Bad News: Intelligence Doesn’t Necessarily Lead to Better Decisions

Dostoyevsky’s classic Notes from the Underground provides an uncanny portent to several theories that today are at the very foundation of contemporary psychological knowledge. Through the apparent ramblings of a spiteful and isolated retiree emerges a philosophy that rejects order and rationality as human ideals—and even suggests the possibility that we might be better off with less intelligence.

As strange as it may seem, the philosophy espoused by the unnamed protagonist is not off the mark. There is a great deal of evidence that our attempts to rationalize and understand the problems that we face often work against us.

Let’s start with a simple example. Imagine that you are faced with an everyday decision. Perhaps you are choosing a piece of art to hang on your wall, a class that you might like to take, or even just what you want to eat. Would you be better off: (a) just picking something, or (b) coming up with a list of reasons why you would pick that thing?

As it turns out, the answer is probably (a). The search for “reasons why” often has the unfortunate side-effect of actually changing what you would choose. And the result is ultimately less satisfaction with the decision—it seems that we often already have reasons, but they are not the ones that we would tend to list. Either we might not have conscious access to our most basic preferences and desires, or we might be unwilling to state them out loud or put them in writing.

When it comes to logic, the same basic principles apply. Attempting to explain the method of solving a logic problem often interferes with the ability to actually do it (especially when more unconventional insights are required).

There might never be a better example than the “Monty Hall problem.” The problem and solution are more complex than I have space to properly explain here, but there is an optimal solution that is very difficult for most people to rationalize. The underlying logic has stumped tens of thousands, including very well-educated scientists and mathematicians. But guess who does tend to figure it out pretty easily? Young children. And also—get this—pigeons.

That’s right, we now have research showing that 8th graders and birds can sometimes learn to make better decisions than educated adults.

And this phenomenon is not limited to a single vexing problem, either. In more recent research the experimenters came up with new learning tasks where the goal was to figure out the types of events that cause others (like patterns of colors and shapes, and the order in which they appear in a sequence). The 4- and 5-year-olds that they tested outperformed adults, especially when the relationships were more complicated, and required abandoning possible (but unnecessary) assumptions in order to continue learning.

What is going on here? You probably already know the answer. When you focus on the logic and reason behind a decision, it can distract from the outcomes that are actually important. Will something make you happy? Is there a better option? How likely are you to win or lose?

What we tend to think of as child-like (pigeon-like?) innocence is in many ways quite objective and practical.

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