Intelligence and Stupid Behavior

Non-cognitive contributors to irrationality

Posted Nov 02, 2016

istock getty images
Source: istock getty images

In a September 16, 2016 essay in the New York Times, David Z. Hambrick and Alexander P. Burgoyne made an interesting distinction between intelligence and rationality. Drawing mainly on the work of noted cognitive psychologist Keith Stanovitch, they referred to “dysrationalia” (a term coined decades ago by Stanovitch) as the failure of people with average or above-average intelligence (as measured by IQ) to apply their intelligence adequately in addressing real-world problems. An example (termed the “Linda Problem) used by Hambrick and Burgoyne was drawn from work in behavioral economics, and involved the following scenario “Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in antinuclear demonstrations.” Then the researchers asked the subjects which was more probable: (A) Linda is a bank teller or (B) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement. The correct answer is A, because feminist bank tellers are included in the larger total class of tellers (obviously some non-feminist tellers will also have liberal views), but a very large percentage of respondents, including students at elite colleges, fell for the logical illusion created by the conjunction of feminism and social justice, and answered “B”. Hambrick and Burgoyne used this finding to make the point that having a high IQ does not ensure that one has a high ‘”rationality quotient,” as reflected in the fact that even smart people demonstrate cognitive biases that undermine their ability to make rational real-world decisions.

The fact that smart people sometimes behave stupidly is, of course, not exactly news. In his edited book Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid, another noted cognitive psychologist, Robert Sternberg, used the example of Bill Clinton’s disastrous Oval Office dalliance with college intern Monica Lewinsky to illustrate the phenomenon of irrational conduct (although Sternberg preferred the term “foolishness” to the term irrationality). Sternberg and other contributors to his book, operated—like the authors cited earlier--within a largely cognitive (but even if beyond IQ) framework, by attributing to smart-stupid people an absence of what Sternberg termed “tacit knowledge.” That term reflects the fact that in most social settings there are certain keys to success that are not explicitly taught, but which when not followed are likely to lead to failure. An example often used by Sternberg is an assistant professor at a research university who was denied tenure for failure to publish sufficiently, but then complained that “nobody told me that publishing a lot is so important for obtaining tenure here.” She was not given that information by the institution,  because research universities want to protect an important secret (namely that teaching excellence in the very top schools is a low priority) and because it is assumed that anyone smart enough to land a job at an elite university should be smart enough to figure out what is required to stay there.

However, applying the tacit knowledge explanation to Clinton-Lewinsky was problematic for Sternberg and his colleague Richard Wagner, for the simple reason that a worldly and very savvy person like Bill Clinton would surely possess the tacit knowledge that an office affair with an intern was a very politically risky activity. So they came up with a supplementary personality explanation for Clinton’s foolishness, namely profound arrogance and a sense of immunity, stemming from past success in getting away with sexual misconduct. By thus bringing a non-cognitive (i.e., personality) factor into their explanation of foolishness/ irrationality, Sternberg and Wagner acknowledged that a purely cognitive approach to foolish / irrational behavior is not always sufficient. However, they can be faulted for omitting two other important causal elements: situation (Monica flirtatiously snapping her thong at Bill) and biological state disequilibrium (Clinton’s horniness, coupled with chronic sleep-deprivation). 

The basic problem with equating irrationality with failure to solve logic illusions is that in most settings (including economics, where the term seems most widely used) rationality has to do less with inefficient thought and more to do with behavior in line with or contrary to self-interest. It is understandable that economists, who for the most part study decisions of relatively trivial importance (such as buying house A as opposed to house B), would over-value the contribution of logical efficiency to rationality, as a smart home (or any other) purchase clearly would benefit substantially from financial acumen. However, even there, emotion should be factored in, as falling in love with a house is more important than cost or investment potential for many home buyers (such as me). In fact, the main contribution that behavioral economics (essentially the merging of economics and psychology) has made to economic theory, is the correction of the classical economic assumption that individuals always make financial decisions based on reasoned self-interest. 

When rationality is applied in non-economic contexts, however, the limitations of equating irrationality with deficient thought processes becomes even more obvious. Here an example from Stanovitch’s early writings about dysrationalia can be illustrative.  He wrote about two Holocaust-denying public school teachers in Illinois who defied the curricular mandate to teach about the Shoah,  when they sent out 6,000 letters (presumably one for each 1,000 mythical murdered Jews) telling parents in their school district why they felt unable to teach about an event they firmly believed had never happened. As a consequence, the teachers were fired from their jobs, a highly predictable outcome but one which the two clueless individuals apparently never anticipated.

The teachers’ behavior was irrational, not so much because it showed a lack of formal logic (which may have contributed to their mistaken reading of history) but because it showed a lack of social risk-awareness (the risk of being insubordinate to one’s employers, and the risk of offending taxpayers, in a state with many Holocaust survivors and their relatives). The irrationality of their behavior was, in that case, driven mainly by emotion (deeply-held political beliefs), which derailed their (likely limited) ability to reflect on social reality. In his original writings about dysrationalia, Stanovitch described the condition as an “intuition pump,” by which he meant that the inability to use one’s intelligence in the real-world is affected by the presence of strongly interfering personality or state factors such as emotion and impulsivity. In a very limited sense, logical illusions such as the Linda problem can be considered analogous (in that they trigger heuristic associations that substitute for thinking) to emotion driven impulsivity, but non-economic irrationality (such as in the Illinois example) usually reflects much stronger non-cognitive influences.

Rationality is one of those constructs that is widely used in everyday parlance, and in various professional contexts besides economics (e.g., philosophy, psychology, legal theory), but which has never really been adequately defined. In most contexts (including, for the most part, economics), rationality refers to smart action (and irrationality to non-smart action) rather than efficient or inefficient thinking processes. The latter may, obviously, contribute to smart/ dumb behavior, but it is a mistake, in my opinion, to conflate the two and imply (as Hambrick and Burgoyne appear to do) that rationality is nothing more than non-IQ aspects of cognition. In criminal law (where I have been functioning as a psychological consultant for over a decade), irrationality refers to criminal behavior where the actor fails to reflect on the likely physical or social consequences of his or her behavior.  In fact, in the 2002 US Supreme Court decision in Atkins v Virginia which abolished execution of people with Intellectual Disability (ID), Justice Stevens wrote that the impaired rationality of people with ID causes them to partially lack mens rea (criminal intent). The definition of a crime, in British and American jurisprudence, is based on conscious intent coupled with understanding of likely consequences. The essence of legal irrationality, therefore, is found in action which at least partially reflects a lack of risk awareness (in this case, risk to the legally protected interests of the victim). In my forthcoming book “Anatomy of Foolishness,” I define foolishness as action which reveals a relative absence of risk-awareness. Within the criminal justice field, therefore, foolishness is another word for irrationality.  In my hypothesized theory of foolish behavior, there are four causal factors: situation, cognition, personality, and state. I wrote an analysis, applied to the irrationality of Bernard Madoff victims (using myself as an illustration), published in The Wall Street Journal only three weeks after the Madoff scandal news broke.

The basic mistake made by Hambrick and Burgoyne was in confusing rationality with reasoning.  Poor reasoning involves faulty thinking while irrationality involves clueless behavior. How many of the Princeton or Stanford students who flunked the Linda problem would be likely to do anything as stupid  as sending out a signed letter denying the Holocaust, even if they held such a belief? Zero, or close to it, in my opinion. Dumb behavior by smart people is a topic deserving of attention, but defining dumb behavior as poor performance on tricky tests of formal logic is not likely to add much to the understanding of that phenomenon.

Copyright Stephen Greenspan