In his latest article for The New Yorker, Why Smart People Are Stupid, Jonah Lehrer looks at how inherent cognitive biases disrupt our ability to reason — or in other words, why our unconscious, predisposed selves get in the way of thinking clearly.Lehrer points to a new study, Cognitive Sophistication Does Not Attenuate The Bias Blindspot, by Richard West and Russell Meserve of James Madison University and Keith Stanovich at the University of Toronto, which, he says, proves that “smarter people are more vulnerable to these thinking errors. Although we assume that intelligence is a buffer against bias—that’s why those with higher S.A.T. scores think they are less prone to these universal thinking mistakes—it can actually be a subtle curse.” A tendency toward bias has a lot to do with ego.
In the study, 482 undergraduate students from James Madison University took a series of tests that measured their level of cognitive bias, including:
Anchoring bias: The tendency to rely too heavily on a single piece of information
Base-rate neglect: Basing judgments on specifics, ignoring general statistical information
Conjunction effect: Believing that specific circumstances are more likely than a single circumstance
Framing bias: Drawing different conclusions about information, based on how it’s presented
Myside bias: favouring information that supports one’s beliefs
The researchers measured these results against the “cell phone bias” — not a formal cognitive bias but an obvious one (people who drive talking on their cell phones are more likely to get into an accident) — and against the students’ SAT scores. They found that everyone was biased and most believed others to be more biased than themselves. IQ did not “lessen” any bias; in fact, it accentuated them. According to the study,
“The so-called bias blind spot arises when people report that thinking biases are more prevalent in others than in themselves. Bias turns out to be relatively easy to recognise in the behaviours of others, but often difficult to detect in one’s own judgments. … If anything, a larger bias blind spot was associated with higher cognitive ability.”
This goes back to the idea of “naive realism,” or the belief that you see the world objectively — when in fact, there’s no way you really can.
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