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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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  • by ackthpt ( 218170 ) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 @07:43PM (#40302857) Homepage Journal

    Scott had trouble with a pager, it wouldn't work and wouldn't work. He took out the battery, put it back in, tried a different one and still no success. Finally took the pager to a service center where the tech looked at it for about 10 seconds, took out the battery, flipped it around and put it back in - so the pager worked.

    It's a question of competency at some things does not translate into a competency at all things.

  • by DaneM ( 810927 ) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 @07:53PM (#40302957)

    In my own experience--both by observing smart people and by being one (if I may be so bold), I've noticed that the more "smart" a person is (by several definitions; see below), the more easily he/she can convince him/herself--and others--of incorrect things. Furthermore (as these findings suggest), a person who possesses unusually great capacity for self-analysis often becomes quite accustomed to analyzing things on a much "higher level" than what actually motivates one to (erroneous) thought and action.

    For example, a "stupid" person might see another person as a threat to getting into a relationship with someone he/she, him/herself, likes, and will therefore treat that person poorly--while probably having few illusions about why he/she is doing so. A "smart" person, on the other hand, will have that same "root" motivation cause him/her to come up with "rational" reasons (which aren't nearly so rational as assumed, of course) for why that rival is actually bad at his/her job, "annoying," unethical, unreliable, unintelligent, etc., and will then treat that person badly without realizing just how "base" or "primal" the root cause of the behavior is.

    Notably, I've seen/experienced this with people who are "smart" by way of IQ, and "smart" by way of education (and, of course by way of the two, combined; though--as we all know here--the two aren't always the same thing). Apparently, simply engaging the analytical portion of one's brain habitually--whether by training or nature--almost invariably creates this effect--and can often lead to some truly irritating "smart" people (myself at the forefront, at times, I'll admit).

    I'm glad that someone with "license to wear a lab coat" has also determined as much in a somewhat more scientific/official fashion.

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

    by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 @07:59PM (#40303021)

    Or perhaps high SAT scores do not correlate well with intelligence,

    SAT scores strongly correlate with life time earnings, probability of going to prison, life expectancy, divorce rate, and many, many other things. Out of political correctness, you may not want to call it "intelligence", but you cannot deny it is measuring something much more significant than an ability to take tests.

  • by mark-t ( 151149 ) <markt@NoSPaM.nerdflat.com> on Tuesday June 12, 2012 @08:27PM (#40303253) Journal

    Both problems given in the article were word math problems.

    A bat and ball cost a dollar and ten cents. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?


    In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?

    I got them both right almost immediately, but I think I understand why people would frequently make the errors the article mentioned.

    Ultimately, I think that the reason people make those mistakes is not because they are naturally irrational, but because they simply have not had enough practice at those types of math problems.

    The former took me back to grade 7 math... where I was always solving for x. How I would have done it on paper is as follows:

    Let x = the cost of the ball.
    Let x+1=cost of bat.

    I happened to solve this particular one in my head, but the mental steps I took still reflected the above process. And I think it's the sheer amount of practice that I got solving those types of problems in grade 7 and 8 that I didn't get hung up on anything.

    The latter problem was so obvious, I didn't even have to arrange a formula to solve it... saying it doubles every day, and filling after 48 days means it *MUST* be half full after 47 days. There's probably a formula for it, but I didn't happen to notice it.

  • by mosb1000 ( 710161 ) <mosb1000@mac.com> on Tuesday June 12, 2012 @08:30PM (#40303283)

    Perhaps our most dangerous bias is that we naturally assume that everyone else is more susceptible to thinking errors, a tendency known as the “bias blind spot.” This “meta-bias” is rooted in our ability to spot systematic mistakes in the decisions of others—we excel at noticing the flaws of friends—and inability to spot those same mistakes in ourselves.

    So other people, even stupid people, will have a relatively easy time spotting my mistakes? Meaning that all I have to do is listen to them when they try to point them out to me. Problem solved.

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

    by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 @08:37PM (#40303351)

    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.

    But even if you account for that, by only comparing people of similar education levels, people with high SAT scores do better on a wide variety of metrics. In fact, someone's SAT score is a better predictor of their success than their educational level. That is not what you would expect if a high SAT score was just a "door-opener".

  • Re:Bull (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Artifakt ( 700173 ) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 @08:56PM (#40303507)

    The whole concept of the unconsious as an inaccessable region of thought that drives behavior without any chance for the consious to understand or correct it is basic Freudian psychology, and largely discredited. Minsky's 'Society of Mind" is probably a lot closer, and there's literally generations of psychologists, cognitive scientists, and people who do whatever that thing Daniel Dennett does that have had some impact post Minsky's book. There are lots of things the brain normally does subconsiously. They aren't one monolithic mass, some of them can be done quite well with consious introspective awareness, and some people have trained the skill of consious oversight far beyond others. If some people have learned to control the thermal regulation centers in the limbic system consiously, it's a safe bet a lot more can look at a normally subconsious bias and ask themselves penetrating questions about whether it is really accurate and whether it helps them reach objective conclusions. As you put it, it takes work, and you could say that what you phrased as "realise that you do have unconsious biases" is just a particular case of a person recognising that they need to do that work.

