Do You Think More Intelligently Than the Average Person?

Consider these 10 oversights before you make your next decision.

Posted Oct 10, 2019

Slidebot/Used with permission
Source: Slidebot/Used with permission

It seems like every day we hear about presumably intelligent individuals who make horrible judgment errors that lead to lethal consequences. These mistakes often result in embarrassment, shame, financial ruin, and sometimes even tragedy.

A scan of recent news headlines reveals disturbing reports, including 50 observers videotaping a 16-year-old boy bleeding to death, two tourists getting arrested for “thermal trespassing” by sticking their heads in the famous geyser “Old Faithful,” (that erratically spews 200-degree water every 35-120 minutes), and the alarming statistic that 34 million Americans still smoke cigarettes, despite the known health hazards.

While the motives for the aforementioned behaviors are all different, questionable decisions are often made despite knowing the potential consequences of the actions. The next question becomes, “Why do smart people act stupidly?”

If you believe the people described above aren’t very smart to begin with, think again. Highly successful individuals, such as the incarcerated Ponzi scheme wizard Bernie Madoff, former Congressman and convicted sexting offender Anthony Weiner, or the Emmy-winning, disgraced college admissions scandal actress Felicity Huffman, are household names primarily because of their terrible decisions.

In addition, unless economically disadvantaged, much of the U.S. population has comparable levels of intelligence, at least according to the skills, abilities, and knowledge measured by IQ tests, the gold standard for measuring intelligence (Stanovich, 2009). Ironically, based on IQ test scores, people have become more intelligent over the past 50 years (Flynn, 2018), yet dumb behavior abounds. While a great deal of variation in intelligence is due to genetics, understanding why smart people make stupid decisions can be explained by examining three sources of thinking flaws.

Some poor decisions occur for highly obvious and specific reasons. The motives include being tired, lazy, uninformed, overloaded, distracted, or physically ill. We won’t dwell on these types of influences on faulty thinking and reasoning, because the source of the problem and the preventive remedies are usually easy to determine. Get some rest, read more often, focus your attention on what you are doing, don’t multitask, and give people more attention than your devices!

Errors of Omission

Other intellectual blunders occur without the conscious awareness of the offender. These silent saboteurs are primarily the result of intuitive thinking and spontaneous reactions, which are caused by personal bias or from using inefficient and/or distorted problem-solving strategies. Thinking biases include the use of inaccurate assumptions, counterfactual thinking, unjustified inferences, a lack of critical analysis, or reliance on irrational decision-making principles.

All people are universally vulnerable to these thinking lapses, including people with high IQs (Kahneman, 2011). Additionally, biased individuals often are overconfident in their abilities, believing they have more skill and talent than they actually do, making the problem worse.

Errors in judgment based on lack of knowledge or insufficient experience are not considered here, because knowledge deficits can easily be corrected if you are motivated to improve. Instead, many errors of omission occur when the average person makes these five common mistakes:

Slidebot/used with permission
Source: Slidebot/used with permission

You think most outcomes are predictable or fixed.

Persuading people who harbor fixed beliefs is like talking to a wall. These folks believe that exerting more effort or changing a problem-solving approach is useless because an expected outcome cannot be influenced.

A great example of a fixed mindset is a job-seeking person who will only use employment ads to find a job. They reject the notion that 85 percent of jobs are landed by networking and instead use a comfortable and habitual search method that produces inferior results. This type of thinking error can also be detected by listening to people after a certain outcome or result is determined. Known as “hindsight bias” (Teovanovic et al., 2015), these Monday-morning quarterbacks are great at predicting outcomes after the fact, despite a non-committal or adversarial opinion prior to the result.

You confuse beliefs with knowledge.

People frequently cannot tell the difference between fact and fiction. Generally, information is considered factual when it is supported by a confluence of evidence-based findings. Conversely, beliefs are personal conceptions primarily based on experience or tradition.

