Why are smart people so stupid?

Rational thinking isn’t just about removing emotions from descision making (like Spock, for example). Chimpanzees (one brain shown here) have been shown to exhibit emotions and make very rational decisions. In some cases it was shown that chimps make more “rational” decisions than humans do. (Source: Gaetan Lee).

By Carl Jackson

Most of us know that familiar feeling — we all have friends who come out the top of their classes but make terrible life decisions. And most of us are also uncomfortably aware that what is true of our friends is also true of ourselves (to a greater or lesser degree). So what’s going on here? Why do people whose intelligence is not in doubt often behave in a way that is, not to put too fine a point on it, kinda dumb?

The answer, according to University of Toronto psychologist Keith Stanovich, is that intelligence is not the same thing as rationality. Intelligence can be understood as the brain’s underlying hardware efficiency… like memory capacity and raw processing power. Rationality, however, can be thought of more as how sophisticated the software is: how efficiently and effectively you can use your neural hardware to achieve your goals. That friend that is book-smart and not so street-smart? Well they probably have a great deal of intelligence, but are lacking in rationality.

Most people think they’re pretty rational, but growing literature in cognitive science (the study of mental processes) provides a fundamental challenge to this idea. Psychologists Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky and Stanovich all propose that rather than being the rational animals championed by Aristotle, humans are instead subject to a wide variety of cognitive biases. There are many known human cognitive biases that fall under three categories: behavioural, social and memory biases. These biases are a direct result of heuristics, or rules of thumb, used by the brain to reach an answer that is ‘good enough’ for the problem at hand.

Some examples of common cognitive biases include the Google Effect (a memory bias), which is the tendency to forget information that is easily found online, or the behavioural Denomination Effect, the tendency to spend more money when it’s in a smaller denomination (like coins, rather than bills).

See how you fare with this problem: Together, a bat and a ball cost $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

If you said 10 cents, congratulations — you’ve just used your incredibly fast, evolutionarily optimised heuristic system to arrive at the wrong answer! But the answer is almost right (the correct answer is five cents… think about it).

Evolutionarily speaking, cognitive biases arose as a result of incorrect mental programming based on heuristics — it’s better to quickly come to an answer that is occasionally wrong than to spend a lot of time thinking about a complex problem only to get eaten by a passing tiger. Unfortunately, cognitive biases can mess up human reasoning and rationality in many and diverse ways. If you think yourself free from all biases, think again. Look up the list of 168 cognitive biases on Wikipedia and try to honestly tell yourself that you don’t have any!

So, how can we reduce the influence of these biases on our daily lives? A promising start has been made by the new nonprofit Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR), based in Berkeley, California, which is dedicated to improving the art of human rationality. It grew out of the website “Less Wrong,” which hosts a community of rationalists whose interests span all the way from existential risk reduction (essentially, planning ways to save humanity from threats like an unfriendly Artificial Intelligence) to rationalist Harry Potter fan-fiction. CFAR now runs workshops and retreats where participants can go and learn techniques to directly improve their rationality skills.

CFAR’s President Julia Galef is a long-time advocate of rationality. “We founded CFAR because we see an enormous opportunity to improve on humanity’s innate reasoning and decision-making abilities,” Galef said. “Ultimately we’d love to increase everyone’s rationality skills, but we’re starting with the low-hanging fruit: people who are already intellectually curious and motivated to learn.”

“Although we have all ages of people attending our workshops, we’re especially focused on young people — because if you’re going to learn rational decision-making, it’s ideal to do that before you make too many life-changing decisions,” Galef said.

“The model for [rationality] training continually evolves as we try things out and learn from our attempts,” Michael Smith, lead curriculum developer for CFAR, said. “Currently, we typically bring people together in a somewhat informal class-like setting and invite them to think about a kind of situation where our intuitions have led us astray. We then talk through the irrationality of the scenario and draw attention to the underlying structure of the irrationality. Finally, we introduce techniques for navigating the irrationality and give participants a chance to practice.”

Smith gave the example of working with sunk-cost reasoning — students may reason that they have to finish their degree program even if they decide half-way through that it’s not for them. “[The reasoning is] ‘if I don’t [graduate], the last several years of work and effort will have been wasted,’” Smith said.

The retreats CFAR runs are a whirlwind of classes and advice on rationality, from ‘timeless’ decision making for reducing bad habits to using causal models for planning out your feelings. But while the classes are incredibly useful and detailed, there are steps you can take to improve your rationality — and other life skills — right now. For example, when you get in a heated debate, immediately try to see things from your opponent’s point of view and reduce reliance on your ‘combat reflexes’; it’s a better way to get to the overall truth. Think carefully about the decisions you make before you make them: how much is your time and the value of your activity worth, and should you be doing something else?

If CFAR succeeds in its mission of being able to raise the ‘rationality waterline’, the techniques it is developing could one day become part of mainstream education. Being able to make more rational decisions is incredibly helpful, not only for living a successful life, but also for improving society as a whole. And one great, though far-fetched, goal for the future of the human race is a time when smart people don’t do stupid things.

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