just discover a genius in hiding.

Mia Zhang

Mia Zhang blends Eastern and Western perspectives in her approach to self-improvement. Her writing explores the intersection of cultural identity and personal growth. Mia encourages readers to embrace their unique backgrounds as a source of strength and inspiration in their life journeys.

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