I ran a little thought experiment on Twitter the other day and it received quite a big response, so I thought that it would be fun to extend it to here.

So, imagine that you have the power to make a child either smart or pleasant, but not both. Which would you choose?

Vote now in one of the two polls now and feel free to justify your answer as a comment!


  1. As a teacher , I’d rather have nice but dim children over clever but nasty. Less abuse that way round!

  2. I’m a female and I chose pleasant. Hate to say this but in society today, there are plenty of smart people asround so unless you are exceptionally smart or a genius you’d be just as smart as the next person.

    If people see you as pleasant that means you’re likeable and will probably attract a lot of “friends”, acquaintance and gets you noticed. It’s all tested and proven in anything nowadays from job interviews, business everything it’s not all about how good you are anymore but about who you know.

  3. Pleasant, because while intelligence is very important to finding success in life, it’s even more important to be able to work cooperatively in harmony with others.

    Besides being a paradigmatically intelligent species, we’re just as uniquely social, and it’s this social nature that has made us so successful.

    So, where one can solve many problems with wit alone, they can solve many more by cooperating with others. In doing so, they can achieve success and happiness, and reduce the amount of conflict in their environment, which improves the success and happiness of others.

    Which is not to understate the importance of intelligence, of course.

    1. Well put. I might add that from a life’s success point of view, even in very intellectually challenging fields, being smart alone is overrated. There is certainly a threshold of smarts required for success, but that baseline isn’t as high as people believe. What is more important is the willingness to work hard to achieve well-framed goals.

  4. I reckon you could teach most children to a achieve a certain standard, given enough time. I don’t think you could nurture a bad kid enough to 100% remove unpleasantness.

  5. If you are really smart you are likely to also be pleasant as you would understand the advantages this brings and the disadvantages associated with being unpleasant. I don’t think the question has to set up a dichotomy between pleasant/ not smart and unpleasant/ smart. I think then that by choosing intelligence stand a better chance of having a child that is both smart and pleasant (as they would understand both the advantages being pleasant brings and also how to achieve this) where as pleasant is may not have the capacity to significantly improve their intellect (although it would be fair to say that they would be likely to get more quality time from adults and peers who can scaffold learning experiences for them). This view rests on the assumption that Richard’s definition of intelligence encompasses inter and intra personal aspects of functioning and that intelligence is less malleable than being pleasant (supported in part by the relative stability of IQ over time evident in research).

    1. If a question is phrased “smart or pleasant, but not both.” Therefor, it can be phrased as “Smart but not pleasant” or “pleasant but not smart.”

    2. soonerdvm is logically correct. However, there is some interpretation involved whether to interpret “not smart” to be “stupid” (for example, “average intelligence” is neither smart nor stupid) and whether to interpret “not pleasant” as “unpleasant” (someone of a neutral or ambivalent disposition may be neither pleasant nor unpleasant).

    3. “If you are really smart you are likely to also be pleasant as you would understand the advantages this brings and the disadvantages associated with being unpleasant.”

      Not necessarily, honestly. I know at least one extremely intelligent person who is often very, very unpleasant. It’s likely this person has undiagnosed Asperger’s, explaining the seeming lack of understanding social cues that leads to (unintentional?) unpleasantness.

      On the other hand, and to assure you I’m not trying to box people, one of the most intelligent, most lovely/pleasant people I know was actually diagnosed with Asperger’s.

      Everything’s a continuum with infinite variety.

    4. @ soonerdvm and TDG- The question was about ‘choice’ between the two (smart or pleasant), so it is true you cannot choose both- I was just stating that having made a choice there is nothing within the question that prevents the other being true, either by chance or by virtue of the choice made. That was the point I made above, that by chosing intellect that one had a better grounding on which to be pleasant. Of course you can’t choose both based on the phrasing in the question above but you can certainly choose one and then speculate what the implications may be for the other category. I understood the question to be if you could only ensure one or the other (and have no control over the category you did not select and this could be determined by chance or influenced by your choice) what would you choose.

      @ Buck D. I agree entirely and all I was doing was suggesting that if we move beyond defining intellect narrowly as book smart or academic (I am not saying you are only that these may be taken as examples of what a narrow view of intellect is) to encompass a broader range of skills that include the precursors of pleasantness (i.e. intra and interpersonal awareness) then by choosing ‘intelligence’ we can be optimistic (but not certain) that they may also be pleasant.

