Monday, June 18, 2012

HT Mockingbird: Why Smart People are Stupid

Although Kahneman is now widely recognized as one of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century, his work was dismissed for years. Kahneman recounts how one eminent American philosopher, after hearing about his research, quickly turned away, saying, “I am not interested in the psychology of stupidity.”

The philosopher, it turns out, got it backward. A new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology led by Richard West at James Madison University and Keith Stanovich at the University of Toronto suggests that, in many instances, smarter people are more vulnerable to these thinking errors. Although we assume that intelligence is a buffer against bias—that’s why those with higher S.A.T. scores think they are less prone to these universal thinking mistakes—it can actually be a subtle curse.

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The results were quite disturbing. For one thing, self-awareness was not particularly useful: as the scientists note, “people who were aware of their own biases were not better able to overcome them.” This finding wouldn’t surprise Kahneman, who admits in “Thinking, Fast and Slow” that his decades of groundbreaking research have failed to significantly improve his own mental performance. “My intuitive thinking is just as prone to overconfidence, extreme predictions, and the planning fallacy”—a tendency to underestimate how long it will take to complete a task—“as it was before I made a study of these issues,” he writes.

Perhaps our most dangerous bias is that we naturally assume that everyone else is more susceptible to thinking errors, a tendency known as the “bias blind spot.” This “meta-bias” is rooted in our ability to spot systematic mistakes in the decisions of others—we excel at noticing the flaws of friends—and inability to spot those same mistakes in ourselves. Although the bias blind spot itself isn’t a new concept, West’s latest paper demonstrates that it applies to every single bias under consideration, from anchoring to so-called “framing effects.” In each instance, we readily forgive our own minds but look harshly upon the minds of other people.

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Contributors to scripture were apparently aware of this bias.  Trust in the Lord and lean not on your own understanding, eh? The heart is deceitful above all things and who can understand it? Though the truth about God can be known it is distorted by those who do not wish to see it, maybe?  Now of course unbelievers will point out that these reflect biases, and they would be right, and yet the sad truth about humans is that merely being able to identify the cognitive biases in others does not make us any better at identifying them in ourselves.

There's a proverb that may cover these points, too--do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There's more hope for a fool than for him. It may well be that the quips of certain minor celebrities withstanding it is either impossible to be educated beyond your intelligence or you're just as likely to have the same stupid mental shortcuts as the people who you assume have been educated beyond their intelligence. No matter how smart we may think we are we are all capable of being spectacularly dumb and the smarter we think we are the less likely we are to realize just how dumb we can be.

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