Even The Most Highly Intelligent People Fail To Act Rationally From Time To Time

Psychology writer Wray Herbert has an interesting column on why even intelligent people can fail to act rationally:

“We all know people who are highly intelligent but not very smart. These people get good grades in school, ace a lot of tests, and often succeed professionally. But they nevertheless hold irrational beliefs and do a lot of foolish things.

Such people almost certainly have high IQs, but IQ scores do not reflect their particular form of cognitive deficit. Indeed, these people seem to be unable to think and act rationally despite their high intelligence.

University of Toronto psychological scientist Keith Stanovich has a name for this disability. He calls it ‘dysrationalia,’ and he has spent the last several years trying to define the nature of this common deficit. He is giving an overview of dysrationalia at this week’s meeting of the Association for Psychological Science in Washington, D.C.

Dysrational people have what Stanovich calls a ‘mindware gap.’ Mindware — a term borrowed from cognitive scientist David Perkins — refers to all the rules and procedures and strategies that we use to think rationally. This includes thinking about probabilities, hypothesis testing and other kinds of scientific thinking.

These reasoning abilities seem to be surprisingly disassociated from intelligence. Even though they can be taught and measured, students do not learn them in school and standard IQ tests do not pick them up, Stanovich says.

His aim is to separate intelligence from rationality, so that, in additional to traditional IQ, we as a society can also teach and value rational beliefs and actions.

Stanovich has just begun a three-year project, funded by the John Templeton Foundation, to create the first comprehensive assessment of rational thinking — what may someday be commonly called the RQ test.” (Read more here.)

Though I find Stanovich’s ideas very interesting, they also trouble me in a number of ways. For example: why assume that rational thinking is always best?

Decades of research have shown that emotions are deeply involved in our thinking and decision-making processes, and that they help us to make effective choices in line with what we care about. Without emotion to help us identify what we value, rational thinking is empty at best and dangerously inhuman at worst.

And second, the “RQ test”: Do we really need another decontexualized test that claims to make judgments about people based on their behaviour in a highly artificial and time-limited situation? Aren’t we rational in some circumstances and irrational in others?

What do you think?

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