  6. Being pleasant is more likely to give you a happy life than being smart. I chose pleasant on the basis that they’re still smart enough to hold down a reasonable job so won’t be under financial stress.

  7. The world works faster and more unpleasantly if people were only smart yet slower and more happily if all were pleasent. hence I would choose pleasent every time.

  8. Utterly horrible poll. “If you had the power to eliminate hunger or disease, which would you do?” “If you had the power to eliminate crime or famine…”

    In all such polls, the only answer that *anyone* would give is “both, and to hell with anyone who wants to force me to choose between them”

    1. Not so. Once you’ve eliminated hunger, you’ll need some way to prevent overpopulation. Hunger is more unpleasant than disease, so I’d eliminate hunger (and arrange medical care for the ill). Eliminate both, and you’ll soon have a planet that consists solely of a large pile of humans.

      Although crime or famine is a fairly impossible one, I must admit.

    2. Forced choice is a common tool in psychology. It’s not meant literally but as a gauge of relative preferences. Almost everyone would choose both, or some degree of both, if given the option.

  9. I think maybe a few people need to step down off their soap boxes. It is a hypothetical question. I don’t think wiseman is actually going to set this up in reality.it’s just a simple poll which doesn’t have a sanctimonious third option.

  10. I very very reluctantly chose pleasant. If the choice were between “pretty” and “smart” I would have chosen “smart” without a moment’s doubt.

    However, if the child is “smart (but not pleasant),” that is not going to be a happy person. I think Greg House from the TV show “House” is probably an excellent example of someone who is smart but not pleasant. And he (while fictional), is a miserable and unhappy man.

    “Pleasant, but not smart,” is someone who can (and probably will) have a pleasant life. Pleasant implies likability, and likeability implies friends, love, a support system… Perhaps not able to discuss quantum physics, but happy.

    And happy is the one thing I want more than anything else for my child.

  11. If my baby is smart, he/she can learn how to become pleasant. If he/she is pleasant but not smart, it’s difficult to learn how to become smart.

    It would be selfish of me to choose a baby that’s pleasant, because it would just benefit other people and not him/her.

  12. Voted on female by mitake first please reduce the smart vot by one. Sorry. Also smart if my kid becouse i would want the best for them bus smart for someone elses as it dose not nessisaril come with morrals and it is the smart that have the biggest influence on others.

  13. So sad…

    I’ve chosen “smart and ugly” because I think that’s not so bad, instead “pleasant and stupid” is unbearable.

    Also 50% is unbearable.

  14. I haven’t voted at all. It reminds me of a film scene when a Greek mayor is asked by a Nazi officer to kill a few rebels himself or otherwise the whole village would be wiped out.

    Or following Ayn Rand’s line of thought, how can you make a choice at the point of a gun?

    So, having the power to make someone either this or that, I’d choose neither.

    1. It’s not actually a moral dilemma. It’s not prescriptive. It’s a simple way of gauging preferences in a hypothetical trade-off.

  15. I’m female and chose smart.

    Because if my life were on the line, I’d rather Gregory House was at my bedside than Stuart Smalley.

    And as someone above said, you could always (at least try to) teach them to be pleasant.

  16. Smart, because that’s the one thing that makes the world a bit less chaotic and more beautiful and understandable. Lacking either will lead to suffering, but ‘pleasant’ has a wider range of interpretations. I’m not that good at social behaviour for the sake of being social, so I don’t think I’d be classed as ‘pleasant’, but my friends seem to find me pleasant enough.
    In other words, while the social awkwardness that comes with my autism is not a nice thing, I don’t think I’d trade in my intelligence for social skills. I like it too much.

    Oh, and I’m female.

  17. To maximise benefit to child – Pleasant.
    To maximise benefit to future humans – Smart.
    I picked Pleasant and gave my hypothetical child a happy fulfilled life full of friends and niceness *.

    * Unfair and unrealistic generalisations may have been applied.

  18. It might be more interesting to split the poll into “I am more pleasant than smart and I’d rather…” and “I am more smart than pleasant and I’d rather…” instead of male and female.

