What Makes Us Make Good Decisions?

November 22, 2017 Richard Justenhoven
image good decisions

The role of intelligence in good decision making

We make decisions throughout each and every day. So what equips us to make the right choices, the right judgements, the right decisions?

Certainly, a high IQ helps and we know that people who score higher on ‘intelligence tests’ do tend to do better academically and in their careers. But there are plenty of clever, bright people who make very poor decisions.

And then there is also what is known as ‘critical thinking.’ Whereas IQ is seen as being a measure of the mental strength we have to understand abstract content, critical thinking is about the ability to make judgments analytically. It’s about one’s approach to, and view of, the world and recognising that correlation is not causation. It is typically seen as a quite separate ability.

Heather Butler and colleagues at California State University sought to investigate the relative impact of these two abilities on daily life. In short, they wanted to see whether critical thinking or intelligence is the better predictor of real life events.

The team asked 244 participants to complete IQ and critical thinking tests. The IQ test covered memory, visual processing and quantitative reasoning; the critical thinking test looked at decisions made in real life. The participant had to report on which of the life experiences listed, they had avoided. They ranged from quite minor (a fine for late return of a rental) or more serious (acquiring a sexually transmitted disease). As such, this critical thinking test was to give an indirect measure of effective decision making.

The results showed that:

  • Those with higher critical thinking scores and higher IQs reported fewer negative life events – and
  • Critical thinking is a stronger predictor of life events than IQ.

What does this mean? It means that we can have a modest IQ and yet still make good decisions, or we can have a high IQ and make poor decisions that astound others around us! What is important is our level of critical thinking.

The ability to think critically is an important tool in our tool-kit for navigating work – and life in general. The authors argue that there is ample evidence that critical thinking can be taught and educationalists seek out ways to develop this in students.

Meanwhile the challenge is for organisations seek to identify these abilities in applicants.


Butler, H. A., Pentoney, C., Bong, M. P., (2017) Predicting real-world outcomes: Critical thinking ability is a better predictor of life decisions than intelligence, Thinking Skills and Creativity, Volume 25, September 2017, Pages 38-46

About the Author

Richard Justenhoven

Richard Justenhoven is the product development director within Aon's Assessment Solutions. A leading organizational psychologist, Richard is an acknowledged expert in the design, implementation and evaluation of online assessments and a sought after speaker about such topics.

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