Signaling Genius

December 5, 2007

I wanted to write a post about how to form a community of geniuses, but it immediately occurred to me that the fundamental problem is how to find genuine geniuses (say that 5 times fast), and let them know that you too are genuine. That is a question of signaling, so I’ll talk about that instead.

We are wired through evolution to signal many things, especially availability to mate. We have ways of signaling group membership, but they are insufficient to signal genius because they are all superficial. For example, I can easily integrate with a clique of teenagers by being a teenager, dressing exactly like they do, and holding similar opinions about superficial topics. I could signal my availability to mate by playing with my hair and showing a potential mate my wrists. That’s easy.

Not so easy: how do I walk into a room and spot a genius? The short answer is that I can’t. The first issue is that there are no reliable, outward signs that a person is intelligent. There are signals that I can rely on to give me a statistic-level knowledge of a person — their mannerisms, their mode of dress, their vocabulary, and others. This level of knowledge is an acceptable heuristic for day-to-day interactions, but it can do nothing for uncovering an individual’s true nature. This works for mates (in an evolutionary sense) but not for geniuses because potential mates make up a significant proportion of the population and tend to behave similarly, whereas geniuses are rare and tend not to have common characteristics that reliably map only to genius (eccentric people might just be insane).

To complicate matters, there is motivation for other people to lie about their group membership. People “front” all the time for various reasons. Some people want to be a member of the “genius group” because they like the internal narrative it allows, and they want the social benefits (hah) of being considered wildly intelligent.

I would be lying if I said that I don’t catch myself “acting the part,” even under this veil of anonymity. “Why,” I ask myself, “would I still try to ‘sound smart’ if I cannot possibly derive any benefit from doing so?” I think it’s because I’m trying to signal — I’m putting a sign out front that says “Geniuses Enter Here.” And of course, just as I am skeptical of other people’s genius, those who visit here must be skeptical of mine, so I’m trying to prove my genius preemptively. Of course this isn’t very effective.

The way I personally try to signal genius, and decode incoming signals of genius is through conversation. I try to stay away from fluffing the actual words I use, and being susceptible to the fluff of other people. I am not always successful at either, but it’s something I strive for.

Even if I could strip down communication to the bare essentials in order to really evaluate the merit of a pure idea, when would the bulb flash on? What can be said that guarantees that the speaker is a genius? What attitudes can be held that do the same? Is conversation really a reliable signal of genius, or is it merely a method of finding people who agree with you that you can assume are geniuses thanks to confirmation bias?