Why smart people do stupid things

IQ measures raw intelligence, sure, but what we need is a test for how we actually think

Why smart people do stupid things

If you’re like most people, like four out of five of us in fact, you won’t answer the following question correctly. Jack is looking at Annie, Annie is looking at George. Jack is married, George is unmarried. Is a married person looking at an unmarried person? Possible answers: yes, no, can’t be determined. Unless you were alerted by the way the question was prefaced here, and spent a little time seeking a not immediately apparent response, you’ll likely give the obvious—and wrong—answer: can’t be determined because Annie’s marital status is unknown. In fact, that’s immaterial: either Annie is married and gazing at single George, or she is unwed and looked upon by married Jack. No matter which, the answer is yes: a married person is looking at an unmarried person.

Yet 80 per cent of us opt for the facile answer, and not just in logic puzzles, says University of Toronto psychologist Keith Stanovich. That’s because we’re natural-born “cognitive misers,” creatures of an evolution that has shaped us to seek rapid, instinctive “ballpark answers” rather than expend the mental energy required for exact solutions. (In other words, think.) What fascinates Stanovich, and makes his book, What Intelligence Tests Miss (Yale UP), both entertaining and scientifically significant, is that cognitive parsimony—and a host of other barriers to rational thought—are no respecters of IQ. The highly intelligent are as prone to irrationality as anyone else, and there is no reason to be surprised when smart people do dumb things.

IQ tests and their proxies, like the SAT test for university admission, are the most important determinant in the academic and professional careers of millions. They’re virtually “deified” in the U.S., according to Stanovich, who says their critics only bemoan the tests’ neglect of other valued human capacities—so-called emotional or social intelligence. Admirers and detractors, in other words, both assume IQ tests are the last word in thinking ability. That’s nonsense, says Stanovich: while an IQ test is good at assessing ability to focus on an immediate goal, it cannot assess whether the person tested “has a tendency to develop goals that are rational in the first place.”

In that regard, as in so many others, George W. Bush functions as symbol-in-chief. For many of his critics, the former president—as witnessed by his mangled syntax and serene indifference to the intersection of reality and bedrock belief—was not so much a mistaken politician as an actual idiot. But his IQ, as calculated from his college admission tests, can reliably be set at an above-average 120, about the same as his 2004 opponent, John Kerry, widely regarded as a pointy-headed intellectual. Bush is not a stupid man.

But he is, Stanovich believes, “a very irrational” one. Had his IQ tests been accompanied by RQ tests—means of measuring a subject’s rationality quotient—Stanovich has no doubt Bush would have failed them all. They would have revealed his overconfidence, low intellectual engagement, lack of openness to experience, high faith in intuition and other barriers to clear thought. And although Bush may be an extreme case of what Stanovich calls dysrationalia, he is far from alone. Eons of evolution have selected, as scientists Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd put it, for all animals, including humans, “to be as stupid as they can get away with.” Thinking is costly—in concentration, energy, time and risk—compared with instinctive reaction. The Taung child, the three-year-old hominid killed by an eagle 2.5 million years ago, is a graphic explanation of why we duck first, and think later, when a shadow passes low over us.

So, while we can think, we have endless ways to avoid it. That brings Stanovich to those hypothetical RQ tests of Bush’s youth. There is no reason why such tests could not be constructed (other than the fact, he dryly adds, that they’d require “the efforts of an educational testing firm with $50 million to invest”). Their social utility would be greater than that of IQ tests because, unlike intelligence, rational thinking can be taught. And society can put mechanisms in place that encourage it. A favourite example for Stanovich is the difference between committed organ donors in Sweden (86 per cent) and America (28 per cent), where 45,000 people have died waiting for transplants since 1995. Why? In Sweden, unlike the U.S., consent is presumed; those who don’t want to donate have to make an effort, one our inner cognitive misers often can’t be bothered with. Exploit that innate tendency, Stanovich argues, and humanity’s profound laziness will save lives.


Why smart people do stupid things

  1. Very interesting article.

    Another obstacle put in the way for clearer thinking is the overusage of examples, I believe.

    A lot of times, example after example is given to either highlight or ‘explain’ a complicated set of thoughts.
    Citing examples is not necessarily a negative thing (giving examples can be helpful) but when the used examples do not herald back to the main overarching idea being projected, then the given examples in fact draw attention away from the deeper underlying thought process.

    Sometimes examples can in fact alter the underlying deeper thoughts completely, thereby veering off significantly from what was supposed to be understood (or grasped) in the first place.

    Trying to grasp onto ideas without the means of particular examples should be part of human communicatin process, not just in understanding between humans, but in trying to understand most things around us.

    A lot of societal problems become a matter of how well the members of a formed society are able to deal with ideas without the need for concrete examples given. Examples are facts indeed, but examples always tend to have a subjective component to them besides, whereas deeper ideas usually tend to want to cling to more objective formulations for finding solutions.

    Just a thought.

    • I think where examples are most damaging is in the mention of anecdotal evidence. I’m not sure it is generally problematic to explain a concept with an example. But citing a singular example and implying that it proves a hypothesis or explains the whole issue is a very irrational approach. I think, as a species, we have a very hard time understanding statistics and separating real trends from anecdotes and coincidences.

      Take for example (ironically) human interest pieces in the news. (I suspect that those are a trend significant enough to not count as merely anecdotal evidence of our irrationality!)