The false belief problem escalates when people believe a method is effective or opinion is valid despite the evidence. For example, some individuals swear by procrastination, despite evidence that superior performance is achieved by taking slow and deliberate steps toward a goal over time. This thinking liability is often caused by the “illusory truth effect,” which reveals that when we are repeatedly presented with false information in simple terms, we are highly likely to accept the evidence as true (Dechêne et al., 2010). Tell me once, and it’s an idea, tell me twice, and it’s a theory, tell me three times, and it becomes a fact!

You focus on style, not substance.

Looking good and appearing talented is more important for some individuals than the results they achieve (Hulleman et al., 2010). People in this category of misguided cognition stake their reputations on gaining positive perceptions. The problem with an “appearance mindset” is people usually take shortcuts to achieve their goals, rarely focusing on mastery. Their lives are dominated by avoiding shame, achieving pride, and getting recognition even when undeserved or when less knowledgeable than peers.

These individuals often come off as highly confident, but when examining their true self-impressions, they often feel anxious and insecure about their abilities. These folks love to give advice on anything, yet they are often wrong and rarely acknowledge or realize it.

Slidebot/used with permission
Source: Slidebot/used with permission

You ignore contrary evidence.

Perhaps the most popular type of illogical thinking is giving selective attention to information that supports our beliefs and opinions. Whether it’s as simple as noticing the seemingly abundant number of white Toyotas on the road when considering the purchase of a white Toyota, or as severe as a police officer believing that most crimes are committed by minorities, these misguided thinkers unconsciously are like moths drawn to light. They embrace cognitive blinders, seeing and believing only what supports their opinions and beliefs, and gravitate toward their preconceived notions.

Called “confirmation bias,” people with this affliction filter out any evidence that conflicts with or refutes their opinion (Chinn & Brewer, 2003). The consequences of confirmation bias are severe, as we tend to learn and remember only that information which supports our opinions. We also negatively evaluate contrarian views (and the people who hold them) while insisting we are open-minded and objective in the face of questionable reasoning.

You succumb to spontaneous emotion.

Some of the most serious misfortunes occur when people are incapable of regulating their emotions. Instead of using self-control strategies, these folks automatically react erratically to disturbing people and events. Perhaps no better example of emotional wreckage is the Twitter tirade of many politicians and celebrities, who upon reflection, regret their actions and usually apologize.

When we are hijacked by emotions, we often unwittingly put ourselves on autopilot with a one-way journey toward appeasing the emotion in any way possible. Anyone who has punched a wall (or someone else) to quell uncontrollable anger knows the feeling. Surprisingly, targeting a person or thing helps, because the anger subsides and alters the thought process from a negative, reactive state to a more positive, coherent state, allowing the individual to return to typical ways of thinking and reasoning. The good news is that emotional regulation (minus punching) can also happen automatically through learned experience and under defined circumstances by using specific strategies (Mauss et al., 2007), some of which are outlined here.

Now you know what happens when you neglect to think about certain things. Part two of this article explores five more common mistakes that smart people intentionally make!


Chinn, C. A., & Brewer, W. F. (1993). The role of anomalous data in knowledge acquisition: A theoretical framework and implications for science instruction. Review of Educational Research, 63, 1–49.

Dechêne, A., Stahl, C., Hansen, J., & Wänke, M. (2010). The truth about the truth: A meta-analytic review of the truth effect. Personality and Social Psychology Review14(2), 238-257.

Flynn, J. (2018). Intelligence, society, and human autonomy. In R. Sternberg (Ed.), The nature of human intelligence (pp. 101-115). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781316817049.008

Hulleman, C. S., Schrager, S. M., Bodmann, S. M., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2010). A meta-analytic review of achievement goal measures: Different labels for the same constructs or different constructs with similar labels? Psychological Bulletin, 136, 422–449.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking fast, and slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.

Mauss, I. B., Bunge, S. A., & Gross, J. J. (2007). Automatic emotion regulation. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 1(1), 146–167.

Stanovich, K. (2009). What intelligence tests miss: The psychology of the rational mind. New Haven, CT: University Press.

Stanovich, K. E., & West, R. F. (2008). On the relative independence of thinking biases and cognitive ability. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(4), 672-695.