From MacLean’s: Why smart people do stupid things

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Why smart people do stupid things

By Brian Bethune

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

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.

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