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Why Smart People Are Not Always Rational

Posted on Sep. 21, 2014 by | Comments (56)
NOTE: Most of the content of this post was included in a talk at The Amaz!ng Meeting in 2013 titled “Why Mensa Will Never Eliminate World Hunger”. It is the first of a series of posts on the difference between intelligence and rationality. Read the next two installments, “More On Why Smart People Are Not Always Rational” and “Why Smart Doesn’t Guarantee Rational, Part III.”

Paul Frampton

Paul Frampton. Image from Wikimedia Commons, used here under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Paul Frampton fell for a “honeytrap”*. A divorced man of 68, he had begun corresponding online with a woman named Denise Milani in November of 2011. Milani was a bikini model in her early 30s. Although he had never spoken with her over the phone or Skype, in January of 2012 he set out to meet her in Bolivia, where she was doing a photo shoot. Two weeks later he was sitting in a jail in Buenos Aries, arrested for transporting two kilos of cocaine into the country.

Here is what happened in a nutshell: Frampton was sent a ticket from Chapel Hill, North Carolina to Bolivia, by way of Toronto. When he got to Toronto, he discovered that the ticket for the second leg was invalid. So he waited in Toronto for another ticket. Four days later, he arrived in Bolivia, but Milani was no longer there. She was in Brussels on another photo shoot. She would send him a ticket, but would he mind bringing her a bag she’d left in Bolivia?

Nine days after that, a man handed him a plain black cloth suitcase with nothing in it. Not a designer bag, not a vintage bag that might have some kind of sentimental value, not a bag with things in it that she had left behind, but a plain, empty black cloth suitcase. Frampton filled the bag with his dirty laundry and went to the airport, sure that he would soon get off a plane in Brussels and head for a hotel where he would finally meet Denise Milani.

But he didn’t make it out of the airport in Buenos Aires.

The evidence suggests that Frampton knew the bag had cocaine in it. It suggests that he had a good idea of how much. But it also suggests that he believed that Denise Milani loved him. He seemed to think that they would sell the cocaine, get married, settle down, and have a family.

If you’re like me, about now you’re wondering just how dumb this guy is.

Well, Paul Frampton is a tenured professor of physics at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill with more than 450 publications (an astronomical amount). He has co-authored with three Nobel laureates. He is not stupid.

Yet would you deny that what he did was stupid?

Case in Point: Mensa

As a young adult in the late 1980s, like many of my peers, I was searching for something. People with common interests, conversation with a challenge, science, literature–you know, those things that make you feel as though you’ve gained some insights into the deeper meaning of life. Skeptic organizations were not as common as the are today and, although I was familiar with a few, they didn’t come to mind as sources of intellectual stimulation.

So I joined Mensa.

For those who haven’t heard of it, Mensa is a club and the only requirement for membership is that your IQ is in the top 2% of the population. That’s 1 out of 50 people, so it’s not all that exclusive if you think about it (in fact, it’s probably closer to 1 in 25 people in practice because of a little thing called measurement error). But at the time I thought that this was enough to guarantee some interesting people. I expected that, being around these people, I’d probably feel stupid and intimidated, but that was okay. The trade-off was worth it.

Imagine my excitement when that this envelope came in the mail and I poured over the welcome packet filled with events and special interest groups (called “SIG” for short) to join. “Scrabble by Mail”… okay, that’s cool, but if all I wanted was a challenging game, I could stay home and let my mother kick my ass at Scrabble™. “Writer’s SIG”. That’s more like it. Star Trek SIG? Hell, yeah.

Then I saw them: ESP SIG, Astrology SIG, Angels SIG. Hmmm…

My interest faded quickly, then I got a job at a software company and was surrounded by people smarter than me. I had always intended to give something at Mensa a try, but just never got around to it. I let my membership lapse.

Many years later when my kids were little, I renewed my membership to Mensa, thinking that my geeky, smart boys might feel more welcome among other smart kids. The SIGs were still there. Here are some that you’ll find on the list today:

  • Parapsychology (psychic phenomena)
  • Conspiracy theories
  • Preppers
  • Starving the Monkeys
  • The usual array of religious groups, including atheists

Then I read the Mensa Bulletin. One featured story informed me that science “does not have a consensus” regarding the man-made nature of global warming and that AGW is a product of “McCarthyism”. This was 2008, after the IPCC consensus statement which firmly declared a scientific consensus on the existence and man-made nature of climate change. The author had some harsh and rather ironic criticism of the act of making claims without evidence, but her own arguments were clearly fallacious and irrational, and I did not think this simply because I disagreed with her conclusion.

