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Stupid is as Stupid Does

Optimize Blog - December 5, 2016 - 0 comments

Reading the news or even just looking around us unveils a high degree of a lack in critical thinking – we might even consider that there is a whole lot of stupid out there.
But even the smartest people can be fools and intelligence doesn’t mean that you are more rational or sensible than someone with a lower IQ. If you are looking for inspiration, consider Robert Sternberg. As a child at elementary school, he flunked an IQ test and generally failed to impress academically. “All my teachers thought I was stupid – and I thought I was stupid.” He might have bombed out of school, had he not later found a mentor who realized there was more to smart thinking than abstract problems, and encouraged him to train his mind more broadly. Thanks to that support, he is now a professor at Cornell.
“Intelligence isn’t a score on an IQ test – it’s the ability to figure what you want in life and finding ways to achieve that,” he says – even if that involves some painful self-awareness of your own follies.
The harsh truth is that greater intelligence does not equate to wiser decisions; in fact, in some cases it might make your choices a little more foolish. Keith Stanovich at the University of Toronto has spent the last decade building tests for rationality, and he has found that fair, unbiased decision-making is largely independent of IQ. Consider the “my-side bias” – our tendency to be highly selective in the information we collect so that it reinforces our previous attitudes. The more enlightened approach would be to leave your assumptions at the door as you build your argument – but Stanovich found that smarter people are almost no more likely to do so than people with distinctly average IQs.
The problem is that our education system is not designed to teach us to think in a way that is useful for the rest of life. Much of our education system is aimed at improving academic intelligence. Although its limits are well known, IQ is still the primary way of measuring cognitive abilities, and we spend millions on brain training and cognitive enhancers that try to improve those scores. We see people who in academic terms have consistently gotten very good grades, and then they suck at leadership. They are good technicians with no common sense.
A tendency to rely on gut instincts rather than rational thought might also explain why a surprisingly high number of Mensa members believe in the paranormal; or why someone with an IQ of 140 is about twice as likely to max out their credit card as us mere mortals.
Indeed, Stanovich sees these biases in every strata of society. “There is plenty of dysrationalia – people doing irrational things despite more than adequate intelligence – in our world today,” he says. Perhaps what is worse is that clever people can be dangerously, and foolishly, misguided.
So if intelligence doesn’t lead to rational decisions, what does? Igor Grossmann, at the University of Waterloo in Canada, thinks we need to turn our minds to an age-old concept: “wisdom”. His approach is more scientific than it might at first sound. “The concept of wisdom has an ethereal quality to it,” he admits. “But if you look at the lay definition of wisdom, many people would agree it’s the idea of someone who can make good unbiased judgement.”
In the future, employers may well begin to start testing these abilities in place of IQ and in fact Google has already announced that it plans to screen candidates for qualities like intellectual humility, rather than sheer cognitive prowess.
Fortunately, wisdom is probably not set in stone – whatever your IQ score. “I’m a strong believer that wisdom can be trained,” says Grossmann. He points out that we often find it easier to leave our biases behind when we consider other people, rather than ourselves. Along these lines, he has found that simply talking through your problems in the third person (“he” or “she”, rather than “I”) helps create the necessary emotional distance, reducing your prejudices and leading to wiser arguments. Hopefully, more research will suggest many similar tricks.
The challenge will be getting people to admit their own foibles. If you’ve been able to rest on the laurels of your intelligence all your life, it could be very hard to accept that it has been blinding your judgement. As Socrates had it: the wisest person really may be the one who can admit he knows nothing……

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