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The Truth About Smart and Dumb

Updated: Jan 14, 2022

In The New Yorker on June 12th, 2012, journalist Jonah Lehrer wrote this opening statement:

“Here’s a simple arithmetic question: A bat and ball cost a dollar and ten cents. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?"

The vast majority of people respond quickly and confidently, insisting the ball costs ten cents. This answer is both obvious and wrong. (The correct answer is five cents for the ball and a dollar and five cents for the bat.)”

Don’t worry, I fell for it too. Lehrer got this information from a Nobel Laureate and Princeton Professor of Psychology, Daniel Kahneman who has been studying these simple - yet stumbling - concepts of our answers for over five decades and Shane Frederick (the developer of the question). His research has profoundly changed the way we think about thinking (a concept termed metacognition). To put it simply, evidence has demonstrated that we are not nearly as rational as we would like to believe.

Lehrer goes on to beautifully explain that, “when people face an uncertain situation, they don’t carefully evaluate the information or look up relevant statistics. Instead, their decisions depend on a long list of mental shortcuts - which often lead them to make foolish decisions.”

Thus, you have smart people doing dumb things.

What’s more? These shortcuts are based on many different mental phenomena - some of these being, generalization (number 3, please), cognitive bias, and a skewed perception. These concepts are all subjective based on the unique experiences we endure throughout our lifetime. Remember those limiting beliefs? Each person is going to have a different set of beliefs based on their distinctive situations. (More on these in upcoming blog posts!) In short, the brain wants to find the easiest way to the answer, even if the answer is wrong. Further in Lehrer’s article, he states that the work of Kahneman was dismissed by other psychologists, turning away his research with the phrase, “I am not interested in the psychology of stupidity.”

However, “the psychology of stupidity,” couldn’t be further from the truth. A study published in 2017 within the Association for Academic Medicine by Geoffrey R. Norman, PhD, takes us deep into our mind to describe how smart people can do dumb things. He opens his article with explaining the concept of a “dual process model” of thinking, in which we have two systems to arrive at a thought. Type 1 is described as your “knee-jerk” reaction - subconscious, automatic, and undemanding. Where Type 2 is based on analytical processes - conscious, managed, and challenging. Thus, giving us a duality to which we arrive at our thoughts - an expansion of what Kahneman already knew to be true. Read More.

Given that Norman’s research is based on the cognitive bias of clinicians that may factor into their diagnosis of a patient, it is stated that this bias comes from “evidence in human reasoning (that) has been derived from studies of undergraduate psychology students answering commonsense and expertise-free questions” (the ball and the bat). Norman uses the term “heuristics” to describe the “mental shortcuts” that the brain takes with Type 1 decision-making. Stating that cognitive bias is when the heuristic fails - better described as our “gut feeling” proving to be inaccurate.

In 2012, the dynamic duo - Richard F. West of James Madison University and Keith E. Stanovich of the University of Toronto published work looking deeper into the errors of Type 2 thinking, which is based on examination of situations at hand. The information strives to understand why certain people show “persistent biases” with certain situations and others do not. Their findings were substantial, indicating that not only did people with higher cognitive ability (the “smart” ones) show an increase in cognitive bias - they found these people to be more susceptible to thinking errors. Further, they found that “more cognitively sophisticated people” might think they have lower cognitive biases - but, they view themselves as “less biased than their peers.” This concept is termed, “the bias blind spot.”

So, what does all this mean to you?

The explanation of the “bias blind spot” shows that we are more adept to looking at errors of others rather than our own, “smart” and “dumb” having nothing to do with it. This concept being the reason behind why we give ourselves grace, but may fail in readily giving grace to others. AND, according to the above study, intelligence makes it worse and education isn’t a saving factor. As Lehrer states, “one provocative hypothesis is that the bias blind spot arises because of a mismatch between how we evaluate others and how we evaluate ourselves.”

Our irrational ways of thinking are not readily changeable through reflection, because they lie within the subconscious mind. Introspection can actually cause us to rationalize our irrational thoughts, twisting our thinking and creating a perception of the world that can’t be remedied.


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Mackenzie Childs | MSc

Former educator, realist, and wine enthusiast, Mackenzie comes from a diverse background of behavioral intervention, teaching, and business development strategies. As part of a project within the Klein Independent School District to launch a new behavioral program on several campuses, she found her niche in wanting to help others grow their strengths within their career.

Drawing from experience in several industries, Mackenzie brings thoughtful, visionary, and practical coaching within developing organizations. When the stakes are high for a new or veteran executive, a troubled team needs intervention, or transition needs to take place, she can provide planning for the future while simultaneously improving day-to-day function. Her sensitive insight with tough issues defuses tensions and catalyzes collaboration.

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