Intelligent characters and the “brains vs brawn” fallacy

There’s a huge audience for stories that involve characters who solve problems using wit and intelligence rather than force and physical strength, particularly in written fiction. Part of this, I suspect, has to do with the fact that the audience for written fiction mainly consists of people who enjoy and spend time reading books, which is usually seen as an intellectual pursuit. People who read books for entertainment are usually the kind of people who identify more with Bruce Banner than with Hulk. We’d like to solve our problems by being clever and adroit, rather than transforming into a giant green monster and solving our problems by smashing them.

We have an easier time empathizing with characters who are like us, and a story about character who solves problems using the same skills that we possess feels validating. The issue is that there are a lot of situations where Hulk is better at solving problems than Bruce Banner, and if you want to construct a story where every problem can be solved with wit (and no problem can be better solved with brute force), then you’re going to have to warp the events (and sometimes the logic) of the story in the service of that goal, because that’s not always the way the real world works. And a lot of times, this has the effect of making stories more about using a very narrow idea of intelligence, rather than actual approaching problems rationally.

One of my favorite examples of this comes from a scene in the movie Sneakers (a delightful 1992 thriller and heist movie about cryptography and espionage) where Robert Redford’s character goes to steal a cipher device from a researcher’s office. After socially engineering himself past the front desk, he finds his caper brought to a halt when the door to the office is protected with an electronic keypad. He radios the guys in the surveillance van and says, “Anybody remember how to defeat an electronic keypad?” Because this is a thriller about computers and cryptography, we expect them to come up with some kind of backdoor solution to breaking this lock, the cyberpunk equivalent of “recite this magical incantation and the lock will open for you.” The audience waits in tense silence as Robert listens to the voice of the computer guys speaking into his earpiece and mutters to himself, “Alright, that might work.” And then he takes a step back and kicks down the door.

This is what actual intelligent problem-solving actually looks like. In this scene, the crew identifies the fact that when snooping around in an old academic research building, it’s easier to kick an old wooden door off its hinges than to try and defeat an electronic keypad. They do the smart thing, which in this case is to use physical force. And I (and most viewers) are delighted by this moment, in part because you see the thought process behind it: Robert Redford encounters a problem, asks the computer guys to solve it for him, and they realize that real problem is not “How do I hack this electronic keypad,” but “How do I get to what’s on the other side of this door.” This moment of hesitation is important, because if he had just marched up to the door and kicked it down without taking the time to consider the optimal solution, he would feel less like a smooth operator executing the perfect heist, and more like a Jack Bauer who just charges into situations and resolves them with force.

It can be easy for stories to fall into the trap of breaking things down into a dichotomy of “brains vs brawn,” as if any energy spent doing physical tasks subtracts from the energy that would otherwise power your brain, but in fact a lot of the times the smartest thing to do is to punch the bad guy, or kick down the door.

The dichotomy of “brain vs brawn” suggests that these two are somehow mutually exclusive, and it feels like an example of a common fallacy where people see real-life skills and talents like some kind of tabletop RPG stat sheet where you have a finite number of points to distribute, which means that any points invested into things like charisma and strength necessarily subtract from stats like wisdom and intelligence. In reality, “talent” is not an evenly distributed thing; at best, it seems like athleticism and intellect are orthogonal, as plenty of people seem to have both in great abundance. (At my high school, the class valedictorian was also a star player on the high school baseball team.) There are also lots of smart people who have realized that investing time in their health and fitness is a smart use of their time, and usually the most fit people are the ones who treat optimizing their health as a worthwhile undertaking. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that physical fitness and mental performance are positively correlated in a number of ways: for example, cardiovascular health affects brain function, and so engaging in physical exercise increases your mental fitness, rather than draining away a finite number of stat points from intelligence to boost your physique.

Kicking down the door may be intelligent, but it does not always live up to the romantic ideal of intelligence, which is less about actually making the best choice in any given situation, and more about believing “reading books is a better use of your time than sports, scientists are always better at solving problems and winning conflicts than linebackers.” This partly feels a bit like concession to the fact that the crowd of people who read for recreation tend to be the same kind of people who spent much of their youth indoors reading books rather than flipping tires on the football field, and people like reading stories that serve and flatter their own sensibilities. But to be charitable to this line of thinking, it is true in the aggregate that people who engage in intellectual pursuits tend to do better: education is correlated with things like higher income, longer lifespan, most of the things that we’d define as “higher quality of life,” and more generally, “winning.” The issue is when you take that general idea (“the person who had a good SAT score tends to have a better life outcome than the person who spent high school playing sports associated with head trauma”) and try to apply it universally to every situation, you wind up in bizarre situations where people would rather try to hack the keypad instead of kick down the door.

The convenient thing about fiction is that the author can simply fail to introduce the sort of problems that would be best solved by a well-placed kick. (If you want to have a story about hacking the electronic keypad lock, just make the door out of some kind of reinforced material that can’t easily be kicked down.) In fact, it’s possible for an author to create an entire setting based on the idea that people who are more intelligent (here defined as “reading lots of books”) always win. I suspect that a major reason why “kid goes to wizard school” is so popular as a trope of fantasy that is that it’s essentially created a genre where studying and reading books makes you more capable of dealing with violent conflict. In general, bookish and studious people rarely intersect with violence, and when they do they tend to find their skills poorly matched for dealing with violent conflict, but a wizard school setting allows for a logically consistent story about a character who is a brainy academic who also solves their conflicts with with superior force. In this case, we don’t have to choose between being Bruce Banner or being the Hulk. The wizard doesn’t have to trade their intelligence for strength; the wizard becomes a powerful combatant by burying their nose in books.

The issue with a character who solves their problem just by studying is that when they acquire that skill and then apply it to solve a problem, they’re not really demonstrating intelligence, they’re demonstrating expertise. The wizard’s power appears to be the triumph of brain over brawn, but this is true only in the most superficial sense of what is meant by “brains.” A wizard who defeats his enemies by throwing fireballs at them is not really showcasing his intelligence, even if his method for learning to throw fireballs involved reading a lot of books.

Intelligence is powerful because it transcends expertise within a single domain. It’s also narratively useful, because it would feel unrealistic for a character to be an expert on every single problem that they encounter. You can mitigate this somewhat by creating a story about an ensemble cast of experts who are capable of dealing with anything that comes at them (which is the level on which heist stories like Sneakers operate), but there’s something about the ability to solve a problem in a simple and elegant way that just sings to us, precisely because it bypasses the need for expertise. You could spend hundreds of hours studying this field to become expert enough to overcome problems in the conventional way, or you could be clever, think outside the box, redefine the problem into terms that you’re equipped to deal with, and kick down the door.

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