My letter to the editor went unpublished. I was not surprised. I have yet to attend a Mensa event and my membership status is “inactive” permanently, I think.

Intelligence Is Not Rationality

Mensa was founded over 65 years ago, primarily for the purpose of fostering intelligence for the betterment of humanity, but their list of accomplishments is sparse (and that’s being generous). They probably thought that when intelligent people joined forces, they could solve the world’s problems. But “intelligence” doesn’t work that way.

Most people seem to recognize that intelligence and rationality are not the same thing. I sometimes hear people refer to “street smarts” or “common sense” and compare it to “book smarts”. However, we seem to continue to expect intelligence and knowledge to predict rational behavior, as if rationality was some kind of byproduct of intelligence. Even skeptics can often be caught suggesting that if we just give people the right facts, they’ll change their minds about vaccines, E.S.P., and global warming. But that is not how people work.

Essentially, when psychologists talk about “rationality”, they are referring to belief structures and behavior that optimize goal fulfillment. In other words, thought processes and behavior that lead you to get what you want or need, such as eliminate world hunger. This can be confusing, because we often think that we have met our own goals with most decisions. But what often happens is that we decide what our goals were after we have made a choice; we usually do this to reduce cognitive dissonance.

So what does “intelligence” mean? I’m fond of saying that intelligence is that which is measured by IQ tests, but of course that is pretty meaningless, so let’s talk about what IQ tests measure. They measure cognitive ability (with some error). And there’s the rub: ability and performance are not the same thing.

In psychology, we differentiate between optimal performance situations and typical performance situations. In optimal performance situations, the participant is aware that they are expected to do their best and they know what they need to do to maximize their performance. What we want to know when we use such a test is what people can do. In typical performance situations, instructions to maximize performance are rarely given and the goal might be fuzzy. What we want to know when we use such measures is what people will do given a typical situation.

IQ tests are optimal performance situations. They measure cognitive ability. Rationality cannot be assessed without including measurements under typical performance conditions. This is because rationality involves thinking dispositions as well as cognitive ability.

I am not knocking IQ tests, here. For one thing, IQ tests DO test intelligence and intelligence is a very, very useful thing. It is an important component of rational thought, too. But it is not the same thing as rationality and, without rationality we don’t make the kinds of choices that solve real problems.

There are many, many fascinating ways that human beings are predictably irrational, and many readers of this blog are familiar with a lot of them. We tend to think that more is always better. We fail miserably at understanding probabilities and assessing risks. We look for evidence for what we believe rather than believe what the evidence tells us is probably true. People we like are always innocent, always good, and always right. We buy lottery tickets, play roulette, and buy extended warranties. We’re afraid to fly, but we drive drunk. Because we actually drive better when we’re drunk, right?

And yet we’re capable of overriding those natural tendencies.  Our brains are not broken. They just have a default setting. But intelligence is not enough to override the defaults.

In my next INSIGHT I will talk about those thinking dispositions that I mentioned and how they can help or hinder us when making decisions and forming beliefs. In the meantime, when you hear about someone’s irrational behavior, try to remember that people are not usually irrational just because they are stupid, nor are they stupid because they did something or believe something that is irrational.

 

Read the next two installments, “More On Why Smart People Are Not Always Rational” and “Why Smart Doesn’t Guarantee Rational, Part III.”

* The NY Times piece linked here is an excellent read and provides lot more fascinating details. [EDIT 09/22/14: As a concerned commenter and the NYT article points out, Denise Milani (who is a real person) claims no involvement with Paul Frampton and we have no reason to doubt that claim.]

Barbara Drescher

Barbara Drescher taught quantitative and cognitive psychology, primarily at California State University, Northridge for a decade. Barbara was a National Science Foundation Fellow and a Phi Kappa Phi Scholar. Her research has been recognized with several awards and the findings discussed in Psychology Today. More recently, Barbara developed educational materials for the James Randi Educational Foundation. Read Barbara’s full bio or her other posts on this blog.

