"IQ measures the brightness of the searchlight, but where we point it matters"

This article on why “smart” people often make idiotic decisions says “most researchers agree that, overall, the correlation between intelligence and successful decision-making is weak.” One reason is that “smart” people often trust their guts rather than think through the likely consequences of their decisions:

Without careful reasoning we often get [decisions] wrong, probably because our brains use two different systems to process information. One is intuitive and spontaneous; the other is deliberative and reasoned. Intuitive processing can serve us well in some areas – choosing a potential partner, for example, or in situations where you’ve had a lot of experience. It can trip us up in others, though, such as when we overvalue our own egocentric perspective. Deliberative processing, on the other hand, is key to conscious problem-solving and can help us override our intuitive tendencies if they look like leading us astray. …“Some people who are intellectually able do not bother to engage very much in analytical thinking and are inclined to rely on their intuitions,” explains Evans. “Other people will check out their gut feeling and reason it through and make sure they have a justification for what they’re doing.”

Another reason is that “smart” people — as measured in IQ tests — are often irrational decision-makers. The article notes that IQ tests fail to measure many mental functions essential to making wise, rational decisions:

[IQ] tests fall down when it comes to measuring those abilities crucial to making good judgements in real-life situations. That’s because they are unable to assess things such as a person’s ability to critically weigh up information, or whether an individual can override the intuitive cognitive biases that can lead us astray.

My favorite part of the article is the metaphor about intelligence being a searchlight. We often make poor decisions by focusing on the wrong things:

Perkins explains this as follows: “IQ indicates a greater capacity for complex cognition for problems new to you. But what we apply that capability to is another question. Think of our minds as searchlights. IQ measures the brightness of the searchlight, but where we point it also matters. Some people don’t point their searchlights at the other side of the case much, for many reasons – entrenched ideas, avoidance of what might be disturbing, simple haste. A higher wattage searchlight in itself is no protection against such follies.” Indeed, it seems even the super-intelligent are not immune. A survey of members of Mensa (the High IQ Society) in Canada in the mid-1980s found that 44 per cent of them believed in astrology, 51 per cent believed in biorhythms and 56 per cent believed in aliens (Skeptical Inquirer, vol 13, p 216).

Posted by James on Tuesday, November 17, 2009