Street Smarts vs. Book Smarts (part 1 of 2)

66. Even though I usually get in the 99th percentile in standardized tests (both academic and IQ), I don’t believe in standardized tests. At all. They don’t measure anything except for how well the participant can study for them. Believe me, I’ve boosted my scores by hundreds of points at a time without increasing my intelligence or scholarly aptitude in any way. This, of course, means that No Child Left Behind was based on a false premise. Sorry nation’s youth.

I have a secret. I don’t think street smarts exist. I think people came up with that concept to show that smart people can’t be smart about everything. I think they saw some sort of lack of ‘common sense’ among really smart people and came up with a way of describing this: the titular ‘street smarts’

These come up fairly frequently when I tell people that I’m going to go for my Ph.D. Somehow, this triggers an association and, sure enough, they end up saying some bull like, “well, I think book smarts are okay, but street smarts are what is important.”

To wit: a few days ago, my friend Daniel and his girlfriend Ana started talking to me about street smarts. And, seeing as I was really interested in what the phrase even meant, I started arguing with them (type 2). These were their positions:

  • Daniel seemed to think that street smarts were a way of analyzing things such that you would think of a quick or easy way of doing something that was unfamiliar. He seemed to believe it was something that could not be learned and had to be innate. He saw no contradiction in a person’s possessing both street smarts and book smarts.
  • Ana believed that street smarts required a form of physical action and involved a sense of resourcefulness. She felt that people with ‘street smarts’ would generally not be educated and gave the example of orphans or street children that grow up learning to hustle tourists. Though reluctant, eventually she admitted she saw no contradiction in a person’s possessing both street smarts and book smarts.
  • Both gave the example of a person surviving out in the woods alone using only their wits. They also both gave the example of opening up the hood of a strange car and finding out what was wrong with it.1

To me, the differences were irreconcilable. Daniel’s definition seemed to be what I would consider intelligence and Ana’s would be what I would consider learned resourcefulness. Both seemed to have something to do with common sense and no correlative association with book smarts, which we soon defined as general trivia or particular knowledge. This may have been a bit of confirmation bias, but I left unconvinced that the term ‘street smarts’ had any value.

If by ‘street smarts’ one just wishes to contrast ‘book smarts,’ why not just say that knowledge alone does not make someone intelligent? If ‘street smarts’ means common sense, then why not just say that? Ditto for resourcefulness. There seems to be nothing left for ‘street smarts’ to refer to that’s not better expressed with another word.

No, instead I think that street smarts are a subtle way to suggest that there is a high degree of correlation between being intellectual about abstract concepts and lacking wits to survive in the concrete world. Otherwise, why would there even need to be a term for it? And why is it always used in contrast to another made up term: book smarts. It’s not true that intellectualness and everyday wits are mutually exclusive, obviously. But as a direct result of this unspoken assumption, people use the term with abandon. As well they should: I’ve never heard anyone take offense.

Not that I’m saying that people that feel they lack ‘book smarts’ are stupid, far from it! I actually think that knowledge and intelligence have a very low degree of correlation. I don’t assume that somebody doesn’t know how to change their oil simply because they’re a professor, but neither would I assume that from a person that works at In-N-Out Burgers.

Stay tuned for Daniel’s response tomorrow.

p.s. Here’s an idea for a good recipe for a Spinach-Artichoke dip.

p.p.s. Today is the National Day of Reason, so take off your aluminum hats, topple a pyramid scheme, and thank a scientist for life-saving cancer fighting bacon candy.

p.p.p.s. How many common words can you name? I got 44.

(Editor’s note:  Part Two can be found here.)

  1. I hope you guys appreciate these three paragraphs. It took me three hours to decipher that they were talking about different things and what each meant by them. []


  1. I only got 48. When I saw the ones I didn’t get, I was like, damn I’m stupid.

    I guess I don’t have book smarts.

    I always thought people used the term “street smarts” to make themselves (or others) feel better about themselves. Like a backlash to school making you feel like an idiot. But then they go out of their way to say you can only have one or the other (book/street smarts), but you can’t have both. I did well in school, so apparently that meant I lacked common sense. This made no sense to me. That’s like saying people who can do math can’t find their way around a city. Completely illogical. But what can you expect from people who lack book smarts?

    Daniel seems to be talking about fluid intelligence. I read an article yesterday (can’t find it) that talked about new studies showing this type of intelligence (the kind you use to reason and come up with things on your own…bad explanation on my part) can be exercised and increased.

    Also, surviving in the woods could rely on book smarts. If someone is familiar with plantlife and knows what to eat and what not to, how is that not “book smarts”?

    I do think there are different types of intelligence, and a lot of time people confuse intelligence or lack of it with other character or personality traits. But I don’t think it’s split into book vs street smarts.

  2. I think it takes a certain kind of intelligence to be able to learn and remember things and another kind to be able to function in the real world. Call that common sense if you like, but I definitely think there’s a difference. And while I do think it is possible for someone to possess both, it’s been my experience that that type of person is very rare.

  3. Laura,

    I got 48 the second time I took it, which doesn’t bode well for my ability to increase my score.


    I think I agree fully with you. There are different types of intelligence. Talking in these particular terms only serves to obfuscate matters.


    Yes, yes I am. 😛


    See that’s the thing: I want to agree with you, but I think the ‘function in the real world’ is a very vague concept that I’m not sure I understand. Perhaps it’s common sense, but I tend to think you mean something else by it. And it’s been my experience that it’s rare for people to possess either.

  4. a) obviously i’ve fallen very behind on keeping up with your blog.
    b) nice post. sometimes i wish i liked THINKING as much as you do.
    C)* my first shot on the common words was 48. i played again and again till i could finally remember more than 70. that means nothing except that i must have been VERY bored…
    *the C is capitalized because it stands for COURTNEY. Of course.

  5. Both terms are way to general, everyone has there own interpretation of the two, but I believe that street smart does exist. I agree with the idea that street smart’s are a type common sense, but to add it’s the ability read people, and deal with people. Knowledge based on experience or the capability of others.

    still staying pretty general….
    Street smart is knowledge from live experience or use of knowledge during a live experience
    Book smart is knowledge from experience that you read or facts the have been figured and recorded, and being able to use or recite.

  6. I’ve heard this saying my whole life, but I’ve never actually MET one of these supposedly common, book-smart-yet-dumb people. Yesterday, I witnessed a gaggle of remedial students agree with the phrase, though, with a surprising amount of enthusiasm.

    So I decided to Google it… yep. Nerds are socially awkward and don’t know how to punch hard and sometimes they do things like lock their keys in their cars. (“See! They’re actually IDIOTS! We’re the smart ones!”)

    So, it’s pretty simple. “Street smarts” means whatever will make the ignorant person feel better about themselves. They’re the people who invented the phrase, after all.

    I could post the cognitive bias terms for it here and all, but I’ve undoubtedly already been written off as a stupid bookworm. Ah, well.

  7. get a life 🙄 !!! like seriusly u wrote like 8000000 paragraphs 🙄 !!!!!!!! 💡 [i hav an idea] GET A LIFE
    p.s alexis isnt my real name

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