What is the intelligence trap? A taxonomy of stupidity

I recently worked with BBC Ideas to put together a video on the reasons that smart people do stupid things, based on my recent book The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Stupid Mistakes and How to Make Wiser Decisions. You can check out the video here or below.

Within the clip, we describe four common thinking errors that can afflict smart people – cognitive miserliness, motivated reasoning, the curse of expertise and the too-much-talent effect. But psychological science has revealed many other reasons that people fail to use their intelligence – and by knowing them we can all learn to avoid them. Here are some other important examples that I describe in my “taxonomy of stupidity”.

Bias blind spot: Our tendency to see others’ flaws, while being oblivious to the prejudices and errors in our own reasoning.

Cognitive miserliness: A tendency to base our decision making on intuition rather than analysis.

Contaminated mindware: An erroneous baseline knowledge that may then lead to further irrational behaviour. Someone who has been brought up to distrust scientific evidence may then be more susceptible to quack medicines and beliefs in the paranor- mal for instance.

Dysrationalia: The mismatch between intelligence and rationality, as seen in the life story of Arthur Conan Doyle. This may be caused by cognitive miserliness or contaminated mindware.

Earned dogmatism: Our self-perceptions of expertise mean we have gained the right to be closed-minded and to ignore other points of view.

Entrenchment: The process by which an expert’s ideas become rigid and fixed.

Fachidiot: Professional idiot. A German term to describe a one-track specialist who is an expert in their field but takes a blinkered approach to a multifaceted problem.

Functional stupidity: A general reluctance to self-reflect, question our assumptions, and reason about the consequences of our actions. This may be encouraged in many organisations, since it increases productivity in the short term (making it ‘functional’), but it reduces creativity and critical thinking in the long term.

Meta-forgetfulness: A form of intellectual arrogance. We fail to keep track of how much we know and how much we have forgotten; we assume that our current knowledge is the same as our peak knowledge. This is common among university graduates; years down the line, they believe that they understand the issues as well as they did when they took their final exams.

Mindlessness: A lack of attention and insight into our actions and the world around us. It is a particular issue in the way children are educated.

Moses illusion: A failure to spot contradictions in a text, due to its fluency and familiarity. For example, when answering the question, ‘How many animals of each kind did Moses take on the Ark?’, most people answer two. This kind of distraction is a common tactic for purveyors of misinformation and fake news.

Motivated reasoning: The unconscious tendency to apply our brainpower only when the conclusions will suit our predetermined goal. It may include the confirmation or myside bias (preferentially seeking and remembering information that suits our goal) and discomfirmation bias (the tendency to be especially sceptical about evidence that does not fit our goal). In politics, for instance, we are far more likely to critique evidence concerning an issue such as climate change if it does not fit with our existing worldview.

Pseudo-profound bullshit: Seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous under further consideration. Like the Moses illusion, we may accept their message due to a general lack of reflection.

Solomon’s paradox: Named after the ancient Israelite king, Solomon’s paradox describes our inability to reason wisely about our own lives, even if we demonstrate good judgement when faced with other people’s problems.

Strategic ignorance: Deliberately avoiding the chance to learn new information to avoid discomfort and to increase our productivity. At work, for instance, it can be beneficial not to question the long-term consequences of your actions, if that knowledge will interfere with the chances of promotion. These choices may be unconscious.

The too-much-talent effect: The unexpected failure of teams once their proportion of ‘star’ players reaches a certain threshold. See, for instance, the England football team in the Euro 2016 tournament

This may sound depressing, but there are some very easy strategies to avoid these errors. They include Bejamin Franklin’s moral algebra, self-distancing, cognitive innoculations and various techniques to boost emotional awareness and encourage more reflective reasoning. When researching my book I discovered there’s even a whole new discipline – “evidence-based wisdom” that now attempts to encourage better decision making.

In many situations, it’s not so much what IQ you’ve been born with, but that way you choose to apply that brainpower, that makes the real difference to your thinking – and we can all learn to be wiser.

For more details, check out The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things and How to Make Wiser Decisions, out now.

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