56 Comments

  1. Lee Morley says:

    This is a great explanation. I often have to bite my lip to prevent myself from referring to those who hold irrational beliefs as idiots. Quite often the most prominent of these hold an array of qualifications which appear in contrast to their illogical beliefs.

    • Max says:

      Frampton sounds like a classic absent-minded professor, book smart but not street smart. James Randi has written at length about scientists getting duped by magicians.

      The scarier ones are people like Mohamed Morsi, who was an assistant professor of engineering at California State University Northridge before he became the President of Egypt and called Jews and Zionists “bloodsuckers” and “the descendants of apes and pigs.”

    • Quiet Desperation says:

      You can often follow the money in those cases. Does Sibrel really think Apollo was a hoax, or did he find a niche where he can sell lots of books and videos. Does Hoagland really think NASA schedules launches based on astrology and hyperdimensional something physics something, or is he a modern day P.T. Barnum? Did L. Ron believe in Thetans? Does Kurzweil have real faith in the Singularity?

      I’ve thought of doing it myself. Find some wacky legend or belief still lying around in the mythological lumberyard and take off with it. I’m surprised sometimes I haven’t done it already being the cynical, black hearted misanthrope that I am. :)

  2. prakamya says:

    so is stupid the opposite of intelligent or irrational?

  3. John A says:

    One featured story informed me that science “does not have a consensus” regarding the man-made nature of global warming and that AGW is a product of “McCarthyism”. This was 2008, after the IPCC consensus statement which firmly declared a scientific consensus on the existence and man-made nature of climate change. The author had some harsh and rather ironic criticism of the act of making claims without evidence, but her own arguments were clearly fallacious and irrational, and I did not think this simply because I disagreed with her conclusion.

    Unfortunately a lot of smart people fell for the AGW hypothesis, which has failed to predict anything, even the fact that the global mean temperature has not changed in 17 years, despite the continued rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Saying that there was a scientific consensus that man-made warming is real by the IPCC does not make it so. Global warming was supposed to cause more hurricanes, except that the number and intensity of hurricanes has fallen over the last 20 years.

    More recently, a study purported to show that 97% of scientists believed in AGW. Alas, that was shown to be a product of extremely poor data control and analysis (see http://www.theguardian.com/environment/blog/2014/jun/06/97-consensus-global-warming )

    Why should so many highly credentialled people get it wrong? I think its a human systemic failing in reasoning. We see trends and patterns in random data, we project those trends into the future and all we can see is disaster. Intelligent people are excellent at pattern recognition, but a lot less good at discerning that the patterns they see can be the result of randomness and not because there really is something there.

    • Santiago says:

      Your “AGW hypothesis” is agenda driven. The agenda is nominally a Leftist agenda, but no Leftist agenda has ever succeeded. EVER! On the contrary, Leftist agendae universally bring dishonesty, inefficiency, incompetence, destruction, and death. See the history of the Soviet Union. Militant Islam is another agenda driven system achieving the same results: dishonesty, inefficiency, incompetence, destruction, and death.

      So, what is it about these two systems that achieve such dismal results? Well, they both produce leaders that appear to be psychopathic, as defined by Dr. Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Check List.

    • SocraticGadfly says:

      What Santiago said.

      That said, Gary isn’t alone. Within movement skepticism, there continues to be a struggle over libertarian belief infiltrating. Shermer himself has backed off somewhat, but Penn & Teller, among others, certainly haven’t.

      So, in turn, what Barbara’s column is about applies not just to Mensa.

    • zeb says:

      “Why should so many highly credentialled people get it wrong? I think its a human systemic failing in reasoning.”

      Yes, but you obviously aren’t in the know the REAL reason why. You see, it all started when a group of eco-terrorists from the future infiltrated the U.N. to institute their nefarious plan for GLOBAL SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT. With an alien brainwashing device stolen from the Freemasons by Al Gore, they soon had 97% of the world’s climatologists under their control. This enabled them to manufacture a scientific consensus that CO2 emissions will cause catastrophic global warming, therefore leading to government regulation of greenhouse gases, and ultimately to clean, sustainable energy for the entire planet.

