Le trappole dell’intelligenza

Sono emozionato nel comunicarvi che il mio primo libro è uscito in Italia qualche settimana fa, dal titolo “Le trappole dell’intelligenza”. È pubblicato dalla casa editrice @ponteallegrazie. La copertina è davvero elegante, no?

Le trappole dell’intelligenza, David Robson (Ponte alle Grazie)

Studio l’italiano da tanti anni e sono contentissimo (e piuttosto curioso) di leggere la traduzione del mio manuscritto. Ecco la fascetta pubblicitaria:

Tutti pensano che ‘intelligenza’ sia sinonimo di pensiero razionale, ma ormai è chiaro che un QI elevato e l’istruzione non bastano per difenderci dagli errori cognitivi. Sui giornali si legge sempre più spesso di esperti super qualificati che non sono riusciti a fare previsioni corrette e leader mondiali che hanno preso decisioni sbagliate: le menti geniali possono essere molto irrazionali. Cultura e competenza amplificano i nostri errori rendendoci ciechi ai nostri pregiudizi. È questa la ‘trappola dell’intelligenza’ di cui parla questo saggio, un problema in cui sono incorsi anche gli individui più brillanti e le organizzazioni più preparate, partendo da Thomas Edison fino alla NASA, la Nokia, l’FBI e la nazionale di calcio inglese. In questo istruttivo resoconto sulle ricerche più aggiornate riguardo all’intelligenza, e attingendo dalle intuizioni di Socrate, Benjamin Franklin e di alcune delle industrie di maggior successo al mondo, il giornalista scientifico David Robson ci mostra come costruire un kit di strumenti cognitivi per aiutarci a massimizzare il nostro pieno potenziale: è ora di imparare un nuovo modo di pensare.

Disponibile su Amazon.it, IBS.it, Mondadori etc.

Five ways to boost “collective intelligence”

Simple psychological techniques can transform your teamwork and leadership (Credit: Hannah Busing/Unsplash)

The history of sport is full of surprising twists of fate. Perhaps the most famous upset of all is the ‘Miracle on Ice’ — when a team of American college students beat the accomplished Soviet hockey team at the 1980 Winter Olympics. More recently, there was Argentina’s surprise gold medal in basketball at the 2004 Olympics, where they thrashed the USA — the firm favourites; and the 2016 Euros championships, when the Icelandic soccer team — ranked 131st before the tournament — beat England to the quarter finals. In each case, the underdogs had less established players, yet somehow their combined talent was greater than the sum of their parts.

As I describe in my recent book The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes, cutting-edge experiments by Anita Williams Woolley at Carnegie Mellon University have shown that team performance depends surprisingly little on the members’ individual talents. The smartest teams are not those with the heighest IQs or the greatest experience, but those with the best communication skills. Indeed, some startling research by Adam Galinsky at Columbia Business School has shown that a high-proportion of “star” players can often backfire, as their rutting egos destroy the collaboration within the team and prevent the team from reaching its goals. The so-called “too-much-talent effect” has been observed in professional soccer, basketball and Wall Street banks.

In the face of the economic and social challenges created by the current pandemic, a happy, creative and productive workplace could not be more important for leaders and employees alike. So how can we create a ‘dream team’ like the Miracle on Ice? I recently wrote a series of articles for BBC Worklife on the best ways to boost the “collective intelligence” of any team or organisation, and here are some of the most eye-catching findings.

Build emotional awareness

Abundant research shows that the best teams in almost any field are those with the greatest emotional awareness and regulation. It helps team members to keep each other motivated and allows productive disagreement to spur creativity without ending in resentment and lasting conflict. If your team struggles with this, Smaranda Boros at Vlerick Business School in Ghent has six simple ground rules that will instantly improve the emotional dynamic of any meeting. They are:

1) Have a “check in” at the beginning of the meeting — that is, ask how everyone is doing

2) Assume that undesirable behaviour takes place for a reason. Find out what that reason is. Ask questions and listen. Avoid negative attributions

3) As the work proceeds, tell your team-mates what you are thinking and how you are feeling about the process

4) When you make decisions, ask whether everyone agrees with the decision

5) Question the quickness of taking a decision

6) Ask quiet members what they think

Read more: How elite teams increase their emotional intelligence.