    1. Glad to oblige.
      After a bit of thought I’ll make my sprog smart and everyone else’s peasants pleasant.

  19. This reminds me of a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald, in “The Great Gatsby”.

    “All right… I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool–that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”

  20. I think my mother ticked the ‘smart’ box. Having reviewed my life, I wish that she had chosen the ‘pleasant’ option.

  21. Elwood P. Dowd, the main (but not the eponymous) character in the film “Harvey” had this to say:

    ‘Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, “In this world, Elwood, you must be” – she always called me Elwood – “In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.’

    I happen to disagree, actually, but that’s probably because I’m more smart than pleasant!

  22. Rather not make a child at all, but given the choices above, I’d go for smart. It should be intelligent enough to know how to behave in various situations – or better still – smart enough to amuse itself when I leave it to its own devices.

    1. The question does not indicate that this is your own child — you can make ‘a’ child either smart or pleasant, not ‘your’ child. Make refers to the smart or pleasant bit, not to the child.

  23. As a male, I can’t help but believe that the financial crash these past years, the destruction of the environment and many others are created by smart unpleasant people. I believe we have enough smart people in the world; it would be nice to have more pleasant people. (and in response to someone who else who claims that “he will be smart enough to know when to be pleasant” – I believe the correct statement was “when to pretend to be pleasant”)

    1. Would you feel differently about the crash(es) if you were female? I’m inclined to disagree, I suspect that most of the people who shaped our current situation are very pleasant and highly adept networkers, who are doing their jobs as they see them. They’re also dragging us further and further up shit creek, like a tug boat from a billionaires shipyard. Because they’re continuing to do their jobs. Mostly they probably reckon the effect it’s having on the rest of us is our fault for not being as prepared as them. Perhaps I’ll let the next banker I care for hang his own damn IV’s…

      Anyway I’m male and I favour smart, at least it’ll be interesting!

  24. It seems like some people are assuming that the smart kid will be unpleasant, but the pleasant person will be of average intelligence. For fairness we should assume either a low or an average value of the other attribute in both cases. So either:

    Smart person, average pleasantness
    Pleasant person, average intelligence


    Smart person, unpleasant
    Pleasant person, stupid.

    If you assume that the smart option includes unpleasantness, then you should also assume that the pleasant option includes stupidity.

  25. I guess it depends on the degree of unpleasantness and the degree of stupidity. Are we talking “annoying kid” or “future serial killer”? Are we assuming “A little dim” or “completely unable to function without help”?

  26. Can anyone name someone who has changed the world by being pleasant? Progressive intelligence is necessary for us to evolve as a species.

  27. My eldest is really pleasant and I am always being told what a lovely, helpful, friendly child she is who looks after all the little ones. My son on the other hand is very smart, but has major problems conforming, he hits out and children and adults and is always being restrained and sent home from school, life is a circus of hospital app, parenting courses, behaviour management etc.
    So give me pleasant over smart any day!!

  28. I voted for smart because I think intelligence is more important in the long run for life satisfaction.

    However, it is not an easy choice. I am a mother of two children. Both are currently teens. One is very smart but not very pleasant (socially-isolated egghead) and one is very pleasant but not as smart (popular jock). In fact, the jock has no interest in anything intellectual.

    I suspect the isolated egghead is less happy as a teen than the popular jock — in fact, he envies the pleasant one’s ease with the social world whereas the jock feels somewhat inadequate intellectually compared to his older brother. The very smart one is quite isolated with only a couple friends, while the very pleasant one has a small army of friends and is always in demand.

    It’s a real hard thing to see your child struggle with popularity and social acceptance due to his nerdiness and geekiness. One can only hope that the very smart one finds his niche and is contented in the long run and that the very pleasant one finds meaning in life beyond social popularity. Neither is guaranteed.

  29. If a child is smart by nature you need to challenge that child and nurture that intelligence. If you don’t they become bored and fail to learn to deal basic lessons in life like how to face a real challenge because childhood is too easy. Once that damage is done, the pleasantness you tried to impart will go away.

  30. When you say you can “make a child either smart or pleasant, but not both”, do you mean you can ensure that the child is one, and it may or may not be the other, or do you mean you can choose which the child is, and it definitely won’t be the other? Because that might affect my answer.

  31. Tim Dean wrote several comments above:

    “It’s not actually a moral dilemma. It’s not prescriptive. It’s a simple way of gauging preferences in a hypothetical trade-off.”

