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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.

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. 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.

La Trampa de la Inteligencia

Estoy muy emocionado que mi libro La Trampa de la Inteligencia se ha publicado en español. Muchisimas gracias a la editorial Ediciones Paidos! Aquí tenéis un fragmento y una entrevista conmigo en El Mundo que explica por qué las personas más listas cometen los errores más graves.

Según Ediciones Paidos:

En la línea de grandes bestsellers como Las trampas del deseo, de Dan Ariely, o Pensar rápido, pensar despacio de Daniel Kahneman, este libro nos revela por qué las personas más inteligentes son capaces de cometer las mayores equivocaciones.

Las personas inteligentes no sólo son tan propensas a cometer errores como todo el mundo, sino que son incluso más proclives a incurrir en ellos. Repleto de vanguardistas investigaciones, análisis casuísticos, divertidas historias y consejos prácticos, La trampa de la inteligencia explora los defectos inherentes a nuestra comprensión de la inteligencia y de la experiencia, mostrándonos cómo fracasan incluso las mentes más brillantes y las organizaciones más prestigiosas.

How to win a political argument (and other clippings)

As summer ended and autumn began, I’ve made some big moves. I’ve left my staff job at the BBC in London and moved to Barcelona for six months. I hope I’ll now have some time to update this blog more regularly. In the meantime, here are some of my most recent articles.

The science of influencing people: six ways to win an argument – The Observer, 30 June 2019

“I am quite sure now that often, very often, in matters of religion and politics a man’s reasoning powers are not above the monkey’s,” wrote Mark Twain.

Having written a book about our most common reasoning errors, I would argue that Twain was being rather uncharitable – to monkeys. Whether we are discussing Trump, Brexit, or the Tory leadership, we have all come across people who appear to have next to no understanding of world events – but who talk with the utmost confidence and conviction. And the latest psychological research can now help us to understand why…
Read more here.

How to be a human lie detector of fake news – CNN, 16 September 2019

Fake news existed long before the internet. In an essay on political lying in the early 18th century, the writer Jonathan Swift noted that “Falsehood flies and the truth comes limping after it.” You have to hire a train to pull the truth, explained English pastor Charles Spurgeon in the 19th century, while a lie is “light as a feather … a breath will carry it.”

Clearly, humans have always been susceptible to mistruths. And social networks simply provide another way to propel falsehoods. MIT researchers recently studied more than 10 years’ worth of data on the most shared stories on Facebook. Their study covered conspiracy theories about the Boston bombings, misleading reports on natural disasters, unfounded business rumors and incorrect scientific claims. There is an inundation of false medical advice online, for example, that encourages people to avoid life-saving treatments such as vaccines and promotes unproven therapies. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop is just one example…
Read more here.

The sexist myths that won’t die – BBC Future, 1 October 2019

When I meet the cognitive neuroscientist Gina Rippon, she tells me one anecdote that helps demonstrate just how early children can be exposed to gender stereotypes.

It was the birth of her second daughter, on 11 June 1986 – the night that Gary Lineker scored a hat trick against Poland in the men’s Football World Cup. There were nine babies born in the ward that day, Rippon recalls. Eight of them were called Gary.

She remembers chatting to one of the other mums when they heard a loud din approaching. It was a nurse bringing their two screaming babies. The nurse handed her neighbour a “blue-wrapped Gary” with approval – he had “a cracking pair of lungs”. Rippon’s own daughter (making exactly the same sound) was passed over with an audible tutting. “She’s the noisiest of the lot – not very ladylike,” the nurse told her. “And so, at 10 minutes old, my tiny daughter had a very early experience of how gendered our world is,” Rippon says…..
Read more here.

Is this our most dangerous bias? – BBC Worklife, 2 October 2019

Imagine a pilot is taking a familiar flight along a known route, during which the weather takes a turn for the worst. She knows that flying through the storm comes with some serious risks – and according to her training, she should take a detour or return. But she has flown the same route before, in similar weather – and she hadn’t experienced any problems then. Should she continue? Or should she turn back?

If you believe that she is safe to fly on, then you have fallen for a cognitive quirk known as the “outcome bias”. Studies have shown that we often judge the quality of a decision or behaviour by its endpoint, while ignoring the many mitigating factors that might have contributed to success or failure – and that this can render us oblivious to potentially catastrophic errors in our thinking…
Read more here.

