Why Bright People Need "BS Detection Training"

In some cases, smart people may be particularly susceptible to deception.

Posted Jul 11, 2019

Ever heard of “flesh-eating bananas”? The fake news about tropical killer fruit first appeared in 1999, when they caused a major health scare. Intended as a harmless hoax, email messages warned about a health threat imposed by bananas. Claiming to have validation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the emails stated that consumers were at risk of contracting necrotizing fasciitis (a dangerous, flesh-eating infection) from consuming imported bananas. Remarkably, despite the email’s many misspellings and inconsistencies, the news spread like wildfire, leading to a drastic (and completely unwarranted) drop in banana sales.

Once in a while, we need to outsmart our inner Einstein.
Source: blambasa/Pixabay

This historic example demonstrates the impact of fake news as well as people’s surprising susceptibility to misleading information, which is common even among highly intelligent individuals. According to journalist and author David Robson, intelligent people may even be more vulnerable to hoaxes than the average population. At least this is the unexpected claim he makes in The Intelligence Trap, due to appear in the U.S. in August.

I examined Robson’s argument on misguided beliefs of clever people in an earlier post. This follow-up article will discuss some of his recommendations for avoiding the “intelligence trap” and outsmarting your inner genius.

How to escape the intelligence trap

Reasoning errors often occur due to factors such as overconfidence and confirmation bias, and these are most influential if people make fast and intuitive choices. Hence, it is crucial to slow down the decision process, and these three approaches may help:

1.      Moral algebra

Moral algebra describes a systematic approach to decision making, which involves consciously weighing up different arguments (both positive and negative). A table can help to list positive and negative aspects of all the options and thereby ensure you consider a maximum of different viewpoints. Important for this exercise are intellectual humility and open-mindedness, meaning that no preconceived ideas are allowed to override the rational decision process. One tip for improving your objectivity and distancing yourself from possible biases is to talk about yourself in the third person. Go on, give it a try!

2.      Emotional awareness

Emotions are often at the root of hasty decisions. After a heated argument at work, for example, punching your boss might seem an excellent choice. The more rational decision, however, would be to retreat to the office quietly or even to apologize. In order to act more rationally, it is important to increase emotional awareness and identify unhelpful feelings. A promising strategy for this involves mindfulness and meditation exercises (see the Yoga Journal for an excellent beginner's guide). If you want to decrease emotional involvement, you could also try discussing the problem in another (foreign) language. Substituting your mother tongue with a second language may strip the contents from its emotional load and help you to make more rational choices. Yet another reason to learn a foreign language!

3.      Bullsh*t detection training

If you find yourself repeatedly falling for hoaxes, it might be helpful to undergo some “bullsh*t detection training.” This involves familiarising yourself with certain decision environments and thereby becoming more attuned to any red flags of deception. For example, if you keep falling prey to online banking scams, you could make a conscious effort to compare verified company emails with fake ones and thereby identify markers of genuine content. A good idea might also be to check your bank’s policies about the likely contents of their online communication.

Additionally, it could be worth getting to grips with the concept of “truthiness.” This rather fanciful term refers to a “gut feeling” about a message being true. While truthiness can be easily achieved through the use of familiar words and fluent sentence structures, it doesn’t reflect the actual accuracy of a statement. Hence, you’d do well to question an overwhelming sense of truth in the absence of actual evidence.

A final tip is to step outside your own social comfort zone or “echo chamber.” True to the popular saying, “Birds of a feather flock together,” most people prefer to surround themselves with like-minded individuals. This tendency is often amplified by social media selectively showing contents similar to a person’s own posts. While it seems natural to enjoy the company of people with similar interests, the lack of diversity decreases people’s likelihood of encountering opposing views and makes them vulnerable to overconfidence and confirmation bias.

A car analogy

In his book, David Robson compares human brains to car engines, with high intelligence equating to higher engine power. While cars with powerful engines inevitably drive quicker than others, they don’t necessarily end up in the right place. Similarly, while intelligent people reason faster than others, they don’t necessarily come to the right conclusions. Drawing on the insights from this post, it may be possible to extend the analogy a little further: Just as we need to equip our cars with brakes, it is necessary to slow down our thinking from time to time in order to avoid reasoning errors. Because even if you’re driving a Ferrari, you’d better stop at red lights!

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