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Why Smart People Are Not Always Rational

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.

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