How to become a super-learner – whatever your IQ

NOTE: This post originally appeared on Medium.

When learning any new skill, most people in the West incorrectly assume that their current performance accurately reflects how much they will remember later. The better I perform now, the more I have learnt, and the better I will perform in the future. For this reason, we often look for ways to make our learning easier and more comfortable in the material we study and the ways we choose to practice.

Unfortunately, this is a “metacognitive illusion” and it impairs our memory in the long-term.

Whether you are trying to master a language, a sport, or a musical instrument, psychological research shows that your learning will benefit from so-called “desirable difficulties” and moments of confusion. Although they may momentarily impair your short-term performance, you will end up remembering much more in the future.

The reason is simple: the moment of struggle causes your brain to process the information more deeply, leading the brain to lay down a stronger memory trace that will remain with you, for longer. A wealth of experiments show that applying this simple principle could increase your recall by at least 50% in the weeks and months ahead.

In my new book, The Intelligence Trap, I describe many techniques that can help introduce desirable difficulties and productive struggle into your learning. Here are a few of my favourites:

Beware “fluent”, easy-to-process material. Superficially simple textbooks can lead you to believe that you are learning well, while, in fact, they are reducing your long-term recall. In fact, you will end up remembering more if you study more nuanced material. So don’t always look for the textbook with the nicest diagrams and easy-to-digest bullet points.

Give yourself a pre-test. As soon as you begin exploring a topic, force yourself to explain as much as you already know. Even if your initial understanding is abysmally wrong, experiments show that this prepares the mind for deeper learning later on.

Alternate the subjects or skills you are trying to learn. Most people intuitively prefer “blocked” study — to practice each skill for an extended period of time. That feels more rewarding than “interleaving” — the process of switching between the different topics or skills — which can create momentary confusion as your brain changes gears. Yet scientific studies in all kinds of disciplines show that interleaving is by far the more effective technique, precisely because it makes the initial learning experience a little bit more challenging. If you were studying maths you might switch between different kinds of algebraic problems, for instance. If you were practicing music, you might switch between scales or segments of the piece you are learning. In basketball, you might rotate the shots that you are trying to master.

Vary your environment. If you tend to study in the same place for too long, cues from that environment become associated with the material, meaning that they can act as non-conscious prompts. By altering the places of learning, you avoid becoming too reliant on those cues. In one experiment, simply switching rooms during studying resulted in 21% better recall on a subsequent test.

Test yourself regularly. So-called ‘retrieval practice’ has been shown to boost learning in many domains, since the act of testing forces more active and engaged thinking, which strengthens the memory trace of the material being recalled. So you should incorporate self-testing into every study session.

Learn by teaching. After studying — and without looking at your notes — imagine that you are explaining all that you have covered to another person. The act of explanation forces us to process the material more deeply.

While I was interviewing the psychologists Robert and Elizabeth Bjork, they told me that many people in the West are very resistent to these techniques — even after they have been told of the huge benefits — simply because they dislike the feelings of confusion. But there is now abundant evidence that they really are hugely effective at accelerating your overall learning. I’ve applied these myself while learning the Italian language, and I’ve found thatlittle bit of pain is well worth the long-term gains.

You can read more about their fascinating research, and the powerful ways that many East Asian schools have already adopted this strategy of “eating bitter” in my new book The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Stupid Mistakes and How to Make Wiser Decisions, available now in the UK and Commonwealth and to be published this summer in the USA.

Interview and quiz in The Times

I’m thrilled to have a piece and interview in The Times about the publication of my book, The Intelligence Trap.

Incidentally, the profile piece says that I coined the term “cognitive miser” – which is a misunderstanding. It’s a term that is commonly used by psychologists to describe this kind of lazy thinking. But on the whole I felt like the piece offers a really nice introduction to some of the the themes that I’ll explore.

If you enjoyed the article, you can pre-order the hardback and e-book from Amazon and Waterstones. It’s released in the UK on 7 March, and in the US this summer.

