I'm Too Smart To Understand Human Beings

By Sean Carroll | July 5, 2011 9:28 am

Jen McCreight blogs about giving a talk at a meeting of Mensa, the “international high-IQ society.” Worth reading in its own right, but I was struck by one anecdote in particular: the color-coded stickers that indicated huggability.

  • Green = Hug me!
  • Yellow = Ask me first
  • Red = Don’t touch me

You read this correctly. A group of self-selected high-IQ people feels the need to have stickers on their name tags to let strangers know whether it’s okay to come up and hug them. As Jen put it: “I originally didn’t put any stickers on because I had no idea what they meant, but after being hugged out of nowhere by a complete stranger, my badge quickly looked like this:”

I don’t think the stickers are a bad idea; if they help people figure out appropriate ways to behave, it’s all good. But I can’t help but think that there are many other groups of people who would manage to negotiate this particular social minefield without the help of any stickers at all. There are many different ways to be “intelligent.”

  • Don G.

    My badge (when I attend Mensa things with those codes) looks like hers — two red dots, by which I mean “touch me and die.” I am not a huggy person. *shudders*

    But in what other contexts could people who *like* to be hugged share that while mingling in big crowds, while at the same time ensuring that others who prefer personal space won’t be bothered? Without a code of some kind, very few get hugs — even if they want them. At the Mensa things, one is essentially unambiguously signaling about one’s personal space. People avoid misunderstandings, and are happy.

    Yes, there are many, many different ways to be intelligent.

  • Jim

    Understanding human interaction takes a lot of mental processing power. Why not avoid part of that mess if it’s as easily avoidable as a simple sticker? Then you can go back to thinking about more interesting things.

  • keith

    Seems simple and brilliant. My idea of Mensa people is unimaginative types who can’t outfox Columbo but this looks like a neat social hack. How often have you hugged a stranger in real life? Yet how often have you needed a hug and lacked a ready supply? More people with stickers, imo. At the moment we assume that everyone is going around with red dots… but they aren’t really, are they?

  • AG

    Obviously animals are better at advertising their heat than human. Indeed, too much brain actually kill many subconcious instinct.

  • Johanna

    I wonder how much of that social-minefield navigation involves people getting unwanted hugs and suffering in silence. “When in doubt, keep your hands to yourself” is always a good rule to go by, but it’s not all that universally followed.

    More unambiguous communication of personal boundaries, please.

  • http://kevinrbridges.blogspot.com Kevin R. Bridges

    I imagine a disproportionate number of mensa-ites have Aspergers, or other forms of autism, which would definitely make it handy to have a hug sticker on.

  • keith

    AG: Indeed. It’s the convention of never hugging strangers that developed as a ‘too smart’ solution to our confused ability to read each other. Given that poor ability, these Mensoids have thought some more and found a solution to the solution, bringing us closer to our animal instincts. Nice!

  • http://www.legosalogos.com.ar Daneel

    Right. Or you could get crazy and try to… I don’t know… TALK to each other and TELL that you don’t want to be hugged by strangers.

    Nah, that would be silly.

  • keith

    Daneel: that protocol is flawed for reasons the Mensans surely noticed. The aim is to simulate our natural-but-subdued instincts, which means needing to bypass the thinky-talky stuff. You could train yourself to be present with meditation, or take mdma for a quicker solution, but I think coloured stickers – using thought to escape thought – is very elegant.

  • Neal J. King

    The Mensa approach is not facilitating human interaction, but mechanizing it. It is not “bringing us closer to our animal instincts”; it is replacing them.

    It is like replacing an aquarium of fish by an electronic fish display; or a pet dog by a GENIBO.

    If you want to avoid the mental processing required to understand human interaction, why not just forget about the whole thing? Delegate / outsource it to email.

    If someone can’t tell whether I want a hug or not, then I don’t want it from that person anyway: Yuck!

  • Chris

    What color sticker for a mind meld???

  • keith

    Neal: no, because once you’ve been hugged or not hugged as preferred you don’t care whether it was instinct or simulated instinct. People in the wild, never mind Mensoans, have already abnegated their instincts. Or do you give and receive hugs whenever you want them? I hugged a complete stranger in the street once – she visibly needed it – and I still tell people the story because it was a sufficiently odd thing to do. I agree with the sentiment behind the stickers that says it shouldn’t be considered odd, and recognising the difference between hug-wanters and hug-avoiders is the necessary first step.

  • Elwin

    Daneel/8: I think Kevin/6 is probably right in thinking that a disproportionate amount of people in Mensa have Aspergers or are at least fairly introverted.

    As someone who is quite introverted, I can say that social cues and interaction do not come naturally for a lot of people. And, at least for me, it just seems to be something my brain isn’t wired for. I’ve picked things up over the years, but it’s more of a database than a natural reaction. You also learn pretty quick (at least in America) that saying you’d rather not be hugged or that telling people you’d rather not hear their entire thought process is not received well. Partly because communicating these things in a tactful way is similarly difficult as interpreting social cues. So there’s an extent to which one learns to suffer some things in silence.

