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Smarter than the Average Bear

Mark Crocker - June 20, 2024 - 0 comments

In the current climate there appears to be a dearth of critical thinking. Perhaps because Google has made it easy for us to be lazy in our thinking – just type in your question and get an instant response. We could debate long and hard about the algorithms employed to provide you the answer, but perhaps that is for a future blog.

The fact is that our ability to deal with complex scenarios is being degraded. There is a trend of hanging out at the extremes of viewpoints and little time spent in the grey areas in the middle where the real truth resides. The grey area is all a bit complicated and so many tend to avoid it, choosing rather to veer to the left or the right of any given issue or scenario.

In business leadership this is not an encouraging trend and further, our education system is not designed to teach us to think in a way that is useful for the rest of life. The tests used in education are very modest predictors of anything besides school grades. We experience people who get very good grades, but then they suck at leadership. They are good technicians with no common sense, and no ethics. They get to be the president or vice-president of corporations and societies and they turn out to be massively incompetent.

Unfortunately, the poor leadership performers are inevitably poor at diagnosing their own failings and, surrounding themselves with sycophants, relentlessly stumble forward until their performance results in a meaningful consequence. Equally concerning is the fact that many then go on to fool their next employer with a good resume and a seemingly high IQ.

Of course, intelligence doesn’t mean that you are more rational or sensible. Plenty of intelligent people remain overweight or smoke. Being more rational and sensible, delivering an enhanced ability to make the right decision when dealing with complex scenarios comes from intellectual humility.

For example, we should never be ashamed to own the fact that we have been in the wrong. This allows us to be wiser today than we were yesterday. Among other things, it measures how easily we deal with uncertainty, and how quickly and willingly we will change our mind based on new evidence.
It’s a trait that some people find surprisingly hard to cultivate, yet the moment of self awareness pays off in the long term.

Intellectual humility comes in many other forms, but at its centre is the ability to question the limits of our knowledge. On what assumptions are we basing our decision? How verifiable are they? What additional information should we hunt out to make a more balanced viewpoint? Have we looked at examples of similar situations for comparison?

Going through those steps may seem elementary, but like Hanna-Barbera’s Yogi, do you secretly think “you’re smarter than the average bear”? Don’t we all. It’s something called “illusory superiority”, and, as Yogi shows, it’s particularly inflated among the least able.

If self-deprecation isn’t your strong suit, there is a simple strategy to deflate those biases: pick the exact opposite standpoint and start arguing against your convictions. That internal argument can puncture many of the most resilient biases – such as overconfidence, and “anchoring”. A similar, but distinct, tactic might involve putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagining their viewpoint.

Intelligence isn’t a score on an IQ test – it’s the ability to figure what needs to be done and finding ways to achieve it, even if that involves some painful self-awareness of our own shortcomings…

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