      Meanwhile in the underground labs of Koch Industries, freedom warriors Glenn Beck and Alex Jones had developed alien brainwash blocking technology that could be transmitted through the radio waves of their talk show broadcasts directly into the minds of their listeners, which included those remaining 3% of climatologists. Armed with this new freedom tech, they bravely set out to expose the evil eco-terrorist plot; mainly through climate skeptic blogs, Fox & Friends, and novelist Michael Crichton.

      • Pebbles says:

        I think her next article should discuss obtuse and sarcastic (sarCAUSTIC) pseudo-intellectuals. What do you think?

    • Matt C says:

      Thank you for bringing up the “97%” fallacy re “global warming”. It was, of course, *97% of a roughly one-third minority* who held the opinion that AGW was real. I’m reminded of Lenin’s quote regarding a lie repeated often enough being accepted as truth.

    • Pebbles says:

      I agree! Great response.

  4. Max says:

    “Stupid is as stupid does.”
    Top definition on Urban Dictionary: It means that an intelligent person who does stupid things is still stupid. You are what you do.

  5. Gary Hurd says:

    The most intelligent person I ever met was a non-literate Mayan living in a thatch hut with a dirt floor. He was a village potter and invented the idea of the experimental method by mixing his clays in various ratios to see how they performed. He had heard of reading and invented his own writing to mark the test clays, and then record the results.

    He is not famous. He is not even known outside his village except to a few anthropologists.

    So, “intelligence” has a very strong situational feature that can never be captured by an IQ test.

    • Max says:

      IQ tests don’t require literacy. They usually require finding patterns in abstract pictures, which the Mayan potter may do very well.

      • Max says:

        How would he do on this one?
        http://iqtest.dk/main.swf

      • Evelyn Haskins says:

        Max, I strongly disagree with you. IQ tests involve a high degree of ‘literacy’ and re VERY culturally biased.

        For example a pretty good guesswork at just exactly WHAT answer did the setter want, when he asks for the “odd one out”. I’ve see these questions where depending on how you decide to categorise the items shown there are three possible answers. Most commonly there are two possible and equally good answers.

        Which is the odd one out of — a knife, a fork, a plate and a garden spade?
        Which is the odd one out of — a cow, a pig, a bear and a chook (chicken to yooze foreigners)?

        Go on, play the game with your grandkids when they come over!! :-) and ask them why their chose whichever they did choose.

        • Max says:

          Where have you seen these “odd one out” questions?
          Do you have a problem with the test I linked to above? You won’t find any tools or animals in that one, and I challenge you to give two possible and equally good answers to any of the questions.

    • I beg to differ. Intelligence is actually captured by intelligence tests rather well (There are even intelligence tests which do not require literacy, as Max noted).

      However, people tend to think of intelligence in much broader terms, making it ill-defined in conversational use.

      One of the main points of the post is that we should not think of intelligence as encompassing everything that we think of as “smart”. It does not. “Intelligence” refers to a somewhat broad, but incomplete set of cognitive abilities. That’s it.

      • Evelyn Haskins says:

        Intelligence tests measure IQ (Intelligence Quota) only.

        Since there is as yet — as far as I know — no workable definition of ‘intelligence’ then I don’t think we can actually measure it.

        Then I have heard (and believe) that the further you go up the ladder of academia, the more you know about less and less. So people with a very limited ‘intelligence/mental ability’ can succeed extremely well in academia, whereas the woman who runs a household, pays the bills, prepares swish meals to entertain the husband’s boss and his wife, plays bridge for fun and helps with the kid’s music practice and sporting events shows much more generalised mental ability, even though she might score low on an IQ test.

        • Max says:

          I’m not sure how intelligence relates to being a specialist or a generalist. Anyone can memorize a bunch of facts, but it takes intelligence to make sense of them and find patterns and rules, and use them to make predictions.

  6. Max says:

    You say you got a job at a software company. I wonder if computer programmers are humbled by being constantly confronted by their mistakes, and spending a lot of time debugging their code. They can’t delude themselves into thinking their code is working when it keeps crashing.

    • Quiet Desperation says:

      I’m a hardware designer, but I do a lot of coding. There’s nothing humbling about it. It’s an iterative process for the most part. That algorithm didn’t work as expected so you tweak it. Inexperience with an API leads to using the wrong call so you look up the right one. Actually coding that state machine and testing it suggested a better way to do it. Much of the time it’s just typos.

