Intelligence Traps

Intelligent people do not make better choices than their less gifted colleagues. In fact, very intelligent people often tend to be amazingly stupid about “common sense” decisions. Let’s add two caveats. The first is within a reasonable range. There are people with such low intelligence that they cannot make good choices at all and there are subjects that require higher intelligence to master, but generally once you get “enough” it stops being useful to have more. The second caveat relates to what we call intelligence. Even though we don’t talk much about IQ anymore, we implicitly judge intelligence by the types of things IQ test measure.

The author begins by talking about very intelligent people who just believe very stupid things. Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the supremely rational Sherlock Holmes, believe is spiritualism and fairies, for example. One of the intelligence traps is that intelligent people can think up all sorts of good reasons to believe dumb things. They are used to people deferring to them and people do.

High intelligence is like a powerful engine. It can drive the car very fast, but it needs a competent driver, else it drives very fast in the wrong direction.

I thought “The Intelligence Trap” was very much like a book I read in the 1990s called “Decision Traps.” “Decision Traps” was one of the books that most influenced my life. If it makes me seem shallow because I mention such a book and not some wonderful classic, well too bad. “Decision Traps” featured a lot of useful wisdom and introduced me to the work of Kahneman and Tversky, before they were so famous. It mentioned specific paths that smart people go down that take them the wrong way. “The Intelligence Trap” does that too. It is in many ways and updated version, so I recommend it. It is an entertaining book too. The thoughts are not profound and I have read most of the examples elsewhere, but it is useful to remind ourselves.

Confirmation bias
“The Intelligence Trap” talks about confirmation bias, for example. I first came across the term in “Decision Traps” and the problem has become worse since 1990. Internet is a confirmation bias engine and it does it so seamlessly that we often do not even see it. One way I counter it is to have lots of Facebook friends who don’t agree with me. I tolerate even the abusive ones, since their points of view may be right, sometimes. The flaw in my plan is that some Facebook friends who disagree with me unfriend me, thereby denying themselves the benefit of my contrary wisdom and me of theirs.

This is related to motivated reasoning. This is when you are looking for information to bolster positions you already support or disparage information that contradicts.

Meta forgetting
I like to meet authors, but I always try to cut them a lot of slack. They often know less than is contained in the pages of their books. This makes perfect sense. When they finished the book, they were at the peak of their knowledge on that subject and forgetting set in that same day.

This happens to all of us. We can perceive it with subjects like math or language, but we miss it with other subjects. We tend to think we know all we did on the day we got the passing grade on the tests. We don’t. Good to recall and relearn if we need.

Hard is better than easy learning
Related is the idea that difficulty is good when we are trying to learn. We can often get better short term results when we concentrate. Out long-term recall and use of information is improved when we struggle a little, when we forget and have to relearn. This is one reason why crash courses tend to produce short-term wins, but long term don’t make much of an impression.

A man has gotta know his limitations
Socrates got it right. I liked that the author made many references to literature and philosophy. He mentioned the wisdom of Socrates and Solomon. Socrates was wise precisely because he knew that he didn’t know. He talked to all kinds of experts. These guys knew a lot about their specialties, but they lacked wisdom because they thought they knew more than they did about other things. There is the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Solomon’s case was different. He was said to be one of the wisest men ever, but he could not run his kingdom or his personal life well. In the wisdom of that great American philosopher Clint Eastwood – “A man has gotta know his limitations.”
Related to this is expert entrenchment. When people know a lot, they think they know everything about it. They may not know as much as they think, but even in the areas of their specialties information changes. Sometimes the super stars are the ones least likely to want to change. They are doing well with the status quo. This can also lead to functional stupidity. Functional because it works at least in the short term. Productivity may be boosted in the short-term if you do not question and just get it done. It also might help with career success if you don’t rock the boat.

Fixed mind set
My father taught me many useful things. One of the not useful things that I had to jettison was a fixed mind set. He told me that either you were good at something or not. This was not strictly wrong, but it implies that you cannot change. In fact, we have lots of choices. Our futures need not be slaves of our pasts or of our CURRENT capacity.

The author gives the example of Richard Feynman, one of the top physicists of the 20th Century. Teachers didn’t think much of Feynman. He was self-motivated, which meant that he did not always study the things teachers thought important. He was also not incredibly intelligent on those traditional IQ measures. But he never stopped learning. He was always curious and looking for new information in wide varieties of subjects, not only physics. As a child, he was below average in language, but he kept on going and ended up mastering several foreign languages.

The race is not always won by the fastest, but by the one who just keeps running.
The race may be won by the fastest, but sometimes the fastest don’t know that the race is never over. You can keep on going and guys like Feynman just keep on going.
I learned this lesson from my friend David Brooks (the FSO, not the author. David, sadly, died a couple years ago.) What I learned from him was the usefulness of persistence in language learning. David seemed to have little talent learning Polish. He managed to get a 3/3 (enough to pass) but it was bad, so bad that even non-Poles like me noticed. But he kept on going. By the time he was done in Poland, he was among the best speakers. I took his lesson when I was in Brazil. I tried to keep on speaking and learning Portuguese until the day I left Brazil. Not sure how good I got, but I could communicate better.

Better in foreign language
Speaking of foreign language, if you know a foreign language well you know that your personality is different when you are speaking it versus your native language. I thought I was often a better diplomat in Portuguese than I was in English because I had to listen more carefully, reflect more and talk more thoughtfully. “The Intelligence Trap” talks about studies that indicate that people are more rational when explaining something in a language that is not their native one. The idea is that it slows you down so you don’t make the snap judgements. Even when you are very fluent, using a foreign language sets up a firebreak.

Tolerance of ambiguity
Finally, in my memory, if not in the book, is a tolerance of ambiguity. People who make better decisions often are those that can hold contradictory ideas at the same time and not go crazy. They do not feel the urgent need to resolve questions and so can take ideas from more sources. Sometimes you don’t need to resolve things. Sometimes it just doesn’t matter and so we should just leave it alone. Even if we “know” we are right, it does not mean others are wrong if they believe the opposite. Hard to resolve. Just lighten up.