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When “Smart” Isn’t: Common Sense vs Dysrationalia

October 12th, 2015 · No Comments · Uncategorized

“Perspective is worth 80 IQ points.”

– Alan Kay

There has been a lot of ink (pixels?) spilled over the years regarding the phenomenon where (presumably) high IQ academics and/or intellectuals appear to be prone to profound and surprising errors in judgement.

Clever sillies: why high IQ people tend to be deficient in common sense has been the most quoted paper covering this topic. The author concludes that:

“an increasing relative level of IQ brings with it a tendency differentially to over-use general intelligence in problem-solving, and to over-ride those instinctive and spontaneous forms of evolved behavior which could be termed common sense… I further suggest that this random silliness of the most intelligent people may be amplified to generate systematic wrongness when intellectuals are in addition ‘advertising’ their own high intelligence in the evolutionarily novel context of a modern IQ meritocracy.”

A striking example of this occurred a few years back when I (in the role of Cassandra) witnessed an entire community of academic overachievers get completely and utterly hornswoggled (by their own admission) by crew of public-school types who planned to pave over their neighborhoods. In a move worthy of “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for” the brainiacs were guided in a direction that utterly guaranteed that the impact on their way of life would be maximized. Think lambs to the slaughter. (“You can achieve so much more if you come up with an alternative” is priceless.)

I’ve never been completely satisfied with assertion that it’s a lack of “common sense” at play here. Rhetorically its unpersuasive to urban elites because it rings of a corn-pone, flyover-state mentality. Also at play is that it’s common sense that if you are nice to someone, they’ll be nice to you (the fatal flaw at play in the scenario described above.) It’s also common sense that that the worlds supply of oil is finite, so the inane notion of “Peak Oil” can seem perfectly reasonable.

There’s a promising framework which moves us beyond the whole “common sense” thing and into a scenario that IMHO captures the reality better. At its center is the term “Dysrationalia”. The Book What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought, Keith Stanovich of Durham University discusses that the correlation between I.Q. and rationality is low and that I.Q. tests fail to assess traits that most people associate with “good thinking.”

In “On the Distinction Between Rationality and Intelligence: Implications for Understanding Individual Differences in Reasoning” Stanovich provides a detailed 16-page PDF overview.

How is rationality defined? In the PDF linked above, Stanovich writes:

“Cognitive scientists recognize two types of rationality: epistemic and instrumental. Epistemic rationality concerns how well beliefs map onto the actual structure of the world. It is sometimes called theoretical rationality or evidential rationality…The simplest definition of instrumental rationality is as follows: behaving in the world so that you get exactly what you most want, given the resources (physical and mental) available to you.”

Informally, I’ve been describing complete rationality as:

* Understanding how the world really works (department of transportation employees want above all else to build big highways that they’ve designed, and legislators don’t vote for “best” options)


* Taking action in your own best interest (avoiding choices that ensure your neighborhood becomes a concrete jungle)

Bottom line: Don’t confuse “smart” with rational. They are very different and not well aligned.


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