Communicate less

It’s good to talk, but counter-intuitive research by Jesse Shore at Boston University suggests we should limit our interactions with others, particularly during brain storming and problem solving. Too much communication between members can lead the group to converge on a solution too quickly, without exploring all the options — whereas longer periods of isolated work increases the chances that each individual will come up with something truly original, offering a greater range of solutions to analyse at a later point. So try to aim for short, intense conversations or meetings, with plenty of time for independent work in between, rather than a continual drip-feed of group updates through email or Slack channels. Read More: The benefits isolation can have on your work.

(Credit: John Schnobrich/Unspash)

Don’t be constrained by success

Xerox’s R&D department pioneered the first personal computers — including the WYSIWYG displays and desktop publishing — but the company failed to capitalise on their inventions. As Loizos Heracleous at Warwick Business School in the UK explained to me, the reason is a phenomenon called the “competency trap”, which involves a rigid corporate culture, too invested in its past successes to make new innovations. Heracleous has various suggestions on how to avoid this, including the idea that each employee takes a stint in the R&D department to broaden their mind to new innovations. Read More: How to avoid the competency trap.

Avoid the Peter Principle

In the 1960s, the educationalist Laurence J Peter argued that this was so. If you only promote people according to their current performance, they will rise until they reach a position beyond their capabilities — at which point, they will cease to be promoted and will remain in that position for the rest of their career. According to this logic, “every employee tends to rise to his [or her] level of incompetence” — filling an organisation with people who are bad at what they do. The so-called Peter Principle was originally intended as satire, but organisational scientists have now found evidence for the idea — and their conclusions suggest that we need to find new ways to test management potential, and better means of rewarding high-performing colleagues within their current position. Read more: The reasons why people become incompetent at work.

Be humble

When we think of strong leadership, humility might not come to mind — but a torrent of psychological research is now revealing the merits of this neglected virtue. Humbler people learn quicker, and are better communicators and decision makers — and inspire better problem solving in their teams too. In one study, intellectual humility proved to be more important for overall performance than actual IQ. Importantly, humility appears to be contagious — meaning that a humble leader will encourage greater humility in their employees, producing a more open-minded and creative team.

In one study of 105 technology companies, Amy Yi Ou at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University found that humbler CEOs encouraged greater collaboration and information sharing among the firm’s top management team. The improved decision making resulted in greater overall profits. Leadership humility appears to be especially helpful when navigating uncertainty, as an organisation abandons the status quo to find new ways of operating — something that all managers should be considering in these troubled times.

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.

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

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.

Thomson, K. S., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2016). Investigating an alternate form of the
cognitive reflection test. Judgment and Decision Making, 11(1), 99

Stanovich, K. E. (2009). Rational and irrational thought: The thinking that IQ tests miss.
Scientific American Mind, 20(6), 34-39

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

The Intelligence Trap

Exciting news! I’m writing a book, called The Intelligence Trap – Why Smart People Make Stupid Mistakes, and How to Avoid Them. It will be published by Hodder and Stoughton in the UK, and my agent is currently negotiating the foreign rights in various territories.

Needless to say, I’m thrilled. Ever since I first took an IQ test to attend secondary school, I’ve been fascinated by the ways we assess cognitive ability, and that interest has only grown since I became a science writer. Psychologists and neuroscientists are now finding many skills and thinking styles that have been neglected by our old definitions of intelligence, but which turn out to be crucial for personal and professional success. Crucially, these skills can all be nurtured and cultivated – whatever our IQs, we can all think a bit more wisely.

Combining analyses of historical events, personal narratives, and philosophy, I’ll be show-casing this new discipline – sometimes called “evidence-based wisdom” – and exploring the ways that it can be applied by individuals, businesses and whole societies.  These discoveries have already transformed my understanding of my own thinking, attitudes and behaviour – and I couldn’t be more excited about this opportunity to bring them to a popular audience.

Stay-tuned for future updates! In the meantime, you can check out more details on The Bookseller’s website and you can read the BBC article that first set me on this path.

UPDATE (23/03/2017): We’ve just sold the rights in Brazil (Sextante) and Italy (Ponte Alle Grazie)!