In case you are interested, the sources of The Intelligence Trap quiz questions can be found below:

Sirota, M., Kostovičová, L., Juanchich, M., Dewberry, C., & Marshall, A. C. (2018).
Measuring Cognitive Reflection without maths: developing and validating the verbal
Cognitive Reflection Test.
https://psyarxiv.com/pfe79/

Thomson, K. S., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2016). Investigating an alternate form of the
cognitive reflection test. Judgment and Decision Making, 11(1), 99
https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2016-09222-009

Stanovich, K. E. (2009). Rational and irrational thought: The thinking that IQ tests miss.
Scientific American Mind, 20(6), 34-39
https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/rational-and-irrational-thought-the-thinking-that-iq-tests-miss/

Bruine de Bruin, W., Parker, A. M., & Fischhoff, B. (2007). Individual differences in adult
decision-making competence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(5), 938-956
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17484614

Can you teach an ‘old dog’ new tricks?

We are often told that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. So it’s easy to forget that many famous artists, writers and inventors found a second bloom of creativity later in life. Leonardo da Vinci, for instance, only began his ground-breaking studies of the human anatomy in his mid-50s; Picasso abandoned canvas for ceramic artwork when he was late 60s, and the Booker Prize-winning novelist Penelope Fitzgerald only published her first novel at the age of 62.

I’ve just published an article for BBC Future examining the “old dogs, new tricks” myth. According to the latest research, confidence may be one of the biggest barriers. We hear so much about the cognitive decline that comes with age, that some people may simply lose faith in their brain’s capacity for learning, and instead begin to lean on “cognitive crutches” in place of their memory. When driving, for instane, they may rely on GPS rather than learning the route. When cooking, they may always use a recipe book. Eventually, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the plus side, you can retrieve that lost fertility by deliberately stretching your mind.

You can read the full piece here: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170828-the-amazing-fertility-of-the-older-mind I’d love to hear your thoughts on the research and your own experiences.

Misology: the hatred of reason and argument

In Plato’s Phaedo, the great philosopher Socrates has been sentenced to death for “corrupting” the youth of Athens. As he awaits his execution, he begins to discuss  the afterlife with his students: Socrates believes the soul is immortal, while his students are sceptical. Arguments fly backwards and forwards, and it soon seems like they will never reach an agreement, when Socrates offers a warning.

“What we must beware of,” he said, “is becoming ‘misologists‘, hating arguments in the way ‘misanthropists’ hate their fellow men.

He goes on to argue that a hatred of people, and a hatred of reason, arise much the same way.

Misanthropy creeps in as a result of placing too much trust in someone without having the knowledge required: we suppose the person to be completely genuine, sound and trustworth, only to find a bit later that he’s bad an untrustworthy, and then it happens again with someone else; when we’ve experienced the same thing many times over, and especially when it’s with those we’d have supposed our nearest and dearest, we get fed up with making so many mistakes and so end up hating everyone and supposing no one to be sound in any respect.

Similarly, we may sometimes find that our cherished beliefs were baseless, without evidence: this is an inevitable consequence of thinking and learning. The rational behaviour would be to update our knowledge and learn from our mistakes. But the misologist instead begins to distrust everything – even the true and verifiable facts that appear before his eyes.

Wouldn’t it be quite a pitiable thing if there really were some true and stable argument, and yet because a person mixed with the sorts of arguments that now seem true, now false, he failed to blame himself, and his own lack of expertise, and instead eased his distress by happily shifting the blame from himself to his arguments, thus living out the rest of his life not only hating and abusing arguments but deprived of the truth of things and of knowledge about them?

Although recent scientific research hasn’t explicitly examined “misology”, Socrates’s term perfectly describes the growing distrust of expert judgement and reasoned debate. The sentiment is perhaps best encapsulated in Michael Gove’s statement that the people of Britain “have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.” This isn’t an isolated phenomenon: as The Atlantic recently reported, trust in various institutions such as the government, the media, or NGOs, has consistently declined over the last couple of years.

I especially like Socrates’ definition of misology since it helps us to understand his “intellectual humility”. By declaring that “I am wise because I know I know nothing”, he wasn’t claiming that we should reject all expert judgement (like Gove). Instead, he was arguing that we should learn to question and update our own beliefs in the face of new evidence – to keep a healthy balance between scepticism and open-mindedness. As I’ll be discussing in my book The Intelligence Trap, robust psychological evidence has demonstrated a multitude of benefits to this mindset.

Socrates points out “there’s nothing worse that can happen to anyone than coming to hate arguments”, since it eliminates any chance of living a rational life. If Plato’s account is correct, he was willing to die rather than be forced to foresake that philosophy.