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Why Smart People Are Stupid 337

nicholast writes "There's a good piece by Jonah Lehrer at the New Yorker about why smart people are often more likely to make cognitive errors than stupid people. The article examines research about the shortcuts that our brains take while answering questions, and explains why even the smartest people take these shortcuts too. Quoting: 'One provocative hypothesis is that the bias blind spot arises because of a mismatch between how we evaluate others and how we evaluate ourselves. When considering the irrational choices of a stranger, for instance, we are forced to rely on behavioral information; we see their biases from the outside, which allows us to glimpse their systematic thinking errors. However, when assessing our own bad choices, we tend to engage in elaborate introspection. We scrutinize our motivations and search for relevant reasons; we lament our mistakes to therapists and ruminate on the beliefs that led us astray. The problem with this introspective approach is that the driving forces behind biases—the root causes of our irrationality—are largely unconscious, which means they remain invisible to self-analysis and impermeable to intelligence. In fact, introspection can actually compound the error, blinding us to those primal processes responsible for many of our everyday failings.'"
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Why Smart People Are Stupid

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  • Yeah... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by fredprado ( 2569351 ) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 @07:28PM (#40302707)
    Yes you commit more mistakes when you think more about things. Guess what, you also reach a lot more correct conclusions. The best way to avoid making mistakes is not doing anything at all. Same principle.
  • Bull (Score:5, Insightful)

    by wytcld ( 179112 ) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 @07:34PM (#40302767) Homepage

    The problem with this introspective approach is that the driving forces behind biases—the root causes of our irrationality—are largely unconscious, which means they remain invisible to self-analysis and impermeable to intelligence.

    The premise here is that "introspection" (a vague name for a wide range of practices) cannot reveal unconscious biases, bring them into consciousness, and enable self-analysis and intelligent adjustment of them. We are to accept this premise why? In my experience, it's quite possible to gain a conscious vantage on previously-unconscious biases, and subsequently lessen and/or compensate for them. If Lehrer can't do the same, maybe he isn't very good at introspection. No reason to condemn an activity others do well and productively just because you suck at it, Jonah.

  • Re:Yeah... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Hope Thelps ( 322083 ) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 @07:34PM (#40302771)

    The best way to avoid making mistakes is not doing anything at all.

    Unfortunately it's not that easy. My biggest mistakes have consisted of not doing things.

  • SAT socres? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by whoever57 ( 658626 ) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 @07:38PM (#40302803) Journal

    Although we assume that intelligence is a buffer against biasâ"thatâ(TM)s why those with higher S.A.T. scores think they are less prone to these universal thinking mistakesâ"it can actually be a subtle curse.

    Or perhaps high SAT scores do not correlate well with intelligence, but rather correlate with being able to answer questions quickly through the use of mental shortcuts or the ability to recall what was learned through rote learning?

  • My theory (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Jamu ( 852752 ) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 @07:42PM (#40302847)
    My theory is that smart people are mostly stupid, and that stupid people are fully stupid.
  • Case in point. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by dmomo ( 256005 ) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 @07:44PM (#40302863)

    Try reading that article. It's full of smart sounding long-winded sentences, which all basically translate to: "Dude, you're overthinking it".

    Then, the article ronically ends with: "We spin eloquent stories, but these stories miss the point. The more we attempt to know ourselves, the less we actually understand."


  • Re:Bull (Score:4, Insightful)

    by crdotson ( 224356 ) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 @07:55PM (#40302975)

    I agree completely. I have caught myself a number of times acting in a way that I couldn't completely explain, and after thinking for a while -- sometimes a long while -- I have figured out what I was subconsciously doing. I think this is one of the primary benefits of therapy; a trained professional may be able to spot what's really bothering you when you don't know.

  • by MightyMartian ( 840721 ) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 @07:57PM (#40303001) Journal

    Indeed. One of the things that I find is a problem with really bright people is overconfidence, a belief that because they are brilliant in one area, they therefore are brilliant in all areas. You find this sort of thing with engineers who think they are scientists, doctors who think they are scientists, or scientists who make fools of themselves by making elaborate and tragically awful claims in areas where they have no expertise.

    True polymaths are probably so rare that even the most seasoned and well-connected academic won't meet one.

  • Re:SAT socres? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by serviscope_minor ( 664417 ) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 @08:07PM (#40303091) Journal

    SAT scores strongly correlate with...

    That's become a self-fulfiling prophecy in the US. Hig SAT scores are required (often) to get to the next stages of education, and education correlates with success, so it makes high SAT scores correlate with success.

