Why Even the Smartest People Fail at Reason


Being reasonable isn’t easy. Heck, for all our intelligence, it doesn’t even come natural, as more and more studies are demonstrating:

One provocative hypothesis is that the bias blind spot arises because of a mismatch between how we evaluate others and how we evaluate ourselves. When considering the irrational choices of a stranger, for instance, we are forced to rely on behavioral information; we see their biases from the outside, which allows us to glimpse their systematic thinking errors. However, when assessing our own bad choices, we tend to engage in elaborate introspection. We scrutinize our motivations and search for relevant reasons; we lament our mistakes to therapists and ruminate on the beliefs that led us astray.

The problem with this introspective approach is that the driving forces behind biases—the root causes of our irrationality—are largely unconscious, which means they remain invisible to self-analysis and impermeable to intelligence. In fact, introspection can actually compound the error, blinding us to those primal processes responsible for many of our everyday failings. We spin eloquent stories, but these stories miss the point. The more we attempt to know ourselves, the less we actually understand.

I think this ultimately (and obviously) validates the importance of engaging in dialogue with others and leaving yourself open to criticism.

But then again, our own biases make it hard to accept criticism of our deeply held beliefs, which is where science, reason, and other methodologies come into play. Yet even these can be misused or misunderstood.

So basically, trying to figure out the world and what is true is very, very hard and constant vigilance…go figure.

Beauty and Brains

I find it interesting that whenever a very attractive person — particularly a woman — demonstrates above-average intelligence or skill, it genuinely surprises most people. Similarly, I’ve seen people marvel at how a “nerdy” person can be athletic or charismatic. Needless to say, those peers who are both attractive and intelligent feel endless frustration at being reflexively labeled based solely on their looks and initial impression.

But this is nothing new, as humans were evolved to make quick judgements based little data — it’s a survival mechanism that has remained, often misapplied, in the modern world. In this instance, we seem to unconsciously associate good looks with stupidity or, at most, average intelligence (admittedly, I think even I have been guilty of this visceral stereotyping).

I’ve read a hypothesis suggesting that this correlation reflects a form of evolutionary compensation:  if one isn’t attractive, they make up for it by making themselves desirable in other ways; similarly, an unskilled or unintelligent person may harness whatever charisma or physical attractiveness they have to influence others or burnish their image. We see this pattern and therefore apply it in how we judge and analyze people.

In any case, it is interesting to note that traditionally (and for the most part to this day), heroic and virtuous characters in various media have almost always been portrayed as good looking, and intelligence is rarely shown to be mutually exclusive with physical attractiveness. Of course, this too likely reflects our evolutionarily-induced preference for well-rounded, attractive people.

Anyway, has anyone else noticed this? Is there a reason for these correlations? What are you thoughts on this?

Are We Getting Dumber?

The New York Times is hosting an online debate on the state of human intelligence in the modern world and whether it will decline or improve in the coming generations. All debaters make interesting points, and the commentary from readers can be just as insightful. I encourage you all to share your views (here or there), or at least reflect upon the arguments made. The fates of this planet and our species are dependent upon are own intellectual and innovative capital.

For the record, I don’t believe we’re devolving intellectually – relative to historical levels, a larger number of people are more knowledgeable than ever. It’s just that the standards have changed, and the vast abundance of knowledge – as well as it’s increased availability – raises our expectations for intelligence. I do, however, fear that the growing technological convenience of the modern world may pose a risk to our cognitive development, as it may lead to a disincentive to learn more things or acquire new skills.

Alas, I’m heading to bed, so I can’t expound on my point as much as I’d like. But I will certainly be revisiting this later. As always, I welcome your own input.

On Indecision and Being Wrong

Why is changing your mind or being uncertain about something so taboo in most societies? I understand there are some things one shouldn’t be agnostic about – such as whether murder is moral – and I know flip-flopping out of opportunism or hypocrisy is unfavorable. But what’s wrong with admitting that you don’t know something, or would rather do more research and be more informed before making up your mind

Furthermore, what’s wrong with changing your mind over time? If, ideally speaking, we become more knowledgeable or mature about something as we grow, then obviously we’d change our beliefs accordingly. If we discover valid evidence and sound arguments in favor of an opposing position, why not take that position? That’s far better than sticking to a belief based on pride, stubbornness, or close-mindedness.

Yet all of that makes us look indecisive or even dishonest. I’m not quite sure why the former is always so bad either. Everyone starts with a clean slate about something. No one is born knowing all the facts, issues, and arguments of a particular topic, and thus we shouldn’t expect people to just take a position from the get-go (at the same, we shouldn’t strongly endorse a perspective we’re not well-versed in). Even those who are pretty knowledgeable about a subject can and should acknowledge their intrinsic limitations: as individuals with limited cognitive and sensory abilities, we’re exposed to only so many different perspectives and data, and can only take in so much. Inevitably, there will be things we simply didn’t know, and otherwise wouldn’t have known, without their introduction to us by others.

However, that’s a tough fact for most of us to swallow, myself included. I’ve always noted how ego and pride can be the two greatest detriments to truth and knowledge. It’s very difficult to admit not knowing something, or to admit having been wrong. In both cases, you feel your integrity is compromised and that people will see you as less intelligent, and may perhaps even take you less seriously.  There’s also an element of game theory involved: you might want to admit your wrong or don’t know, but feel that others – be it your “opponent” or you “audience” – will gloat or take it badly. We’re all raised to accept that making mistakes are a fact of life, and should even be encouraged insofar as you learn from them.

But that’s difficult to put into practice when we seem to view “being smart” as being “right” and knowing everything. Your credibility becomes discounted by others, which is something no one wants. It’s clear that we need to change the way we look at intelligence, and the way we define what is “smart.” For me, intelligence isn’t constituted by being a repository of raw data, having all the answers, and being consistently accurate about all your views. Being smart is about being open-minded, reasonable, willing to listen and discuss, and obtaining a rational and empirical basis for why you believe what you believe. It’s about being curious and inquiring, and having the ability to explore alternative views, opinions, and positions.

Of course, I don’t want to convey the impression that I’m coming from another extreme either. I don’t expect, nor desire, that people change their minds on a whim. No one every accepts being wrong or having a change of ideas too quickly, whether they’re ignorant or erudite. The path to greater knowledge and truth is incremental and requires reflection, re-confirmation, and contemplation. You don’t want to change your entire view on something too readily – it’s better to test it, think on it, re-evaluate, and so on.

As with most things, it’s all about balancing between confidence and humility. The over-confident will never learn anything because they will insist they know it all already. Even if they know deep down that they don’t know something, they’ll continue to save face for the sake of their reputation. The overly humble will seek to be tolerant and accepting of all views for the sake of appearing open-minded (or perhaps to simply be a nice person), but in doing so will never allow themselves to be definitively grounded in any ideology, making them flighty and uncommitted. The key is to find that middle-ground, to be open-minded but weak-minded, to be enlightened but arrogant about it. As with most things, all this is easier said than done. But it’s a start at least.