The Intelligence Trap

8 min read
The Intelligence Trap bookPhoto by David Robson

Intelligent people can have a wrong decision making

  • Kary Mullis is an example of this. He is a Nobel prize winner, but also questioned climate change and HIV/AIDS and believed in astrology

Things that can help protect us from the intelligence trap

  • intellectual humility, open-minded thinking, curiosity, refined emotional awareness, and growth mindset

A new discipline was born and has been slowly tested in different places: evidence-based wisdom

Greater intelligence can make you more biased in your thinking and the book tries to understand

  • Why do smart people act stupidly?
  • What skills and dispositions they are missing that explain these mistakes?
  • And how can we cultivate those qualities to protect us from those errors?

The rise and fall of the termites

The skills measured by general intelligence test (IQ) are one important component of our mental machinery, governing how quickly we process and learn complex abstract information.

Howard Gardner formulated a theory of multiple intelligences that featured eight traits. It was considered the theory too broad without offering precise definitions and tests or any reliable evidence to support his conjectures

Robert Sternberg proposed his triarchic theory of successful intelligence: practical, analytical, and creative.

  • Analytical intelligence is essentially the king of thinking that Terman was studying
  • Creative intelligence examines our abilities to invent, imagine and suppose.
  • Practical intelligence concerns a different kind of innovation: the ability to plan and execute an idea, and to overcome life's messy, ill-defined problems in the most pragmatic way possible.

Entangled Arguments

Dysrationalia: The mismatch between intelligence and rationality

2 divided systems

  • System 1: intuitive, automatic, fast thinking (unconscious bias)
  • System 2: slow, more analytical, deliberative thinking

Many of our irrational decisions come when we rely too heavily on system 1

But thinking only in system 2 can lead us to rationalize our beliefs even when they are wrong

Motivated reasoning: smart people do not apply their superior intelligence fairly. But they use it opportunistically to promote their own interests and protect their beliefs. Intelligence can be a fool for propaganda rather than truth-seeking.

  • Greater intellect is used for rationalization and justification, rather than logic and reason. Some historical examples are:
    • Thomas Edison and AC
    • Steve Jobs and cancer

Four potential forms of the intelligence trap

We may lack the necessary tacit knowledge and counter-factual thinking that are essential for executing a plan and pre-empting the consequences of your actions

We may suffer from dysrationalia, motivated reasoning, and the bias blind spot, which allow us to rationalise and perpetuate our mistakes, without recognising the flaws in our own thinking. this results in us building logic-tight compartments around our beliefs without considering all the available evidence.

We may place too much confidence in our own judgment, thanks to earned dogmatism, so that we no longer perceive our limitations and over-reach our abilities.

Thanks to our expertise, we may employ entrenched automatic behaviors that render us oblivious to the obvious warning signs that disaster is looming and more susceptible to bias

Moral algebra — towards the science of evidence-based wisdom

Wisdom: “the set of skills, dispositions, and policies that help us understand and deliberate about what's good in life and help us to choose the best means for pursuing those things over the course of the life.”

Deliberately taking time to consider the opposite viewpoint can reduce a range of reasoning errors. Examples in practice:

  • Try to overcome your tendency to dismiss the evidence that doesn't fit your preferred point of view
  • Imagine someone will review and examine your justifications. Many studies have shown that we consider more points of view when we believe that we will need to explain our thinking to others

Self-distancing: make yourself distant from the situation as if you are a third person, this process encourages people to take a more reflective attitude towards their problems.

Intellectual humility and actively open-minded thinking

Your emotional compass: The power of self-reflection

  • The example of Ray Kroc who decided to gamble everything on the whims of his funny bone to build McDonald's
    • According to the research, bias doesn't come from intuitions and emotions per see, but from an inability to recognise those feelings for what they really are and override them when necessary; we then use our intelligence and knowledge to justify erroneous judgments made on the basis of them.