  • by jmerlin ( 1010641 ) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 @08:56PM (#40303513)
    I am not a psychiatrist nor a psychologist. I do, however, have an explanation I find logical for why both of these questions would get wrong answers.

    A bat and ball cost a dollar and ten cents. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

    The reason this "problem" will yield a common answer of 1 dollar is because so many of us have seen the same thing over and over in school. It has been over the course of 5+ years engraved into our thought process to separate pieces of the sentence into logical portions and stop as soon as we have enough information (ie: to assume most of it is useless information). So as soon as the reader sees the intentionally deceptively worded sentence, it's effectively an expected response from this programmed behavior: most people stop where I'm about to show you:

    A bat and a ball cost a dollar and ten cents. The bat costs a dollar --

    Immediately, we have a situation: a + b = 110, a = 100. We immediately deduce that b = 10, and have a solution instantaneously without completing the thought. This is what standardized testing and predictable word problems with extraneous information teaches people. This isn't a result of their intelligence, this is a result of cognitive process sculpted by years of stupid, pointless exercises. You'd have to be outrageously stupid to think this is somehow unexpected. The people who we classify as "smart" are people who perform well at these tasks (high score on standardized test, breezed through courses with similar problems). This is causation -- people who make this mental leap are considered "smart." So you ask "why are all these smart people making this stupid mistake!?" The answer is clear -- your fundamental measure of intelligence is wrong. The solution is that these so-called "smart" people aren't very smart at all. They're just good at solving tricky word problems as quickly as possible, primarily by ignoring information. In my experience, this methodology is often the inverse of an intelligent process.

    Now for the second problem:

    In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?

    What most people will do, because this is how they've been taught, is to read sentence one. Note it as an interesting fact, then proceed. Upon finishing the second sentence, we realize we didn't come up with an answer yet, so we refer to only the information in the latter part of the question. What most people just read is:

    If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?

    We aren't used to thinking in terms of exponentiation, so it's natural to assume a linear growth rate when you completely discard the first sentence.

    While I agree, these are both absurd questions, they have something in common: people tend to ignore part of the question and answer the question with incomplete information. This is not something I do very often, intentionally. This is something, though, that I recall being the fundamental "trick" to answering 99.99999999999% of questions on standardized tests. They gave you extraneous information. When literally every problem exposed to you has extraneous information, of 2 forms: A, B or B, A, where B = worthless information, it becomes habitual to process information in this manner, especially when the problem is worded like a problem you'd find on a high-school level standardized test (you know, you never really forget how to ride a bike, like you never forget how to solve very badly designed problems that don't test intelligence in any way).

    I don't know, maybe I'm too smart for this researcher. But the answer seems obvious: years and yea

  • by jellomizer ( 103300 ) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 @09:11PM (#40303619)

    Well there are more factors.
    Blue states tend to have more colleges, because blue states have more/bigger cities.
    Cities in order to operate work best with liberal principals. Bigger government to offer services because in the city you don't have resources to be fully self reliant. You need city water and sewer because there isn't room for well and septic systems. Too many cars you need a good public transit system to move around faster. When you live in a city the government is the good guy.

    Red states are In rural areas you have land and you are more self reliant. Your house your own infrastructure, you will wait public transit just won't work so you need your own car. The government is seen as a force that taxes your income for services you don't use and maker of rules that restrict your freedom. So you are more apt to favor conservatives.

    In college the more conservative students are more apt to hit the books and study, while the liberal ones will party more. However the liberal students are less career minded and will more likely go directly into higher education.

    So are liberal or conservatives smarter? Probably not much of a difference, in terms of smarts. But more into life choices.

  • Re:Yeah... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by tinkerton ( 199273 ) on Wednesday June 13, 2012 @07:04AM (#40306969)

    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.

    There are concrete things that can be done though. There are also "smart people patterns" of systematic errors in thinking. For example, smart people are better at arguing their position, hence better at defending bad decisions , allowing them to persist in bad choices. Or, smart people can suffer more from analysis paralysis. It helps then to be aware of these weaknesses so you can compensate for them.

  • by stewbacca ( 1033764 ) on Wednesday June 13, 2012 @12:05PM (#40310065)

    You could have cut down your entire post by simply acknowledging that Universities lean left because critical thinking, empirical evidence, scientific inquiry, meta-cognition, and heavy doses of skepticism are staples for both.

    You also failed to acknowledge that what qualifies as "right wing" and "left wing" swings wildly based on era and geography. I registered Republican in the 1980s. I haven't had anyone in my party to vote for since G. H. W. Bush left office. I've also lived in Georgia and Texas, but grew up in the Northwest. I'm more liberal than some so called "Democrats" in those states. I've also lived in England and Germany, where the concept of right and left are on completely different scales.

    So, no, I don't think your analysis is very accurate. In fact, it sounds like the same sort of anti-intellectual rationalization for not having an education that I hear daily on conservative talk radio.

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