Why Smart People Do Stupid Things

January 12, 2011 Katharina Lochner
image give your brain a break

Critical reasoning – Part 2

Last week we discussed that, as Professor Keith E. Stanovich of the University of Toronto writes in his book “What intelligence tests miss”, intelligence tests don’t assess an important aspect of cognitive functioning: rationality. Therefore, intelligent people often do stupid things because they lack rationality. But what exactly does this mean? Professor Stanovich identifies three sources of what he calls dysrationalia: mindware gaps, contaminated mindware, and the fact that humans are cognitive misers.

Being a cognitive miser means unconsciously preferring “quick and dirty” to thorough and accurate processing of information because the latter is a lot more effortful, and human brains are lazy. Therefore, humans are very prone to making thinking errors.

The other two sources of dysrationalia are mindware gaps and contaminated mindware. Mindware comprises rules, knowledge, procedures, and strategies that can be derived from one’s memory when making decisions or solving problems. Sometimes people do not have the mindware necessary for making a rational decision or solving a problem appropriately, and this is what Professor Stanovich calls “mindware gap”. However, sometimes people have enough or even more than enough knowledge, but it leads to maladaptive actions and resists evaluation. This is what he calls “contaminated mindware”.

Read more on humans as cognitive misers, mindware gaps, and contaminated mindware here.

So far, this is pretty bad news. However, Professor Stanovich also has a positive message: Rationality can be learned! This means that everyone can take courses that teach them the knowledge necessary for avoiding thinking errors and for closing mindware gaps. Furthermore, there are a number of strategies how to deal with contaminated mindware. Employers can offer further training to their employees in order to improve their rationality. And at this point, intelligence tests might be relevant again: They are good measures for a person’s potential to learn new things. Therefore, intelligence test results are likely to predict to a certain amount how easily someone will learn rationality. Humans are not rational by nature, but they can learn it – and isn’t this good news?

About the Author

Katharina Lochner

Dr Katharina Lochner is the former research director for the cut-e Group which was acquired by Aon in 2017. Katharina is now a researcher and lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences Europe in Iserlohn, Germany. In her role at cut-e, she applied the research in organizational and work psychology to real-world assessment practice. She has a strong expertise in the construction and evaluation of online psychometric tools.

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