Why highly intelligent people often do foolish things, according to psychology professor

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Do you know someone who is an absolute genius and yet doesn’t seem to make a real go of life? There’s a reason for that.

Dr. Heather A. Butler, assistant professor in the psychology department at California State University, sheds some light on this puzzling phenomenon: smart people who do stupid things.

Doing things like buying a second-hand car that’s obviously not up to scratch, taking on leadership roles when they are obviously the backroom genius who can’t handle meetings, getting bogged down in details when crucial decisions need to be made.

When we think of someone who is intelligent, we think of someone who has a high IQ score which measures things like short-term memory, analytical thinking, mathematical ability, spatial recognition, pattern recognition, vocabulary questions, and visual searches.

And we envy them because smart people have a better chance at succeeding in life — they get better grades that lead to higher qualifications, better jobs and higher incomes.

But actually, that’s not always the case. As we all know, there are people who are highly intelligent, but who do not do well in life.

“You might imagine that doing well in school or at work might lead to greater life satisfaction, but several large-scale studies have failed to find evidence that IQ impacts life satisfaction or longevity,” writes Butler.

Woman holding a mirror with a smiling face
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The reason for this is that most intelligence tests don’t measure critical thinking, so someone might have a high IQ, but might not have the ability to think critically. And it’s this ability that is associated with well being and longevity.

“Critical thinking is a collection of cognitive skills that allow us to think rationally in a goal-orientated fashion, and a disposition to use those skills when appropriate.

“Critical thinkers are amiable skeptics. They are flexible thinkers who require evidence to support their beliefs and recognize fallacious attempts to persuade them,” writes Butler in Scientific American.

If you are a critical thinker, you are not easily persuaded by false or overly appealing arguments, and that can save you a lot of heartache in life.

If you are able to think critically, your life will be relatively smooth. Butler says that her own studies and those of other colleagues have found that critical thinkers experience fewer bad things in life.

The researchers had people complete an inventory of life events as well as a critical thinking assessment. The critical thinking assessment measures five components of critical thinking skills including verbal reasoning, hypothesis testing, probability and uncertainty, decision-making, and problem-solving.

The inventory of negative life events covered different aspects of life like:

  • academic (I forgot about an exam, etc.)
  • health (I contracted a sexually transmitted infection because I did not wear a condom during sex, etc.)
  • legal (I was arrested for driving under the influence, etc.)
  • interpersonal (I cheated on my romantic partner who I had been with for over a year, etc.)
  • financial (I have over $5,000 of credit card debt, etc.)

When the researchers analyzed the results they found that critical thinkers experience fewer of these negative life events.

So what is better: to be a critical thinker or to be intelligent?

According to Butler, her research shows that “People who were strong on either intelligence or critical thinking experienced fewer negative events, but critical thinkers did better.”

How does this relate to you and me?

We can all do with critical thinking skills and the good news is that we can work on it. Butler says we can all improve our ability to think critically. In this way we can improve our lives by avoiding many of life’s calamities.

Intelligence tests miss what we actually understand when we refer to a person who is smart. According to Butler, her colleague Keith Stanovich wrote an entire book about this: What Intelligence Tests Miss.

His point is that these tests don’t test reasoning and rationality which is what we mean when we say a person is smart. We don’t really think about their ability to do math or find their way in a strange city.

Thing is, we can’t improve our intelligence – that’s largely determined by genetics.

Critical thinking, though, says Butler can improve with training and the benefits last over time. It’s not something you forget how to do like calculus.

“Anyone can improve their critical thinking skills: Doing so, we can say with certainty, is a smart thing to do,” concludes Butler.

So, if you think that your life is serving you too much unnecessary drama, it might help to get some training in critical thinking so you can get a more critical perspective on events in your life and hopefully improve your life for the better.



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Coert Engels