    Well, I can’t agree to this. Hypothetical trade-off it would be if it didn’t concern a child, but a total stranger. Otherwise, even while gauging theoretical preferences, the feelings are involved, and especially here when there are two factors at play:
    – the choice is related to a child, presumably one’s own child,
    – and the dillema is forced to be a win-lose outcome.

    So, it is far from hypothetical trade-off, but pulls the inner emotional strings of people, especially of those who have children.

    1. How is it not hypothetical? I’d argue that it has no basis in reality (you won’t be able to magically make a child either smart or pleasant, and you’re aware of this), therefore it is a hypothetical situation.
      And anyway, who says the child has to be related to you? It says ‘a’ child, not ‘your’ child. And I don’t see why a situation involving a child is more emotional than one involving an adult — the impact on an adult’s life may be even larger, as you’d literally change their personality, while with the child you’re just choosing the personality they’d grow up with.

      By the way, for future reference, there’s a link above every comment, next to the timestamp, that says ‘Reply’. If you click that, you can respond directly to the comment you want to respond to. If you’re responding to a threaded comment (a reply to a comment), you reply to the top comment and yours will appear downthread from the one you’re replying to.

    2. “pulls the inner emotional strings of people, especially of those who have children.”

      Perhaps that’s precisely the intuition it’s trying to probe?

      For readers of such an enlightened blog, I’m a bit startled at the negative reaction towards a very common scientific tool.

    3. Thank you for your comments. For me, the thinking faculty is highly correlated with the feeling faculty. Just by reading almost every comment here, I can notice emotional movements and references to the real world.

      Now, I’d argue that a word “make” in the puzzle doesn’t imply “magically make” or at instant. The puzzle doesn’t state any timeframe for “making”.

      So, in the same way as some people (like Susan, a few comments above) by “a child” immediately mean “their own children”, you have associated a word “make” with “magically make”.

      Therefore, my argument for emotional basis of this scientifc tool still stands 🙂

      On the other hand, I see no reason why should be no opposition to a common scientific tool. If the Stanford experiment was to be repeated today, it would produce different results. I’d argue that a noticeable number of people would refuse to take part in it on different stages.

      As religion lost its power over people some time ago, recent exposures of a bias conduct of some scientists due to political or business reasons, undermine trust in science. Although, most people don’t care about it anyway which is sad.

    4. I don’t see how you could ‘make’ someone smart or pleasant in any other way than by magical intervention. Genetic manipulation can’t do that yet, and genetic manipulation of human fetii is frowned upon, anyway. As both intelligence and propensity for social skills are rooted in the structure of the brain, they’re not really teachable. I mean, you can teach a not very intelligent person some mnemonic tricks, but you’re unlikely to raise their IQ. And you can teach a person with autism social skills, but they will remain learned rather than instinctive (in my experience, anyway). So the if you’re changing the innate ability to be either intelligent or social, you’re making a magical change, yes.

      I think that’s a more reasonable assumption than to think ‘a’ child means ‘your’ child.

    5. Without arguing further, I’d like to point out that the author of the puzzle is Richard Wiseman who writes in his book “59 seconds” the following on page 81:

      “participants who opened the wallets containing the photograph of the baby couldn’t prevent their brains automatically responding to the image of big eyes, broad forehead and button nose. Within a fraction of a second a deep-seated evolutionary mechanism had caused them rapidly to get in touch with their inner parent, become happier and more caring…”

      Just a have another look at what kind of picture is prominently placed in this blog message and then you can have some idea what was in his mind while preparing this puzzle. On one hand you’ve got a picture that automatically makes you happier and more caring, and on the other hand you are forced to make a ‘win-los’ choice.

      Well, I didn’t vote because I didn’t want to spoil my joy.


    6. How is smart or pleasant a win-lose choice? It’s a lose-lose choice really, as the child can’t be the other, and lacking either will cause sorrow.

      And I don’t see how that compares to people returning wallets with baby pictures in them. Not that I get that response, mind — babies are cute, sure, but you’re supposed to return any wallet. People without babies are equally affected by the loss of a wallet. Theft causes harm, that should be enough incentive.