      It’s complicated stuff. It’s ridiculous to expect a program to land on the page perfect the first time. If you go through life being “humbled” at every little error you make you’re in for a depressing life.

  7. Miguel Lucke says:

    Intelligence is a contextual tool or, rather, can be used contextually (what works in one realm does not necessarily operate well in another). Also, it ought to be borne in mind that there IS a difference between the level of skill in handling a tool and the ultimate purpose for which this tool is wielded.

    And, as the late Carl Sagan once stated, intellectual prowess is no assurance of being right every time.

  8. Alan Eggleston says:

    I once worked for someone who claimed to be a member of MENSA. She seemed kind of ditzy – scatter-brained. She was a second-generation inheritor of wealth in a position of power who didn’t lack moxy, just lacked intellectual impact. She was nice enough, but everyone who knew she was a member of MENSA wondered if she just bought her membership. Possibly, being a member of privilege, she was tutored on how to take tests well.

  9. Alan Eggleston says:

    I once worked for someone who claimed to be a member of MENSA. She seemed kind of ditzy – scatter-brained. She was a second-generation inheritor of wealth in a position of power who didn’t lack moxy, just lacked intellectual impact. She was nice enough, but everyone who knew she was a member of MENSA wondered if she just bought her membership. Possibly, being a member of privilege, she was tutored on how to take tests well.

  10. Rachel says:

    I find this very true.

    I am a doctor from the Philippines, who every single has to endure a lot sexist comments from male doctors who believe that I am smart for a woman, but not to be a doctor because they believe that only men have the will, determination, concentration and skills to become doctors.

    Also, doctors are stereotyped as the smart ones, and the general population does not believe that smart people are capable of doing stupid things. I see these “smart” people do stupid things every day. These ranges from not understanding or being able to use a hole puncher properly to getting scammed in business dealings with shady contracts.

    In response to one of your tweets with the article “Science’s Sexual Assault Problem”, I believe that these hideous acts of men (humans, for that matter, not just males) are not a cultural phenomenon, but a human one.

  11. Todd I. Stark says:

    I’m sure Barbara knows this, but for others interested, Keith Stanovich also has a large relevant research literature on distinguishing intelligence from rationality. He has a specific way of thinking of this that distinguishes the sort of cognition that makes us good at handling novelty and complexity (drawing on intelligence) from the sort of cognition that makes us good at reflecting on our own thinking (reflective reasoning).

    • Todd I. Stark says:

      I should add that one of the central points Keith makes that I think is also consistent with Barbera’s view (?) is that intelligence needs to be considered in two senses: the narrow sense of the positive manifold of abilities that vary together and are measured well by IQ tests and probably also reflects something like the ability to handle novelty and complexity under time constraints, and a broader sense of intelligence that better reflects adaptive problem solving and reasoning and so on as a larger concept. The latter is closer to what we imagine of someone who makes good decisions according to appropriate norms of rationality. The former narrow sense is what we imagine to be the ability to do all the sorts of things that vary together in psychometric testing.

  12. BobM says:

    In this case, intelligence is not worldliness. The guy was a tenured professor for crying out loud. Anyone in the real world could have told him that a bikini model in her thirties is not going to fall for a guy like him unless he is a squillionair :-). Or variations thereof.

    • Max says:

      How about a retired Army lieutenant colonel?
      http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/09/18/us-usa-china-espionage-idUSKBN0HD05C20140918

      “A 60-year-old former U.S. military contractor in Hawaii was sentenced on Wednesday to more than seven years in prison for passing national defense secrets to his 27-year-old Chinese girlfriend and illegally keeping numerous classified documents at his home.”

    • Max says:

      It says his old friend John Dixon, a physicist and lawyer, did warn him:
      “I thought he was out of his mind, and I told him that. ‘You’re not talking to the real girl. Why would a young woman like that be interested in an old guy like you?’ But he really believed that he had a pretty young woman who wanted to marry him.”
      When I later asked Frampton what made him think that Milani was interested, he replied, “Well, I have been accused of having a huge ego.”

  13. Ray Roman says:

    Mensa means dum in spanish. Maybe the name fits.

