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More On Why Smart People Are Not Always Rational

Oct. 24, 2014 by | Comments (55)

This is the second post in a three-part series. Read the first post, “Why Smart People Are Not Always Rational” and the final installment, “Why Smart Doesn’t Guarantee Rational, Part III.”

In a previous post I discussed the fascinating case of Paul Frampton who, as the website News Observer put it, “instantly was transformed from superstar particle phenomenologist with three Oxford University degrees to international tabloid fodder” when he fell for a honey trap drug smuggling scam. In it, I talked about irrationality in Mensa, the “high IQ society”, and the fact that rational behavior is not, as most of us assume, a direct product of intelligence.

If rationality is not a product of intelligence, then what is it a product of?

To find out, researchers such as Keith Stanovich, Richard West, and others have studied individual differences in rationality. In other words, they have worked to identify what makes people who perform well on a specific set of cognitive tasks different from people who do not. Intelligence is one factor, but it does not explain all of the variability. There are some tasks for which performance is not related to intelligence much at all.

This is surprising to most, because we tend to think of the term “smart” somewhat simplistically. We expect people who are smart in one way to be smart in every way. But that’s not quite how intelligence works (again, please read my first post, which discusses the differences between IQ and rationality, and how each is measured).

So what’s going on?

Well, after many years of study, Stanovich and others have identified a number of factors which explain these differences, but I think the list can be collapsed into four general categories: intelligence, knowledge, need for cognition, and open-mindedness. Or, if you prefer my casual references, we can be irrational because we are stupid, ignorant, lazy, arrogant, or some combination of those.

Intelligence can be thought of as cognitive ability, or the ability to perform a specific set of cognitive tasks. It is an important factor in rational thought, but it is only one factor that matters. Knowledge is necessary to solve many problems and intelligence cannot make up for a lack of information.

But the other items are thinking dispositions. More specific examples of thinking dispositions are long-term thinking (about future consequences), dogmatism, and superstition. Thinking dispositions are rooted in goals, beliefs, belief structure, and attitudes about beliefs—toward forming and changing beliefs. Goals and attitudes involve values, so it should not be surprising that beliefs often do, too.

To be rational, we must know when to override our default thinking, then we must do it. Knowing when to override involves intelligence and knowledge, but the will or motivation to do so is another thing altogether. That requires more than critical thinking, more than problem-solving ability. It requires us to hold our current world view in a kind of escrow while we consider an alternative view in an open-minded fashion. Some thinking dispositions get in the way of that process.

Need for cognition is one of the dispositions that can help or hinder rational thought. Overriding default thinking requires energy, and human beings are natural cognitive misers. What that means is that we will spend as little energy as necessary to meet our goals. People vary in how much they are willing to spend. The more curious and interested one is in spending time and energy in finding the correct answer or best choice to meet one’s goals, the more rational one will be.

For example, consider the following problem:

Jack is looking at Anne, but Anne is looking at George. Jack is married, but George is not. Is a married person looking at an unmarried person?

Your options are:

  1. Yes
  2. No
  3. Cannot be determined

If you are like most people, you answered “3″. However, the correct answer is 1. This becomes obvious if you approach the question in a way that is not intuitive. Most people notice that they know nothing about Anne, see that they have an option for “cannot be determined” and stop there. However, when we take that third option away, the typical answer is a correct one. People do what they need to do to find an answer: they consider the possibilities.

JackAnneGeorgeAnne must be either married or unmarried. If she is married, she is looking at an unmarried person, so the answer is “yes” (the green path). If she is unmarried, then the answer is still “yes” because a married person is looking at her (the red path). In the end, it doesn’t matter what we do and do not know about Anne’s marital status.

How well people perform this task under controlled conditions is related to the need for cognition–how much energy one is willing to expend to find the best answer. This can be an important factor in real life situations such as policy-making. For example, it might seem like a wonderful idea to raise high school graduation standards in order to ensure that all graduates qualify to attend college. However, the long-term consequences of such a policy might include things like grade inflation and lower graduation rates. Thinking things through more thoroughly can reveal some interesting problems with what seems like a great idea on the surface.

Most people are surprised to discover that former president George W. Bush is not stupid. His IQ has been estimated consistently at around 120, which is well above average. However, he has a reputation for making poor, irrational choices. Even many Republicans have alluded to his lack of intellectual curiosity. This deficit of the need to think things through renders intelligence useless and leads to irrational choices and behaviors. To illustrate the gravity of this problem, consider the following experiment.

Participants were asked to allocate 100 livers to 200 children who needed transplants. The children were divided into Group A and Group B, each with 100 children. The participants did what you probably expected: they gave half to each group. But in a follow-up study, the participants were told that the children in Group A had an 80% chance, on average, of surviving the surgery and the children in Group B had a 20% chance. If the goal of liver transplants is to save as many lives as possible, something I think we can all agree is more important than giving hope (in this case, we cannot do both because there are not enough livers), then the choice is clear: allocate the livers to those most likely to survive. This makes giving any livers to children in Group B an irrational choice.

However, only 24% of participants in this study chose to give all of the livers to Group A. More than a quarter of the participants gave half of the livers to Group B.

The difference between these two choices is 30 dead children.

When asked why they chose to give so many of the livers to the children in group B, participants gave answers such as “I would like to give hope to the Group who has the least chance of survival.” One said, “I believe in God. God doesn’t work in numbers.”

Now, you might be tempted to accept those answers and think that emotion and compassion got in the way of better thinking, not “cognitive laziness”. But scientists like truth and truth isn’t always pretty, so another experiment was conducted to test these excuses. In this one, the 200 children were ranked, individually, from the highest probability of survival to the lowest. If the reasons given for allocating to Group B were accurate, we’d expect at least some of the participants to distribute the livers somewhat evenly, as some did in the previous study (the distribution on the left below). However, the participants in this study had no trouble allocating the livers to the top 100 patients when they were not grouped (the distribution on the right below.

The comments about wanting to give hope to the children less likely to survive were justifications for what amounts to lazy thinking. The way the question was framed determined how people responded, not their real preferences, their real goals. Their goals and preferences changed to justify the behavior.

And the result, were this a real-life situation, is the death of children who might otherwise have survived.

To summarize so far, we are sometimes irrational because we are stupid (unintelligent) and we are sometimes irrational because we are ignorant (lack knowledge), but we are often irrational because we are lazy (lack intellectual curiosity) or arrogant. That last category, open-mindedness (including arrogance/overconfidence) I will save for a third post on the subject. In the meantime, there are a couple of take-home messages I would like to end with:

  • We all believe that we are rational. We all think that our choices and actions are the result of good thought processes. We recognize that human beings are naturally irrational, but we all seem to think that “human beings” means “other people”. Think about what you believe makes you different. You have to get beyond, “I’m smart”, but you also have to get beyond “I use logic and reason”, because we all think that we are using logic and reason, yet few, if any, of us are consistently rational. This information should be used as a mirror as much, if not more, as it is used to understand others.
  • To paraphrase Keith Stanovich, when we allow our dispositions and intellectual laziness to keep us from deeper thinking, when our decisions are determined, not by what we want, but by how the choices are presented, we relinquish our power to those who frame the questions.

Rather than include a very long list of academic literature, I will instead recommend the following books, as most of the literature referenced in these posts is covered in at least one of them:

Stanovich, K.E. (2010). What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought. Yale University Press

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Ariely, D. (2009). Predictably Irrational. Harper

Tavris, C. & Aronson, E. (2007). Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


Read the final installment of this three-part series, “Why Smart Doesn’t Guarantee Rational, Part III.”

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.

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