Why Smart People Are Actually Dumb

The human brain is a weird old thing. When confronted with a new, uncertain situation, it virtually always abandons careful analysis, and instead resorts to a host of mental shortcuts—that almost always lead to the wrong answer. Turns out, the smarter you are, the more likely you are to make such mistakes.

A new study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggests that you can be insanely intelligent, and still fall foul when it comes simple problems because of deviations in judgment—which are known as "cognitive bias".

To work all this out, a team of researchers form the University of Toronto gave 482 students a questionnaire of classic bias problems to complete. An example question runs along the lines of:

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?

If you're rushing, you might blurt out that the ball costs ten cents. It doesn't: it costs five. If you got it wrong, your brain made some shortcuts if thought made sense, but abandoned math along the way. (If you're sat there incredulously assuming that anyone getting that wrong is a dumb-ass, hear this: more than 50 percent of students at Harvard, Princeton, and M.I.T. give the incorrect answer.)

The researchers also measured a phenomenon called "anchoring bias", but what they were really interested in assessing was how the biases correlated with intelligence. So, they interspersed tests with with cognitive measures, like S.A.T. and Need for Cognition Scale questions.

The results are unnerving. Firstly, awareness of bias in one's thinking doesn't help. As the researchers explain: "people who were aware of their own biases were not better able to overcome them." Dammit.

Turns out that intelligence makes things worse, too. Writing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology they explain that "more cognitively sophisticated participants showed larger bias blind spots." In fact, that finding held across many different biases, and individuals who deliberated longer seemed to be even more susceptible to making mistakes. Double dammit.

So what's going on? Why are smart people seemingly so dumb some of the time? Sadly, nobody really knows. The best hypothesis yet suggests that it's tied up with the way we perceive ourselves and others. Basically, the way we process information, so some researchers suggest, makes it far easier for us to spot biases in other people than it is for us to notice ourselves making the exact same mistakes.

As a result, it's not clear whether there's anything that can be done about shaking off the problem. I'd suggest a drink to take the edge off your intelligence, but then, I can't guarantee that would make things any better. [Journal of Personality and Social Psychology via The New Yorker]

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