Stupid is as stupid does: why clever people do dumb things
As studies suggest intelligence can hold you back, check out this 'cognitive toolkit' to help you make wiser decisions
History is full of intelligent people who have made stupid decisions.
Consider Arthur Conan Doyle, the medical doctor and bestselling novelist, who frequently visited mediums. His friend, the illusionist Harry Houdini, tried to persuade him they were tricksters; rather than taking his arguments seriously, Conan Doyle constructed an elaborate theory that Houdini himself must be a paranormal being who was lying to hide his own magical powers.
More recently, we heard that Steve Jobs refused life-saving surgery for pancreatic cancer, instead falling for health scams and fad diets. Even Albert Einstein was guilty of some highly flawed thinking. He continued to support communism while turning a blind eye to the atrocities in the USSR, and wasted the final years of his life indulging in theories that his colleagues had already debunked.
Could greater intelligence, rather than protecting us from error, sometimes make us more stupid?
In my book, The Intelligence Trap, I argue that this is indeed the case. Measures of intelligence, such as IQ tests or SAT scores, correlate with many valuable outcomes in life, including your academic achievement, your income and your performance in many jobs. But the latest psychological research shows that they do not always contribute to wiser judgment in many areas of life.
Consider a process called “motivated reasoning”. When we feel emotional about an issue, we tend to apply our intelligence in a one-sided, biased way that serves our own beliefs and preconceptions, so that we always get the answer we want to see. That may involve only searching for evidence that backs up your point of view while also using elaborate reasoning to explain away any criticisms or disagreements (even if they are perfectly valid).
And the more intelligent you are, the easier it is to build more creative arguments that support your own beliefs. We can see this with many politically charged topics: studies show that we often use our intelligence to protect our existing political identities, even if that means ignoring the facts – a phenomenon that can explain the polarisation on topics such as global warming and gun control.
But the same kind of one-sided application can also harm our personal lives: studies have shown that we are less able to think well about our own dilemmas, since they trigger “hot” emotional reasoning that can blind you to the truth. If you are having a love affair, for instance, motivated reasoning allows you to dismiss the hurt you are causing your spouse. If your business is failing, it may blind you to the warning signs and allow you to rationalise your existing plan.
Such flawed thinking might explain why greater intelligence appears to have only a very small effect on our emotional wellbeing, despite the material benefits it brings.
Fortunately, the latest science provides a cognitive toolkit to help us think more wisely. There is even a new scientific discipline – evidence-based wisdom – that aims to develop this way of thinking.
For the sake of argument
One technique involves deliberately arguing against yourself. For whatever issue you are considering, you must first of all note down your initial gut response. Now act like your fiercest critic and try to think from the opposite point of view.
Let’s consider the issue of Brexit. When you read any article on the subject, you probably have a feeling of whether the author was credible or if they had an ulterior motive or whether the statistics were reliable. But having noted those feelings, you should ask yourself: would I have taken this attitude if the evidence had pointed in the opposite direction? If the original article was pro-Brexit, for instance, you should ask yourself whether you would have given it similar credence, or been similarly dismissive, had it been pro-Remain.
Imagine you are thinking about leaving your job, and your friend has offered their advice. Ask yourself: would I have given the same weight to their opinion if they had taken the opposite view?
In each case, the aim is to determine whether you are accepting or dismissing evidence due to your own preconceptions. Studies have shown that it results in wiser, more balanced reasoning. As a result, you begin to evaluate the arguments on their merit rather than simply using them to support your viewpoint.
A matter of perspective
Another strategy is known as “self-distancing”, which involves considering your dilemma from an outside perspective.
There are many ways to do this. You might describe it in the third person. “Jack was thinking about buying a house ... ” Or you might engage in “mental time travel” – imagining yourself in a week, a month, or a year’s time looking back at your decision. Or, if you are thinking about political rather than personal issues, you might imagine how someone from another (more neutral) country would view the problem.
Studies have shown that this simple practice can calm that “hot”, emotive reasoning to create a more open-minded, less biased attitude.
Eli Finkel, at Northwestern University in Illinois, in a two-year study of married couples, found that the technique reduced conflict and increased relationship satisfaction, since it helped them to reason through their differences in a more even-handed way. And Igor Grossmann, at the University of Toronto, has shown that self-distancing can reduce political polarisation and increase participants’ willingness to join a bipartisan group.
Slap a label on it
Finally, you might consider fine-tuning your emotional awareness: financial traders who have a richer and more precise emotional vocabulary have been shown to make wiser investments, for instance.
Being able to label our feelings helps us to control them. Fortunately, there is evidence that this is a learnable skill – just a few moments of deliberate emotional reflection could have a lasting effect on your decision making.
The aim is to pick apart and define the various feelings – whether you feel happy, joyous or excited, for instance; or sad, melancholic or bored – using precise language, rather than the vague terms (“good” or “bad”) that we often use to describe our mood.
Philosophers have long considered that greater brainpower may be a burden as well as a benefit. In the 17th century, René Descartes wrote: “The greatest minds are capable of the greatest vices as well as the greatest virtues; those who go forward but very slowly can get further, if they always follow the right road, than those who are in too much of a hurry and stray off it.”
With these simple tools, we can all ensure that our thinking remains on the correct path.
Applying evidence-based wisdom
An argument with your spouse
Try to imagine how an outsider would view your disagreement. This will help you to see both sides of the dilemma more dispassionately.
A new investment opportunity
Listen to your gut, then deliberately interrogate it. Alternatively, try to describe the pros and cons in a foreign language – the switch to a less familiar tongue encourages more rational decision making.
Deciding how to vote in an election
Imagine how a foreigner might view the parties. Or imagine describing your viewpoint to a small child. Research shows that either technique can reduce ideological bias.
– © The Daily Telegraph