Being Intelligent Doesn’t Protect You Against Making Stupid Decisions, It Could Actually Be the Contrary

The human species has never been as broadly intelligent as today. Ever since we began measuring IQ in the early 20th century, the general IQ among the population has increased steadily. Despite this we still somehow seem unable to solve the issues threatening our existence, even though we often know what solution is required. For…

Felix Grimstedt Avatar

The human species has never been as broadly intelligent as today. Ever since we began measuring IQ in the early 20th century, the general IQ among the population has increased steadily. Despite this we still somehow seem unable to solve the issues threatening our existence, even though we often know what solution is required. For instance, you would think that we would want to stop overusing antibiotics when there’s a chance that they will make us resistant. Likewise, we should want to try our best to minimise further carbon emissions, yet we’re letting these issues get worse daily. Well, it turns out that a higher IQ doesn’t protect us against poor decision making. Surprisingly, some studies show that it sometimes could be the contrary, especially thanks to the following “cognitive traps”:

Studies indicate people with a higher IQ are more educated than people with a lower IQ, which is not surprising since IQ-tests were designed for examining students’ learning abilities. In turn, higher education often leads to an increased ability in collecting evidence, but not necessarily any increase in critical thinking. Additionally, the more intelligent you are, the better you get at justifying your belief, even when presented with compelling evidence. Thus intelligent, educated people often become better at collecting evidence that supports their belief, but not at questioning it. This can lead to a psychological phenomenon called motivated reasoning, and it’s a social or cognitive response that lets emotion and motivation affect how new information is perceived, i.e being biassed. A study was conducted where Americans with varying mathematical skills were asked to calculate problems that were based on data sets of controversial topics in the U.S, such as gun legislation etc. The fascinating conclusion was that the better people were at maths, the more incorrectly they calculated when the results didn’t correspond with their opinions regarding the topic. The interesting thing to take away from this experiment is that despite these people being talented mathematicians, motivated reasoning led to subconscious mistakes, even in a very fact-heavy subject such as mathematics where there are clear correct and incorrect answers.

Another psychological phenomenon or “trap” that has been observed is something called the earned dogmatism effect, which is also connected to highly educated people. Highly educated people often feel entitled to be more dogmatic (close-minded) within their areas of expertise, due to norms and their history of education, which can sometimes lead to overconfidence and make them less susceptible to compelling evidence. An observation of this that Maria Gunther, editor within science at Dagens Nyheter, talked about in the podcast P3 Dystopia, was that many of the climate change deniers she had talked to were also engineers who often had been highly educated within areas related to climate research, such as biology and chemistry. The most astounding thing about this was that some of them claimed they could single-handedly debunk global warming. The confidence that they could debunk a theory of that magnitude, that has been researched and studied by multiple scientists for decades, in an afternoon with a few equations on the back of a notepad, was startling to say the least. It is human to want to stick to your personal beliefs, but what has been shown is that intelligent people are less prone to be persuaded into changing their opinions, even when presented with facts that state the opposite.

Consequently a higher IQ doesn’t make us immune to poor decision making and general stupidity, but what can we do to avoid these “cognitive traps”? Well there are a few tricks. When it comes to motivated reasoning, that almost all of us are subjected to to some extent, an easy task is that when presented with evidence that supports your belief, ask yourself if you would have been as convinced if the evidence had been the contrary. For example, if you consider yourself to be a great driver and one day you swiftly avoid an accident, that would most likely boost your confidence and self-image as a great driver. Thus if the opposite would have happened and you would have gotten into an accident, it should decrease your confidence in yourself as a great driver. These two scenarios should have an equal effect on your comprehension, even if it confirms or denies it.

Secondly, when it comes to earned dogmatism, a common problem that occurs is that people identify a lot with their area of expertise. Thus when criticised or questioned, they take it as a personal attack on themselves and their identity. Therefore you should try to disconnect your identity from your occupation and expertise, since that will make you more susceptible to criticism and questioning, which in turn lets you reconsider your opinions and beliefs easier when presented with compelling evidence.

In conclusion, these cognitive traps are currently inhibiting our future growth. Thus trying to avoid them is extra important for us students, since most of us are both intelligent and currently pursuing a higher education. This means that we are extra vulnerable to these traps while simultaneously prone to end up in powerful positions. Hence, if we can overcome cognitive obstacles like these, we might have a chance to make unbiased decisions that will lead to more impactful changes in the future.


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Founded in 1948 and has since been an important part of student life in the economics program at Lund University. Nådiga Lundtan covers a wide range of topics related to economics, society, and politics, as well as careers, entrepreneurship, and innovation. It is a platform for students to share their ideas and opinions on economics and related fields.

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