9 subtle signs someone is highly intelligent, according to psychology

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Intelligence is a complex trait, which, despite what your school teachers may have told you, goes beyond academic achievements and impressive credentials. 

So, when determining your own or someone else’s intelligence, don’t fixate on traditional measures of intelligence. 

Psychology shows we can determine someone’s smartness through their behaviors and habits. 

In fact, researchers have identified nine subtle indicators, many of which are traits we would not usually associate with brilliance. 

Let’s take a look at these nine signs and the psychological explanations behind them.

1) They can explain complex things in simple terms

One of the hallmarks of intelligence is the ability to convey complex ideas in a simple and understandable manner. 

Not only do intelligent people possess a deep understanding of things, but they can break down the most complex concepts into easily digestible explanations. 

This skill is rooted in their cognitive flexibility, which allows them to adapt their communication style to suit their audience’s level of understanding.

Researchers have confirmed that this ability is related to the person’s academic achievement, cognitive ability, and creativity development. In other words, this trait is scientifically connected to intelligence

One way an intelligent person uses their cognitive flexibility to explain complex things is by using analogies.

This is because analogies involve using someone’s preexisting knowledge of something to help them understand something new.

An intelligent person will compare something you don’t know with something familiar to help you understand the new topic. 

2) They are constantly asking questions

And their questions are excellent! 

You will notice that intelligent people ask things that most people would not even consider. 

They appear to be always curious, which makes sense, as to be intelligent, you must be knowledgeable, and you can’t be knowledgeable if you’re never curious.

Thus, a gifted person’s innate curiosity drives them to:

  • Ask probing questions
  • Challenge assumptions
  • Explore new ideas.

By constantly asking questions, smart people demonstrate a willingness to explore beyond the surface and delve deeper into topics.

Moreover, curiosity is another trait psychologically linked to higher cognitive function and intellectual engagement levels. 

However, intelligence is not just about acquiring information, so if you want to understand if someone is truly intelligent, look for the following sign…

3) They understand how to apply the knowledge they gain

As theoretical physicist Richard Feynman describes in his book, memorizing and repeating random facts is knowledge. However, effectively applying and using that knowledge is intelligence.

So, intelligent individuals excel at applying the information they acquire to solve problems, make decisions, and achieve their goals. 

They also have something known as transferable knowledge, which means they have knowledge in one field but can apply it to different situations.

Thanks to this intellectual functioning, intelligent people are adept at:

  • Identifying patterns
  • Making connections between disparate pieces of information
  • Synthesizing new ideas

4) They aren’t afraid to admit when they don’t know something

Contrary to popular belief, intelligence is not about knowing everything; it’s about recognizing the limits of your knowledge and being open to learning from others. 

Intelligent individuals are humble enough to admit when they don’t know something and are not afraid to seek new information or expertise.

Intelligent people have growth mindsets as they believe they can grow and improve. So, they see mistakes as learning opportunities rather than setbacks and failures. 

This is also why intelligent people will admit when they are wrong about something.

It is also why you will likely notice the following sign in a gifted person…

5) They are self-critical 

Despite some stereotypes, intelligent people are often humble and self-aware.

Their self-awareness allows them to understand their strengths and weaknesses.

Meanwhile, their humility drives them to reflect on their actions, evaluate their performance, and seek feedback from others.

Because of this, you will notice smart people constantly strive for self-improvement. 

Moreover, intelligent individuals typically have a strong internal drive to excel and are unsatisfied with mediocrity. 

They know they are smart, yet they want to become more intelligent. So, they examine their setbacks and failures, looking for ways to grow and strengthen their weaknesses. 

Because of this mindset, you will also probably notice the following sign…

6) They are open to hearing other perspectives 

Intelligent individuals value diversity of thought and are willing to consider alternative perspectives, even if they conflict with their beliefs.

They understand that there is rarely a single “right” answer and that different perspectives can offer valuable insights and solutions.

By being open to contrasting ideas, they expand their understanding of the world and enhance their problem-solving abilities.

However, while they will always consider opposing ideas, this doesn’t mean they will accept them.

They will weigh up your idea against their own, but they will always choose what they believe is the best idea.

7) They debate topics in a calm and composed manner 

Because intelligent people are open to other perspectives, they enjoy engaging in thoughtful debates and discussions.

If you explain why you disagree with them, they will listen to you and ask further questions to ensure they understand your point before offering a different perspective.

Meanwhile, unintelligent people are more likely to resort to insults when someone disagrees with them.

So, what sets smart people apart is their ability to engage in debates calmly, composedly, and respectfully. 

However, note that this ability comes from emotional intelligence, and not all intellectually gifted people are also emotionally intelligent

Emotional intelligence allows you to maintain civility and respect in discourse, even when faced with opposing views. 

According to Mental Health America, EI also helps you to:

  • Control your emotions
  • Listen actively to others
  • Articulate your arguments persuasively

8) They are quick-witted

Another stereotype about intelligent people is that they lack a sense of humor. 

But this is not the case at all.

Intelligent people possess a sharp wit and a quick-thinking mind. 

They excel at thinking on their feet, processing information rapidly, and devising creative solutions to problems. 

Psychologically, this trait is due to fast processing speed, working memory, and fluid intelligence. 

Their sharp minds can rapidly assimilate new information, connect disparate ideas, and generate novel insights. 

Along with their cognitive agility and mental acuity, the broad knowledge base of intelligent people gives them lots of reference material to make comedic connections. 

So, if someone you know is always making jokes on the spot, they are likely gifted. 

9) They’re great at blocking out distractions

Most people struggle to maintain focus as their minds are so easily distracted.

But many intelligent people don’t have that problem.

Whether working on a complex problem, studying for an exam, or reading a book, intelligent people tend to get fully engrossed in their work.

You might notice that they become so focused on a task that they are utterly oblivious to the noise and distractions around them.

If you get distracted a lot (like me), you probably wonder what their secret is.

Here’s the answer…

US researchers say people with higher IQs detect fewer background noises and movements because their brains filter out non-essential information.

Final thoughts

Beyond the apparent intelligence indicators, like high IQ scores and impressive memory recall, many subtle signs can reveal how smart someone is.

So, whether you’re wondering if you’re a secret genius or trying to determine how smart someone else is, look for these nine things.

But remember, there are many types of intelligence. So even if you don’t see these signs in yourself, it doesn’t mean you’re dumb.

According to Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, a person can be smart in nine different ways. I recommend looking into the theory, as it can help you uncover your unique intellectual strengths.

Gemma Clarke

I am a certified yoga and mindfulness teacher and an experienced content writer in the spirituality and personal growth space.
I’m passionate about sharing my expertise through the power of
words to inspire and guide others along the path of personal and spiritual development.

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