My theory--call it the “Oakley effect”--is that really smart people often don’t know how to accept and react constructively to criticism. (A neuroscientist might say they “have underdeveloped neurocircuitry for integrating negatively valenced stimuli.”) This is because smart people are whizzes at problems that only need one person to figure out. Indeed, people are evaluated from kindergarten through college prep SATs on the basis of such “single solver” problems. If you are often or nearly always right with these kinds of problems, your increased confidence in your own abilities would be accompanied by an inadvertent decrease in your capacity to deal with criticism. After all, your experience would have shown that your critics were usually wrong.
But most large-scale societal issues are not single solver problems. They are so richly complex that no single person can faultlessly teach him or herself all the key concepts, which are often both contradictory and important. Yes, smart people have an advantage in dealing with such problems, because they’ve got natural brain-power that allows them to hold many factors in mind at once, bringing formidable problem-solving skills to bear. But smart people have a natural disadvantage, too: they’re not used to changing their thinking in response to criticism when they get things wrong.
In fact, natural smarties--the intellectual elite--often don’t seem to learn the art of soliciting the criticism necessary to grasp the core issues of a complex problem, and then making vital adaptations as a result. Instead, they fall in naturally with people who admire, rather than are critical, of their thinking. This further strengthens their conviction they are right even as it distances them from people of very different backgrounds who grasp very different, but no less crucial aspects of complex problems. That’s why the intellectual elite is often branded by those from other groups as out of touch.