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Intelligence Is No Bar to Irrationality

Highly intelligent people are as susceptible to irrationality as anyone else

Highly intelligent people are as susceptible to irrationality as anyone. This doesn’t seem quite right. Isn’t intelligence a predictor of good judgment? The answer is no. It turns out that intelligence, roughly defined as the ability to learn and understand, and rationality, roughly defined as being reasonable, are distinct mental processes.

This shouldn’t surprise to anyone who has followed the development of the field of behavioral economics over the last two decades. The work of Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky and others upended the classic notion in economics that people are rational. Hundreds of experiments demonstrate that our minds use many tricks or shortcuts to make sense out of the welter of data that occupies our waking lives—incomplete information, contradictory information, non-essential data, data that is only static.

For a readable and fascinating discussion of how our minds often work to fool us, Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow is very good place to look. The book offers insights into implicit biases and psychological phenomena that plague everyone. It is as subtle as underrating a person’s athletic ability based on their looks: we expect ugly people to be bad at what they do and good-looking people to be proficient.

Intelligence is no guard against jumping to conclusions. Yet intelligent people often dismiss their biases and irrational conclusions by pointing to their intelligence. It is as if to say, “I am smart, so I know what I am doing.”

For more than a century, psychology has shown how the unconscious plays a large role in everyday life. But behavioral economics isn’t about psychodynamics. It is that we lead our lives making essential and rapid decision based on little information. We have to. For example, just imagine what it would be like if you thought about each step you took. The problem is that thinking fast can also mislead us in very important ways.

Biases are endemic not because we’ve necessarily been raised to be prejudiced but because of how our minds work. Knowing that this so, it seems to me that schools needs to spend more time on teaching children how to recognize that traps into which everyone falls. It isn’t enough to raise smart people. We also have to raise rational ones.

Source: in the public domain