    It’s as baffling to some people why one would hug strangers or tell you everything they are thinking as they are thinking it as it is for others why one has a hard time expressing they would rather not be hugged by strangers.

  • President for Life

    This is awesome. it reminds me of the recent work on how Emperor penguins stay warm by rotating in and out of a huge huggy scrum of penguins.

    But wouldn’t it be so much easier if EVERYONE just set their badge to yellow for a day? Isn’t that really better? because that would encourage people to take risks and ask strangers if hugging is allowed (for people who like to hug) and also allow everyone to practice setting healthy and appropriate boundaries? Isn’t “ask first” just a good, 100% all purpose social rule for all occasions, from asking someone out on a date to borrowing their pencil?

    Occam’s razor, friends! keep it simple!

  • giannis

    @Neal, @Daneel, One of my favorite quotes

    Fools ignore complexity; pragmatists suffer it; experts avoid it; geniuses
    remove it.

    — A. Perlis

  • Carl
  • http://andythenerd.tumblr.com The Nerd

    Read up on Rebecca Watson’s recent incident in the elevator. Then tell me that ambiguity is a good idea. Having easy-to-read stickers is a great way to avoid a sexual harassment scandal when you’d rather not have one.

  • http://math-frolic.blogspot.com Shecky R.

    I’m not by nature a ‘huggy’ person either… but frankly, I envy those who are, and this seems much ado about not much — we’d probably be emotionally better off as a society if everyone was huggy.
    And literally, I’d regard shaking lots of hands as an even less favorable (and less healthy) practice… how about stickers to avoid that!!

  • Peter

    I know it’s the new blog in-thing, but less mocking of ‘those socially dumb smart people’, please.

  • CaroZ

    I would expect something like 5% of Mensans to be red-green color-blind. That would lead to some awkward moments.

  • Ian Dodd

    I think this is in obvious response to the whole Rebecca Watson, skepchick, guy-in-the-elevator, Richard-Dawkins’-completely-obtuse-response mash up of last weekend. Check Phil Plait’s blog post about it all.

  • Angie the Anti-Theist

    This is hardly surprising (nor is it unintelligent.) Frequently people on the high end of the IQ spectrum (which is the measurement MENSA uses for admittance) are not as socially adept as people more in the middle of the bell curve. Many high IQ individuals have a form of autism or Aspergers and may have difficulty with “obvious” social cues like body language, posture, and facial expression. However, while you’re struggling to balance your check book, they’re figuring out how to get supplies into space, or solve the global water crisis, or grow “meat” in a vat. They’re fixing the world while you mock their superior intelligence and their decision to use easy-to-read visual cues to communicate personal space. No, you don’t sound bitter at ALL dude.

  • Joel Grant

    Isn’t there a more-or-less universal etiquette about touching/hugging people you don’t know? Offer your hand to shake when introduced. Otherwise, just don’t touch them.

  • keith

    Ian… wow, I just read some of that mess. It’s off-topic but that shows exactly why I find atheists so petty and tedious.

    Joel: yes, the no contact rule has become standard; it’s due to us not trusting our instincts, and it’s a great loss to society. Coloured stickers are a good first step to changing the narrative for the better.

  • WeatherServo9

    Let’s be clear – it is the people who use hugging someone they’ve just met, or someone they don’t know very well, as an act of greeting who are the ones who are socially unintelligent.

    Unfortunately, hugging has somehow fallen into common use as an act of casual greeting, and I think this is a horrible idea. Hugging should be a more intimate act for a more intimate moment, not something you do to someone you’ve just met or to whom you’re just saying hello. Add cheek-kissing to that list as well. It really bothers me when I see women at formal functions being kissed for everything while their male counterparts shake hands. Don’t put your body in my personal space, and don’t put your lips on my face, until you really know me and have a good reason to.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I have never been to a society meeting in my life where people went around hugging willy-nilly, and I wished I had a sticker that said “STF away from me”. What’s going on at these functions, anyway? This some extension of the “Good Genes” dating service?

  • Suetonius

    I’m a bit dumbfounded by all this hugging. Don’t try this outside the US, folks! Unless you want to explain yourself to unsympathetic cops.

  • Neal J. King

    #12, keith:

    Someone who is so out-of-touch with their human emotions that they can’t sense something as basic as whether someone wants a hug = someone I DON’T want a hug from.

  • keith

    You are surrounded by people that far out of touch with themselves every day. Most are in denial about it, others are looking for solutions.

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ Bee

    Funny. You go to any conference in Germany and hug a stranger, they’ll put you under glass as interesting exhibit 😉 Sometimes formalities have advantages.

  • http://sievemaria.com sievemaria

    They better be careful because hugging could lead to something else!

  • Matt

    I think this looks like fun. It reminds me of “stoplight” happy hours we have in grad school, where you’d wear “green” is you were single/interested, “yellow” if in the middle, and “red” if taken. I don’t think that MENSA is doing this because they lack the capacity to figure this stuff out on their own, I think it’s just supposed to be something fun to do.

