8 Personality Traits of Highly Intelligent People (Backed by Science)

The scientific reasoning behind some of the personality traits that smart people share.

Over on Quora, more than 100 people have answered the question "What are the common traits of highly intelligent people?"

Some users claim to know from personal experience; others are just taking an educated guess.

As it turns out, many users gave answers that researchers would agree with.

We pulled eight of the most intriguing Quora responses and explained the science behind them -- and let's just say that we feel a lot smarter now.

Here's what we learned:

1. They're highly adaptable.

Several Quora users noted that intelligent people are flexible and able to thrive in different settings. As Donna F Hammett writes, intelligent people adapt by "showing what can be done regardless of the complications or restrictions placed upon them."

Recent psychological research supports this idea. Intelligence depends on being able to change your own behaviors in order to cope more effectively with your environment, or make changes to the environment you're in.

2. They understand how much they don't know.

The smartest folks are able to admit when they aren't familiar with a particular concept. As Jim Winer writes, intelligent people "are not afraid to say: 'I don't know.' If they don't know it, they can learn it."

Winer's observation is backed up by a classic study by Justin Kruger and David Dunning, which found that the less intelligent you are, the more you overestimate your cognitive abilities.

In one experiment, for example, students who'd scored in the lowest quartile on a test adapted from the LSAT overestimated the number of questions they'd gotten right by nearly 50 percent. Meanwhile, those who'd scored in the top quartile slightly underestimated how many questions they'd gotten right.

3. They have insatiable curiosity.

Albert Einstein reportedly said, "I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious."

Or, as Keyzurbur Alas puts it, "Intelligent people let themselves become fascinated by things others take for granted."

Research published in 2016 suggests there's a link between childhood intelligence and openness to experience -- which encompasses intellectual curiosity -- in adulthood.

Scientists followed thousands of people born in the U.K. for 50 years and learned that 11-year-olds who'd scored higher on an IQ test turned out to be more open to experience at 50.

4. They're open-minded.

Smart people don't close themselves off to new ideas or opportunities.Hammett writes that intelligent people are "willing to accept and consider other views with value and broad-mindedness," and that they are "open to alternative solutions."

Psychologists say that open-minded people -- those who seek out alternate viewpoints and weigh the evidence fairly -- tend to score higher on the SAT and on intelligence tests.

At the same time, smart people are careful about which ideas and perspectives they adopt.

"An intelligent mind has a strong aversion to accepting things on face value and therefore withholds belief until presented with ample evidence," says Alas.
5. They like their own company.

Richard He points out that highly intelligent people tend to be "very individualistic."

Interestingly, recent research suggests smarter people tend to derive less satisfaction than most people do from socializing with friends.

6. They have high self-control.

Zoher Ali writes smart people are able to overcome impulsiveness by "planning, clarifying goals, exploring alternative strategies, and considering consequences before [they] begin."

Scientists have found a link between self-control and intelligence. In one 2009 study, participants had to choose between two financial rewards: a smaller payout immediately or a larger payout at a later date.

Results showed that participants who chose the larger payout at a later date -- i.e., those who had more self-control -- generally scored higher on intelligence tests.

The researchers behind that study say one area of the brain -- the anterior prefrontal cortex -- might play a role in helping people solve tough problems and demonstrate self-control while working toward goals.

7. They're really funny.

Advita Bihani points out highly intelligent people tend to have a great sense of humor.

Scientists agree. One study found people who wrote funnier cartoon captions scored higher on measures of verbal intelligence. Another study found professional comedians scored higher than average on measures of verbal intelligence.

8. They're sensitive to other people's experiences.

Smart people can "almost feel what someone is thinking/feeling,"says He.

Some psychologists argue that empathy, being attuned to the needs and feelings of others and acting in a way that is sensitive to those needs, is a core component of emotional intelligence. Emotionally intelligent individuals are typically very interested in talking to new people and learning more about them.