Forum

Effects of intellectual prejudices may pervade colleges

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“Flowers for Algernon” by David Keyes is a fascinating short story. Besides the fact that it is poignant story and a great social commentary on how everyone, without exclusions, deserves the right to live, it also brings to light some of the subconscious biases that people have and how that influences their behavior. The protagonist of the book, Charlie, is “developmentally disabled” man who is mistreated and mocked by his family and co-workers. He undergoes an operation to “increase his IQ” as a part of a science experiment, which has repercussions on his social and emotional life.

I believe the fact that his intellect decides how people treat him is of special interest. He faces social prejudice based on his intellect, which acts as grounds for an “intellect based social divide.” Unfortunately, this divide also exists outside of fiction, and even at Carnegie Mellon.

Prejudices refer to baseless beliefs that one person might hold against another person based on social class (classism), race (racism), sex (sexism), physical attractiveness (lookism), or other factors. One such factor might be the perceived “smartness” of a person by society. It is a subtle bias, and may not be applicable to everyone, but, hypothetically speaking, intellect can serve as a classifier of sorts. People may not belong in the categories that someone assigns them, but these external categories can still have effects.

Not everyone subconsciously types the people around them, but I speculate about the possible existence of an unnoticed bias. The most obvious way that people perceive someone else’s intelligence is through their IQ, their academic or extracurricular achievements, and the kinds of things that they speak about. Even with those characteristics, how do people relate that to themselves? Is being smart defined as a person being able to do things the observer cannot do, or is it when a person can do things the observer can do, only better? If the former case is true in college life then, broadly speaking, people of very different disciplines would consider each other to be smarter. If it is the latter case, then they would consider some of their peers to be smarter than they are. Either way, this perception influences the social life of college students in terms of their social circles, their confidence, and, perhaps, even their performance.

What does it mean to be on either end of the spectrum? Based on the behavior demonstrated by other biases, being on the lower end of the spectrum is definitely an unwanted thing. In this case, being on the higher end may be disadvantageous too. It is even possible that a person seen by somebody else as smart may not be seen as smart by everyone.

This difference complicates the experience and the observation of this bias.

If one considers the social circle that a person has, one might even question the motives, the subconscious reason behind picking those particular people as a part of their lives. Can people be divided into three categories — first, the ones who pick friends “smarter” than them, second, those who pick friends “less smart” than them, and third, those who pick friends in the same category as them? If so, then what are the motives behind that? And what role can a university play in avoiding such a separation of intellectual relationships if they do exist? In a university like Carnegie Mellon, where it is hard to perceive someone as not smart, how does this bias affect power play in social relationships? All these questions often go unaddressed in our culture, and it is time to pull them into focus.

In addition, these perceptions are relative to oneself. To some extent the way we view ourselves and our confidence affects our perception of others’ abilities. The distinction between low, high and over confidence must play a role in the way we see ourselves in relation to others, thereby affecting our social circles.

This is the crux of this issue. College students, especially at Carnegie Mellon, are prone to feelings of low self-confidence. The workload and the sudden increase in a surrounding intellectual level, coupled with the feelings of inadequacy at “not being the best anymore” make many freshmen reevaluate their self-perceived capabilities. Here it becomes important to look at intellect as a bias, and understand how it affects people and what one can do to become more aware of it. Since this is a bias that is defined individually for a person and by a person, there is a need to better understand the social implications of this at personal level, which is the action that I ask the reader to take.