  • psmith

    Apparently DSK misread the colour of the hotel maid’s badge.

    More seriously though, I have a family member who has Asperger’s. He is tactile defensive and has difficulty reading social cues. For someone like him the badge system is eminently sensible. They have difficulty navigating the social minefield and need well defined rules to help order their life.

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    Why not go with a full-blown (pun intended) handkerchief code?

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    Of course, a wedding ring has a similar function. :-)

  • keith

    You don’t hug because you want to, you hug because someone needs it.

  • Tintin

    This is TOTALLY ridiculous. All through my life, I have interacted with all types of people, from the lowlife to the upper gentry, and even with top academia, including during my few years at Caltech. Any well bred individual knows how to behave, no need for “code.”. But I guess this code was necessary: again, from my own experience, most of these same people are total social misfits.

  • Mr. G

    ” Green = Hug me!
    Yellow = Ask me first
    Red = Don’t touch me”

    Cripes. Mensa has a color-coded terror alert system just like the “knuckle draggers”.


    We’re in the best of hands.

  • Hmmm

    Interesting that some people actually want to be hugged and especially by strangers.

    The only situation in which i can imagine myself wanting a hug is when im freezing and extra body heat can make a difference.

    But Im all for stickers if some group of people find them useful, but there should be one more rule added: no color sticker – no hugging.

  • Mr. Warmth

    …Hug me, or leave me; nothing inherently wrong with hugging those you love…too, how many times have you people been the object of, or the giver of, hugs when your stupid ass favorite sports team scored a point, or a goal…?…many times by/from those sitting near/ in close proximity to you at a sporting event? that’s okay, because “…our ( insert team/athlete name here) just made us so happy because we just won the cup??? you’re more used to-and prone to-it than you might want to believe…GET – A- HUG…

  • Mensa

    I joined mensa over a decade ago (surprisingly easy), but lost interest as soon as I read some of topics and comments in their magazine. I now understand that IQ tests and other testing of intelligence is highly subjective, and it is very difficult to get a good estimate of intelligence once you get to the 98th percentile (and even harder past the 99th percentile).

  • Mensa

    Being a hypocrite, I think I’ll renew my membership. Go Mensa!

  • Linda C.

    I was an avid non-hugger – until my first husband passed away from colon cancer when he
    was only 43. I rethought the position, and decided I would go for the warmth. If someone I know wants to hug, I will accept and return that hug.

  • keith

    Lots of people need hugs for lots of reasons, even from strangers if given correctly. It’s a human thing.

  • shaed

    Ha. You think “socially intelligent” people don’t need this?

    People who think of themselves that way are the worst about it.

  • Devyn

    I was a member of Mensa a few years ago. The hug dots don’t exist because Mensans are socially clueless; they exist because hugging is (was?) a bigger part of Mensan culture than it is in society as a whole. The hug dots let the huggers hug each other without bothering the more “normal” people. I wore yellow dots and everything went along like it would normally.

    A lot of people join Mensa for the wrong reasons, but when I was a member, most of the active members who went to events were just like everyone else, only friendlier.

  • RP Barrett

    The intelligence of the sticker system is evident.

    Maybe the important lesson here is that sometimes dumb people think the correct answer is wrong because they don’t quite understand the question? Does the term ‘over your head’ ring any bells?

    What on Earth was this person speaking at a Mensa gathering for? Does she have some kind of narrowly specialized knowledge we needed? For God’s sake, she wasn’t allowed to mingle was she?

  • Mike

    Funny, I always considered myself a prude, but I guess I was wrong considering some of the posts on here. Many of us working in labs, and cubes (usually alone) solving the world’s problems don’t get a chance to socialize and hug as much as the burger-flippers of the world. The dot system is neat, efficient, and allows people to get some of the physical interaction they may be missing in their lives. It also helps break the ice for those that are looking for a potential mate at this meeting of kindred spirits. Our conventions are 3-5 days long & then we get back solving the water or energy crisis, designing a better car, or whatever. We don’t have the same luxury of time that many in the center of the bell curve have.

  • Nadine McBeth

    I can’t believe that so much time and effort is being wasted on such a trivial issue. Mensa bashing has always been rampant but to label all Mensans socially inept because we deal with a small situation in a quick, easy and non-threatening way is as silly as it can be. There is every range of behavior, belief, sociability, social status, whatever, in Mensa. We do talk to each other about a myriad of things; we just like to get to the heart of the conversation without having to do the groundwork over and over again. If we don’t spend time on do you or don’t you want a hug, we can talk about love and hate and the consequences of both emotions, their role in literature and mass media, etc. Once you learn the ABCs and how to read, you don’t start with relearning the ABCs every time you open a book. As far as I know, the hug, ask, or don’t hug stickers are a non-issue among Mensans.

  • Michael

    “There are many different ways to be ‘intelligent.'” The refuge of the weak-minded.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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