  32. I chose “pleasant”, but if that also implies “dumb” and if “smart” implies also “rude”, the whole thing becomes unrealistic. I chose what I chose because I think a person who is well liked is better of than one that is smart and lonely. But as a post-grad science student I obviously value smart. Most smart people though are also pleasant. Intolerance and narrow-mindedness usually couples to the ignorant.

    I also wonder why you have to vote as “male” or “female”, another false binary. I’m physically male, but my gender identity is ambiguous, and it is that which matters here.

  33. Smart can be trained. Pleasant is more about personality, an attribute that pretty much the same all your life. So I chose pleasant. The kid can always get more schooling.

  34. I was initially leaning towards pleasant, but I immediately switched to smart when I realised I’d have to reveal my gender as well.

  35. “Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, “In this world, Elwood, you must be” – she always called me Elwood – “In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.”

    — Elwood P. Dowd

  36. Does a smart person not know that at times he MUST be pleasant? Unless he is arrogant, which is not defined in this problem. But if he is not pleasant, does that have to mean he is vulgar? Provocative? Abusive? Weird? Lonely? Driven? Sociopathic? There are many many many things to be and they all work on various levels. I’d rather children were smart so they could LEARN more easily or understand better what is expected of them and how to succeed. Being pleasant is a skill that can be developed or at the very least faked temporarily. Being smart is genetic.

    1. Neither of these things is entirely genetic. The nature/nurture question is a false dichotomy. Ability is potential x environment.

    2. I take pleasant to mean socially skilled, which is an instinct most people are born with. I don’t have that social instinct due to my autism, so I’d consider myself to be in the ‘smart but not pleasant’ category. I do have friends who like me, mind, but in general, I don’t know whether I’m being pleasant or annoying. I have learned some rules to avoid annoyance (look at people’s faces, don’t talk a lot, smile when they do, avoid certain topics, don’t cringe when they make loud noises, don’t be too physical, etcetera), but it makes social interaction quite tiring and stressful (as I can’t usually tell when people are getting annoyed, so to me, it feels like they can randomly get angry with me any minute). So yeah, I can fake social skills to some extent, but I’ll never be very good at them.

      I’d still pick intelligence, though. I’d be lost without my capacity for reason and analysis. I think the world must be a scary place if you can’t at least partially understand it.

  37. I’m a female and I voted “pleasant.”

    I think any loving parent has as their biggest hope for their child that they be happy. I hope for my future child that they have good character and treat others kindly. When you behave that way, the world treats you better. I’d rather raise a kind, pleasant child of average intelligence than a tortured genius.

    (I think it’s relevant to mention that I’ve generally been considered smart. I graduated high school at 14, got straight As in college, blah blah. I’ve known what it’s like to be smart, and I’ve known what it’s like to be pleasant, and if I could pick only one, frankly I would pick pleasant.)

  38. I’m a female and I choose smart,
    a smart persona might learn no te pleasant, although the other way around it isn’t so evident to me.

  39. This is quite a difficult question because everyone has their own assumptions on what being pleasant includes and what being smart includes. And lot of people seem to assume that a smart child will learn to be pleasant, which i don’t really agree with, because its a personality characteristic and i think it can only be changed so much. However i do think that a pleasant child could learn to be of average intelligence, ive known alot of people that have been naturally smart and learn quickly and get great grades easily, and others that work alot harder and get half decent grades.

  40. I would rather sit down with a smart kid of either gender and have a deep conversation about Transformers than a pleasantly dim kid who doesn’t know a Cybertronian from Lightning McQueen.

  41. Smart….
    Being pleasant is momentary (yes, taking this with us each moment is a big success)
    Being smart… a qualitative, permanent change in the baby (he’ll find his own way to become pleasant 😉

  42. I do not want of this POWER of making him pleasant or smart but not both! In the right, nuturing environment, a child becomes himself, which is far better than me making him turn into someone he is not.

  43. A pleasant child will be trusted, a smart but unpleasant one won’t be. And by the terms of the test here, a smart one will be necessarily unpleasant, but the pleasant one may not necessarily be dumb.

  44. thing is, it does not say its my child, so i would go for pleasant, since i would gain nothing from a random child being smart, except of maybe being better qualified for a job than my children.

    if instead i make it pleasant, my children would maybe meet him and one could arrange play-dates.

    – timme

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: