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Smart People Doing Stupid Things

Just being smart is not enough

Just being smart is not enough

Are smart people smart in all regards? Is somebody who is book smart also street smart? I think we’d all agree that the answer to these questions is “no”. We have a stereotype of “pointy headed intellectuals who can’t park a bicycle straight”. In fact, here’s a recent story of a very smart college professor who did something very stupid and landed in a jail in Argentina. And yes, it involves a bikini model.

One problem with our measures of intelligence — IQ mainly — is that they may be culturally biased. A deeper problem is that they really only measure System 2 — the slow thinking portion of our brain. (For an introduction to Systems 1 and 2, click here). System 2 is deliberate, slow, and requires a lot of energy. We have to invoke it and focus it to make it work effectively. System 1, on the other hand, is fast, efficient, automatic, and always on. If you’ve ever experienced highway hypnosis, your System 1 was driving the car while your System 2 was thinking of more important things.

System 1 makes the vast majority of our decisions for us. It recognizes patterns and makes decisions. If a pattern is confusing or unrecognizable, System 1 may call on System 2 to review the evidence and render a more considered decision. Or it may just jump to a conclusion on its own. You never know. You can’t get through the day without System 1 — you would exhaust yourself if you made every decision using System 2.

So System 1 makes most of our decisions but IQ tests only evaluate System 2. There’s something amiss here. We measure how smart someone is — in a bookish or academic sense — but we don’t measure how rational they are.

Can we measure how rational a person is? Kevin Stanovich thinks so. Stanovich coined the term “dysrationalia” which is defined as “the inability to think and act rationally despite adequate intelligence.”  There’s some debate as to whether this is a thinking disorder or a learning disability (after all, you can get good grades and still be irrational). But something seems to be going on and Stanovich tries to put his finger on it in his book, What Intelligence Tests Miss. Stanovich essentially argues that IQ tests (and college entrance exams) don’t measure judgment or effective decision making.

We may think of good judgment as an element of intelligence but Stanovich argues that it’s different and needs to be measured differently. He proposes a Rationality Quotient or RQ test. As Sally Adee points out in New Scientist, such a test would aim “to assess our ability to transcend cognitive bias.”  In other words, it’s our ability to override the heuristics and biases of System 1. Adee continues that rationality comes from metacognition, “…the ability to assess the validity of you own knowledge. People with high RQ have acquired strategies that boost this self-awareness.” As an aside, this is exactly what I  teach in my critical thinking classes.

The RQ is not finished yet and it probably won’t be for a while. It will take some amount of time to gain agreement on what such a test should include and then validate it in many different situations. Indeed, it may even be difficult to decide what “rational” really means. What’s rational to one person may seem insane to another. In fact, that’s a good question: what’s your definition of rationality?



2 Responses to Smart People Doing Stupid Things

  • I’ll take the bait: Rationality in this case means making decisions from objective evidence, or from assumptions based on objective evidence. More importantly, it also means assessment of the results, and re-evaluation of the assumptions and decisions based on the results. It’s the bayesian exercise of revisiting one’s priors, rather than a superstitious faith in probability, that makes one a rational actor. Perhaps an ideal test of rationality would not just test for right answers, but also for the ability to discover that the previously “right” answers were actually wrong. How does one design a test like that? A test for the ability to unlearn?

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