  2. Wow, there are a lot of tenuously supported links in this article (and isn’t facile Bush-bashing getting a bit old).

    The article has two points:
    -people are cognitive misers (we satisfice).
    -IQ tests are a poor measure of actual intelligence, we should use rationality instead

    What is missing is a description of exactly what RQ is supposed to represent, and what an RQ test would entail. The one example (possibly) given at the start – the Annie and George one – is precisely the kind of question an IQ test might have. Indeed, the implication of that example problem is paradoxical to the point of the essay: if smart people do dumb things because they are satisficers, why don’t they satisfice while taking IQ tests?

    The real answer is that people satisfice for a reason – the time available for decision-making is limited and generally an imperfect decision is better than no decision.

    • You seem to have an objection to this post, but you argued it by simply restating the post.


  3. GW would have failed any decent EQ test as well (Empathy/Emotional Quotient)
    Can we make some of those too please?

  4. People with high IQs are “as prone to be irrational as everyone else”? I don’t think so. People with high IQs are better able to think through problem sets and to consider the consequences of decisions.

    • Your assertion doesn’t negate the argument at all, however.

      Just because they are better able to do that doesn’t mean that they will. That’s what the article is all about.

    • Sorry.

      1. There are no truly objective unbiased measures of IQ
      2. No one has a clear universal idea of what constitutes “intelligence”

      There are people who are good taking tests, who are very good as solving tasks, but give them a problem to solve without any parameters to follow, they are useless. There are those who are extremely good at solving certain kinds of problems, but anything outside of that, they are useless. There are those who perform well on tests, and they have no grounding in reality or can only think in the abstract.

      • Do we have a clear idea of what constitutes “intelligence”? It depends on your definition of “clear”. IQ testing is based on statistics. It attempts, with a simple test, to be able to predict how well a person will fair in future endeavours that require mental effort. It can’t do this perfectly, but it nonetheless does it relatively well.

        I suspect that the difference between two people who score 95 and 100 on an IQ test is not necessarily statistically significant. So many other factors may play a role in how those people fair in later mental exercises (like other tests at University) so that the IQ testing is probably not very relevant in such a case. One could highlight the difference in average IQ between black people and white people. It is probably not large enough to prove anything about racial differences but is merely an indicator of socioeconomic differences.

        However, comparing someone with IQ of 90 to someone with IQ of 120 is pretty much guaranteed to be significant – there just isn’t any question about who is smarter in 99% of such cases. There are always statistical outliers – idiot savants, dyslexics, etc. – but that doesn’t change the fact that IQ testing works well statistically.

  5. Anyone who’s ever been to a Mensa meeting can easily attest to the flaws inherent in IQ measurement.

    • Hehe, so are you in fact a Mensa member? A wee plug for yourself there, Ti-Guy? (No disrespect, just teasing you a little ;-) )

  6. This article might have been more interesting had it not turned into just another typical Bush bashing piece.

    “Stanovich has no doubt Bush would have failed them all”. Typical crap. Can’t bash Bush’s IQ? Bash his score on a test he has never taken.

    Rationality? That’s highly subjective. Who gets to decide what is rational? The irrational? This article is irrational.

    • This is unintentionally funny.

    • “This article is irrational.” Hmmm, and your argument uses Bush logic to defend him! “Instead of merely objecting to the tone of this article, I will declare it irrational because I will ignore it’s factiness in favour of my version of truthiness.”

  7. One of the most interesting books that I read about Bush (called “Dyslexicon” or similar) analyzed why Bush appears to mangle the English language so badly. The author’s main conclusion was that Bush was thoroughly articulate when expressing his own clear opinions, and that his stumblings and malapropisms arose when he was trying to hide his views or to dilute them for public consumption.

    Bush is a much more complex individual than many give him credit for, and his thinking a lot more sophisticated than liberals want to allow. of course, many of his decisions turned out badly but that is not the point at issue.

    As for Stanovich, he seems to have missed out on the many recent discussions how the ability to logically analyze problems (as in the example given) is a particular skill of new special benefit to humanity, that effective use of intuition and the human mind’s ability to synthesize wide ranges of information and can lead to good decisions without explicit logical analysis.

    • The author’s main conclusion was that Bush was thoroughly articulate when expressing his own clear opinions,

      Actually, Crispin-Miller concluded that Bush was clearer and more articulate when he was expressing the beliefs (which are different from opinions) he held most firmly, which he also argued tended towards cruel, unempathetic, callous and authoritarian.

  8. Rather than testing rationality, wouldn’t it make more sense just to teach logic to all school children? If the solution is known, and the problem is evident, why waste time measuring the problem rather than just solving it?

  9. Gaunilon said: ” Rather than testing rationality, wouldn’t it make more sense just to teach logic to all school children?”

    You betcha!! We hear over and over the the “education” system in the US doesn’t teach critical thinking. Which it seems to me the reason we’re in this mess. Remember the McCleans headline in the 2004 election, was it? Something like “How can 54million Americans be so stupid?”.

    In this little village there is a special Saturday class at the high school called Critical Thinking for students that is conducted by volunteers. The last thing a government corrupt as ours is a thinking general population. And that is why the dogmatic religions are so able to gain a foothold in this country.

  10. you people are all dumb.

    get a job.

  11. yo momma

  12. The answer truly is "can't be determined." This article is wrong. The question is "is a married person looking at an unmarried person?" We can't determine this because at no point does it state that Annie is a person; for all we know, she is an animal.

  13. As for the puzzle in the beginning, I thought "Yes anyway you look at it, but the article will probably say it's undeterminable for some reason that I am overlooking, so I change my answer to 'cannot be determined' because I don't want to be wrong." Turned out, I was wrong.

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