The five stages of expertise

  • Unconscious incompetence: you don't know what you don't know
  • Conscious incompetence: you are aware of what you need to learn
  • Conscious competence: practicing the skill requires concentration and deliberation
  • Unconscious competence: your decisions are quick and intuitive but vulnerable to bias
  • Reflective competence: you know when to question intuitions and eliminate error; possible to explore the feelings and intuitions and to identify biases before they cause harm

The three interconnected components— interception (a sense that makes someone more sensitive to his bodily feelings), differentiation (emotional differentiation) and regulation (self-distancing and reappraisal, which involves reinterpreting the feelings in a new light.) — can powerfully direct the quality of our intuition and decision making

A bullshit detection kit

Spreading the truth:

  • Avoid repeating the myth. make sure the false statements are less salient than the truth you are trying to convey
    • e.g. "Flu vaccines are safe and effective" than “Myth: Vaccines can give you the flu”
  • Make it simpler and less over-complicate the argument.
    • e.g. Best to be selective in the evidence you present: sometimes two facts are more powerful than ten
  • For controversial topics, reduce people's motivated reasoning in the way you frame the issue.
    • e.g. companies should pay for the fossil fuels they consume: “carbon offset” can more likely win over conservative voters than “tax”

Inoculation theory: is a social psychological/communication theory that explains how an attitude or belief can be protected against persuasion or influence

  • Some research results show that a semester's course in inoculation significantly reduced the students’ beliefs in pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, and fake news.
  • Also improved critical thinking: ability to interpret statistics, identify logical fallacies, consider alternative explanations and recognise when additional information will be necessary to come to a conclusion

Learn to ask the right questions to spot lies

  • Who is making the claim? what are their credentials? and what might be their motives to make me think this?
  • What are the premises of the claim? and how might they be flawed?
  • What are my own initial assumptions? and how might they be flawed?
  • What are the alternative explanations for their claim?
  • What is the evidence? and how does it compare to the alternative explanation?
  • What further information do you need before you make a judgment?

New skills

Many other vital thinking skills other than the ones measured by standard academic testes

  • Intellectual Humility: the capacity to accept the limits of our judgement and to try to compensate for our fallibility.
  • Actively Open-Minded Thinking: The deliberate pursuit of alternative viewpoints and evidence that may question our opinions.
  • Emotion Compass: help us to avoid cognitive and affective biases.
  • Moral Algebra: a slow and systematic approach to weigh up the pros and cons of an argument.
  • Reflective Reasoning: when we can pause and analyse our gut feelings, basing our decisions on both intuition and analysis.

The art of successful learning: how evidence-based wisdom can improve your memory


  • I actively sell as much new information as I can in new situations
  • Everywhere I go I am out looking for new things or experiences
  • I am the kind of person who embraces unfamiliar people, events, and places

Curiosity boosts success and well-being

  • Curiosity helps us tolerate uncertainty. Curious people relish mystery. Finding something new gives them that dopamine kick
  • This makes them more open-minded and willing to change their opinions and stops them from becoming entrenched in dogmatic views

The benefits of eating bitter

Failure and frustration are good steps of learning. It should be a part of the learning process and memorization.

It's quite common for Japanese teachers to begin their lessons by asking students to solve a problem before they have been told the exact method to apply

  • Productive failure is part of the learning process
  • Helps increasing their ultimate understanding and long-term recall

Three stages of good teaching by Sticker

  • Productive struggle: long periods of confusion as students wrestle with complex concepts beyond their current understanding
  • Making connections: struggles help see the pattern for different concepts
  • Deliberate practice: practicing these new skills in the most productive possible. Add additional variety and challenges (more productive struggle)
  • Paper: slowing down may be a way of speeding up

The folly and wisdom of the crowd: how teams and organizations can avoid the intelligence trap

High-reliability organizations

  • Preoccupation with failure. The organization rewards employees for self-reporting errors
  • Reluctant to simplify interpretation: employees are rewarded for questioning assumptions
  • Sensitivity to operations: communication and search for the root cause of anomalies.
  • Commitment to resilience: pre-mortems, post-mortems, build the necessary knowledge d resources to bounce back after an error occurs.
  • If I had more time and resources, would I do the same thing? Would I make the same decisions?


Twitter Github