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Why Smart Doesn’t Guarantee Rational, Part III

Jul. 09, 2015 by | Comments (21)
This is the third post in a three-part series. Read the previous two installments, “Why Smart People Are Not Always Rational” and “More On Why Smart People Are Not Always Rational.”

This post is the third and final in a series I began more than a year ago. The first post discussed how rationality differs from intelligence, how both may be measured, and what may keep intelligent people from behaving rationally. The second describes three of the four broad categories of factors involved in rational thinking while taking a closer look at how one thinking disposition, the need for cognition, affects decision-making and problem solving. I highly recommend reading the first two posts before continuing with this one as the background is important.

In summary, we tend to the think that people are irrational because they lack intelligence or knowledge. Both may contribute to rationality. However, intelligence and education are no guarantees of rationality because other factors such as cognitive laziness and open/closed-mindedness are just as, if not more, important. In other words, human beings tend to be irrational out of stupidity or ignorance, but also out of laziness or arrogance.

The scientific process addresses each of these factors to ensure that the answers we find are as accurate as possible. Although the scientific method itself is inherently intelligent, a good researcher must have a minimum level of intelligence in order to succeed as good research rises above bad through the process of peer review. Scientists conduct very thorough reviews of literature to produce theoretically sound hypotheses (addressing ignorance). Regarding cognitive laziness, science itself is curious; scientists would not be in the business if they were not intellectually curious and willing to do the work to find accurate answers. Finally, science is competitive and interactive, discouraging arrogance. An individual scientist may be overconfident, but the process of peer review and replication beats that arrogance down in order to produce a consensus view.

The more open-minded and flexible one is, the more rational one will be.

Science, in theory at least, is rational. People, in general, are not. Of course that’s why we need science. Unfortunately, we don’t spend our lives evaluating every choice and every belief using scientific study, so we need to be more cognizant of the things that get in the way of everyday rationality if we want to lead more productive lives.

Stanovich and West (covered in the Stanovich book cited below) have shown us that one of the most important qualities that consistently rational people demonstrate is a flexibility in thinking, and open-mindedness. Good rationality requires us to consider alternatives to the way we currently think the world is. It requires us to set our current beliefs aside long enough to objectively evaluate other views. The more open-minded and flexible one is, the more rational one will be. Hubris and narcissism often prevent intelligent people from doing this consistently, which in turn prevents rational thinking.

Overconfidence can put you in hot water a number of ways. Take our example (discussed in Part I) of Paul Frampton, the accomplished physics professor who fell for a “honey trap” and was arrested for drug smuggling in Buenos Aries. Frampton begged the police to read his text messages, sure that they would exonerate him by showing that the bag that he was transporting was not his own. However, the messages also demonstrated clearly that Frampton knew that the bag contained cocaine and that he chose to transport it anyway. Frampton believed that he was innocent and that the person he had been exchanging text messages with for weeks was a bikini model 35 years his junior who loved him. He was so sure that his judgement was correct that he could not imagine how the situation might look from someone else’s point of view. It should be no surprise that two psychologists testified that Frampton had traits of narcissistic personality disorder. Frampton’s downfall was overconfidence.

Being overconfident in some situations can put your life in danger, but the most damage is probably done through everyday choices and behaviors which chip away at our quality of life. The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a phenomenon that many skeptics might be aware of, namely it is an inverse correlation of competence and overconfidence. The people who are the least competent in a given domain tend to overestimate their competence the most.

The vast majority of people overestimate their competence in any given domain due to a set of biases we use to protect our self-esteem. For example, almost everyone rates themselves as above average in most ways. In the case of judging competency in an area such as reading comprehension, those who score in the lowest quartile (below the 25th percentile) tend to rate themselves above the 50th percentile. Those who rank just below average tend to rank themselves a little bit higher at, say, the 70th percentile, and so on. The more competence one has, the less they overestimate. The most competent people actually tend to underestimate.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect: the less competent one is, the more one over-estimates one's competence.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect: the less competent one is, the more one over-estimates one’s competence.

Dunning and Kruger attribute this effect to knowledge. In other words, the more we know, the more we understand how much we do not know. Conversely, those with the least competence don’t know what they don’t know.

At this point you might be wondering what this has to do with rationality. Well, when overconfidence is combined with inflexibility, rationality is nearly impossible and the potential damage is boundless. Stubborn overconfidence is arrogance and arrogance is blinding.

A few years ago a student and I noticed a correlation between entitlement attitudes, study habits, and academic performance. We hypothesized that students who used poor study strategies (e.g., rote memorization or “rehearsal” of conceptual material) felt entitled to do so and resisted the conclusion that poor grades were a result of those strategies. We conducted a study to test that hypothesis and learned that students with high entitlement attitudes were the most overconfident, were the least competent (this is the Dunning-Kruger Effect), and tended to attribute academic performance to forces outside of their control (the teacher, the system). These students also tended to use poor study strategies such as flashcards and memorizing bullets on lecture slides.

This creates what I call a “Cycle of Incompetence.”

Students perform poorly because they don’t understand the material and they don’t know that they don’t understand it. They reject feedback (such as low grades) as related to their study habits because they attribute performance to outside forces. Feedback therefore does not cause them to change their behavior. This is correlated with feelings of entitlement, superiority, and narcissism, so they feel entitled to continue with poor study strategies (and receive high grades), so they do. Those poor strategies do not lead to greater competence, hence they remain in a cycle of ignorance and incompetence.


If you think that you are competent or right, if you don’t know that you don’t know and you won’t accept criticism as feedback, it’s unlikely that you will make the changes needed to become competent.

This problem affects more than learning. It is a factor in everything from voting to interpersonal relationships to deciding which peanut butter to buy. When we are unable to set aside our beliefs and opinions, unable to accept the possibility that those beliefs are wrong, we are unable to objectively evaluate arguments and evidence. When we are unable to be objective, we are unable to be rational. And when we are unable to be rational, we risk forming beliefs and making choices which do not lead us to our goals.

Open-mindedness, humility, and flexibility are cornerstones of rationality. Science—the best means of acquiring knowledge—is humble, open, and flexible for that reason. You may be reasonably certain of a conclusion, but the moment you close the door on the possibility that you are wrong, you become irrational.

So being smart is not enough. Being smart and educated is not enough. We must be smart, educated, curious, and open-minded, and this last one is perhaps the most important of them all.


For those looking for more to read on this subject, I highly recommend the following books. They are all written by respected researchers and cover the literature in relevant fields:


Did you enjoy this post? Read the previous two installments in this three-part series, “Why Smart People Are Not Always Rational” and “More On Why Smart People Are Not Always Rational.”


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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