  14. Vandy Beth Glenn says:

    You neglected to say, and it seems important to me in the interest of accuracy and the woman’s reputation, that the person Frampton was corresponding with was almost certainly not the real Denise Milani.

  15. Paul Hargraves says:

    I’m always more interested in a person’s values rather than how smart they are.

  16. Anita says:

    “Irrational = people who disagree with me”

  17. Alberto Cortes says:

    Hello. I am a member of Mensa and I also felt the same confusion when I discovered that, despite their intelligence, many members of Mensa have irrational beliefs. It was frustrating to find many SIGs dedicated to angels and weird things like that. This evidence showed me that intelligence is not the only requirement to banish superstitious beliefs out of our brain, but even though I had spent many hours thinking about this stuff, I had not found the answers. If you are right, my search has finished with this article. You just gave me a rational explanation that answers my questions. I congratulate you for your amazing ability to synthesize that “intelligence” and “rationality” are not the same thing and not always go hand in hand.
    If you allow me, I will translate this article to Spanish (my native language) and will to spread it. THANK YOU! (One thousand times).

  18. Max says:

    What’s the role of nature vs. nature in intelligence vs. rationality?
    Is intelligence mostly inherited while rationality is mostly learned, or what?

    • SocraticGadfly says:

      IIRC, it’s roughly 50 percent. That said, most tests on heritability of most traits have been conducted before the recent explosion in research on epigenetics.

  19. Max says:

    Are there tests that measure rationality the way IQ tests measure intelligence?

  20. gnadfly says:

    The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
    George Bernard Shaw,

  21. Chris says:

    Even if Frampton’s 451 publications were heaped in a pile I doubt whether the mass would form an astronomical amount (even if his articles had trillions of pages each) nor is 451 an astronomical number in the usual sense of mind boggling counts.

    As skeptics we ought, in our fight to retain clarity of thought, to be concerned with trends to obfuscate by weakening word meanings (don’t get me started on the use of behavioural ‘gender’ in place of biological status ‘sex’) – hence the struggle above to differentiate between intelligence and rationality.

    • Max says:

      Frampton is quoted as saying, “I’ve written 450 papers, an absurd number. A typical professor writes 100 in his career.”
      Astronomical means the same thing as absurd here, and is a pun on Frampton’s position in the physics and astronomy department.

      By the way, where did you get the number 451, from another source, or confused with the temperature at which book-paper catches fire?

      • Chris says:

        Thanks for that enlightenment. Whether or not the author of article misinterpreted or generalized from a departmental in-joke was indiscernible to this outsider – journalistic traits that must exasperate many scientists.

        I, too, wondered at the coincidence of 451, but with the gauche parenthetical add-on ‘an astronomical amount’ – alliterates well though – just assumed a poor attempt at hyperbole. Your quotation, I note, shows Frampton used ‘number’ not ‘amount’ to describe the quantity of papers he wrote.

        You had read the article, hadn’t you Max? Your comment if read as directed at me rather suggests you haven’t.

  22. eastnorfirestarter says:

    The capitalist that sells water will complain of the free competition he must deal with.
    Meanwhile, there is more fresh water frozen in the asteroids then on earth (many times over). Rationality and intelligence level is a perspective. A disposition as the author described.

  23. Richard says:

    I wonder where emotional intelligence fits into this ala Coleman? Many academically intelligent people are very eccentric and seem oblivious to the fact that that seems to reduce their credibilty to others. Social skills and high intelligence don’t seem to correlate as much as one might expect? Very intelligent people are often unsucessful in business for example where social skills are quite fundamental. ‘Brains are cheap’ is a phrase I have heard…academics are poorly paid by society. Some of the environmental activists who are clearly extremely intelligent in their analysis of issues, and who are frustrated that politicians and business people don’t take them seriously, cannot see that their often ‘wild man’ images and appearance detract from their message…..surely they are intelligent enough to realise that? ……apparently not!

  24. eastnorfirestarter says:

    Intelligence is a scope study of the vast surrounding landscape of the observer, in order to venture a rationalization to a goal direction that will obtain the highest “surrounding-aided” synergy yield, regardless of the negative drag from opposing less-intelligent endeavors in play at the time.

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