Intelligence vs wisdom: How social class plays a bigger role than you may think

Back in 2019, the infamous ‘Operation Varsity Blues‘ news broke, highlighting how wealthy parents manipulated the college admissions process to secure places for their children in prestigious universities. 

The scandal showed how access to resources related to social class can distort perceptions of intelligence and merit.

Everywhere in the world, you’ll see other such variations of this. Wealthy families have access to so much more, while poorer families have to make do with the oftentimes weak public educational system. 

For me, this raised the question: does social class affect intelligence? Is there really a connection? 

Let’s explore the relationship between the two. 

Defining the terms

Before we really get into it, let’s first be clear about what we mean when we talk about ‘intelligence’ and ‘social class’. 

Intelligence isn’t just about who’s good at puzzles or who knows a lot of facts. It’s also about creativity, problem-solving and understanding people’s feelings.

‘Social class’ also isn’t just about how much money someone has. It’s more nuanced than that, as it also encompasses: 

  • Education
  • Profession
  • Income
  • Social and cultural capital 

That last one plays a huge role in it, as it refers to the social assets that promote social mobility beyond economic means. 

I’m talking about “who you know” (social connections) and “what you know” (tastes and cultural knowledge)…

…which as we all know by now, are what get us into certain social circles. 

How we see intelligence and social class: It’s all about perception

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that higher social class equates to higher intelligence

I, for one, had always seen my wealthier classmates as smarter and more savvy back in grade school all the way to high school. 

We often expect people to act a certain way because of their social class. This can make people act in ways that fit with these expectations, whether they’re true or not. 

This can affect people’s lives a lot, and it’s something we should try to challenge in our own thinking.

How does social class affect intelligence?

Studies have shown a correlation between social class and intelligence, particularly in terms of access to resources that can nurture intellectual development. 

That expensive private school education, those extra violin lessons, even those mind-expanding summer vacations—all these experiences can sharpen cognitive abilities.

That said, a new study posits an interesting theory: that yes, people from higher social classes might indeed be smarter owing to better access to resources, but people from lower social classes are wiser. 

In fact, the study showed that the lower your social class is, the higher you score on the wise reasoning scale. 

Unfortunately, IQ isn’t related to wise reasoning at all. But let’s be honest – intelligence can only get us so far. In the real world, where conflict is always present, being wise might be a more valuable trait. 

Can intelligence change your social class?

So, going back to intelligence, it’s not just social class that can affect intelligence. The reverse is true as well — intelligence can also affect social class

It’s why parents do everything they can to give their kids a solid education, after all. 

The higher your educational attainment, the better your job prospects will be and the higher you’ll move up in the world.  

That said, it’s not that straightforward in many cases. Social structures, systemic inequalities, and barriers often prevent many people from moving to a higher social class.

Which brings me to my next point…

What are the issues surrounding intelligence and social class?

As you can see, intelligence and social class exist in a delicate balance, each influencing the other in profound ways. 

But what happens when this balance is disrupted? What issues arise when external factors interfere with the natural interplay of intelligence and social class?

Education inequality

Disparities in access to quality education have been a long-standing issue. As I mentioned earlier, wealthy families often have more resources to invest in their children’s education, whether it’s private schooling, tutoring, or enrichment programs. 

Meanwhile, many public schools, especially those in underprivileged areas, struggle with insufficient funding and resources, which can limit their students’ academic achievement and, subsequently, their perceived intelligence.

Standardized testing

The role of standardized tests in measuring intelligence and determining opportunities (like college admissions) has also been a contentious issue. 

Critics argue that these tests are biased towards students from higher socio-economic backgrounds who have access to test preparation resources. Once again, this reinforces existing class divides.

The digital divide

As our world becomes increasingly digital, those without access to technology or the skills to use it effectively risk being left behind. 

This ‘digital divide’ can impact students’ academic achievement and later job prospects, further exacerbating social class disparities.

Never has this divide been more obvious than during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The impact of COVID-19 on education

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted and deepened existing educational inequalities. 

Many students from lower socio-economic backgrounds have faced challenges with remote learning, from lack of access to technology to insufficient learning support at home. 

These factors can negatively affect their educational achievement and, by extension, their future social class.

These are just a few of the many complex issues at the intersection of intelligence and social class. 

Addressing these issues will require a multifaceted approach, taking into account the many different factors that influence both intelligence and social class.

What about emotional intelligence?

newimagesize 2023 07 17T143506.646 Intelligence vs wisdom: How social class plays a bigger role than you may think

Now, let’s take a look at a different kind of intelligence that’s often overlooked but plays a crucial role in social mobility: emotional intelligence. 

Emotional intelligence, often abbreviated as EQ (Emotional Quotient), is the ability to understand, use, and manage our own emotions in positive ways to: 

  • Empathize with others 
  • Communicate effectively
  • Relieve stress
  • Overcome challenges 
  • Defuse conflict

Unlike traditional measures of intelligence, EQ focuses more on our ability to interact well with others and to manage and express our emotions healthily. 

It’s not about knowing the capital of every country or solving complex equations but understanding what makes us and the people around us tick.

Here’s why EQ matters when it comes to social class:

Career success

EQ plays a crucial role in the workplace. Employees with high EQ are better team players, leaders, and negotiators, making them more likely to succeed and climb the career ladder. 

In fact, some studies suggest that EQ might be a better predictor of success than traditional measures of intelligence, especially in leadership roles.

Networking and relationships

Building strong networks and relationships is a critical part of social mobility, and it’s here that EQ shines. 

People with high EQ are typically better at building and maintaining relationships, understanding others’ needs and perspectives, and responding empathetically.


Life is full of challenges, and it’s often our ability to deal with and overcome these challenges that determine our path in life. 

Those with high EQ tend to have better coping mechanisms and can bounce back from adversity more quickly. 

The result? They can maintain or improve their social standing despite obstacles.

So, while we often focus on academic intelligence when we talk about social class, emotional intelligence is just as important, if not more so. 

And the good news? While there’s some debate about how much we can increase our basic intelligence, EQ can be learned and improved throughout life. Now that’s a class act!

The bottom line

The relationship between intelligence and social class is a tricky one. It’s full of twists and turns and isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. 

But one thing’s for sure: we need to be careful about our own biases and remember that everyone has a lot of potential, no matter their social class. 

Did you like my article? Like me on Facebook to see more articles like this in your feed.

Picture of Tina Fey

Tina Fey

I've ridden the rails, gone off track and lost my train of thought. I'm writing for Ideapod to try and find it again. Hope you enjoy the journey with me.

Enhance your experience of Ideapod and join Tribe, our community of free thinkers and seekers.

Related articles

Most read articles

Get our articles

Ideapod news, articles, and resources, sent straight to your inbox every month.