    That said, people will make the same mistake with SAT scores and IQ scores. If you do very well at either then you are intelligent. Failing to do well at either doesn't imply a lack of intelligence.

    The end result is that of course IQ ans SAT scores correlate with intelligence. Simplifying a great deal, a high score implies inelligence. Low score gives no imformation so implies a 50% chance of intelligence. Given two people and no other information except SAT scores, the one with the higher SAT score is more likely to be intelligent.

    But if you're making decisions based purely on SAT scores, then you're not being intelligent :)

  • by RazorSharp ( 1418697 ) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 @08:40PM (#40303375)

    When I'm playing a weaker opponent in chess I tend to be extremely careless with my queen and I put her in dangerous places that are quite threatening. The strategy relies on the fact that weaker chess players get squeamish when an opponent's queen hangs out on their side of the board and they start investing too many of their moves into defense, thus ceding board control.

    The downside is that a strong opponent knows to relentlessly attack the queen until she's either dead or in a position that isn't advantageous. Another downside is that, even against weaker opponents, she's still in a vulnerable position and I tend to lose her that way.

    A computer would never do what I do with my queen (and I would never use the strategy vs. a computer . . . again). What makes people intelligent is their ability to make estimates, predictions, and generalizations that compensate for the limitations of memory. I may not be able to beat my computer in chess, but my computer works harder than an entire nation of brains to kick my ass at it.

    I don't like the article confusing this way of thinking with irrationality, concluding that, "we're not nearly as rational as we believe." One's thinking can be rational and imprecise. It can also be rational and wrong. These little tests these researchers are doling out catch people on common fallacies. The more intelligent you are the less likely you are to second guess your answer, the more likely you are to rely on a logical shortcut. Like playing a weak chess opponent. And then, when you've lost, your weak chess opponent can point and laugh and say something stupid that he somehow thinks is clever, like, "hah! Smart people are stupid!"

    That's why, in the rematch after losing to a weaker opponent, I dot all my i's and cross all my t's. I don't experiment and I double (triple, quadruple, etc.) check my moves before committing to them. Then, after my pride has been returned, I go back to poking and prodding with attempts to scholar's mate my opponent in some variation because no other victory is more satisfying.

  • Physics Training (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Roger W Moore ( 538166 ) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 @08:48PM (#40303427) Journal
    Not sure it is pride so much as incorrect training. I immediately leapt to the wrong answer to the bat and ball but then I subtracted the two, got 90 cents, realised I had messed up and corrected myself. What I was always taught as an undergrad in physics - and what I now try to teach to undergrads myself - is that no matter how smart you are you will always make mistakes. The trick is to cross check your answer to see whether it makes sense. You won't catch everything (at least I don't!) but every error caught is one less mistake.
  • by Bobtree ( 105901 ) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 @08:50PM (#40303451)

    The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us

    If you care at all about understanding how your brain works, this is important. The book is very well researched and explained and full of real examples in many areas and backed up with serious science. Our brains lie to us about what they do and how well they do it in nearly every respect. I almost want to force feed it to everyone I know, because it's just that significant. Please read it.

  • Re:oh the irony (Score:4, Insightful)

    by LordLucless ( 582312 ) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 @08:50PM (#40303453)

    The other answer to the lily pad question could also be "1 day", depending on which half of the lake you were looking at.

  • by manwargi ( 1361031 ) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 @09:25PM (#40303747)

    I don't really agree with the conventional idea of people being "smart" and "dumb", the concepts are used in shallow ways. Most people I've met are "smart" in some form, even as so many have proven themselves dumb in another form. I believe that it's a matter of how it manifests.

    Some people are good at memorizing things. Some people have a keen perception of patterns which gives them insight into what might logically come next. Some people just put a lot of effort into studying and work their way into understanding a subject through sheer diligence. Some are fast learners. And that thug loitering on the street corner that barely knows how to speak properly? He picks up on body language in a way nobody else can.

    Meanwhile those people all have their flaws. The memorization guy might have horrible social skills. Perhaps insightful pattern guy gets sentimental about the things he believes in, and thus becomes stubborn and irrational about things that don't match his views. The diligent one is really just a stubborn person faking it-- they are terrible and it takes them a long time to learn, but they invest the time beating it into their head. The fast learner picks up on something quickly, but then becomes bored of it right away and moves on with only a superficial understanding of the subject. Or, the fast learner never learned to study, so when the time comes he is in a fix. I think you can fill in the blanks as you wish for the thug on the street corner.

    This is the reason why society manages to function while we witness so many stupid people.

Life in the state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. - Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan