It’s good to be smart. On the surface, being smart looks like easy living. But there’s another side to the story.
Intelligent people have a reputation for making dumb mistakes, especially in situations that require common sense. The simplicity of these situations and the abundant intelligence of those who tend to muck them up can be downright comical.
“Common sense is not so common.” -Voltaire
Scientists are finally beginning to understand why this happens. Shane Frederick at MIT was among the first to conduct research that explained why rational thinking and intelligence don’t tend to go hand in hand.
In his studies, Frederick gave people simple problems to solve, like this one:
A bat and ball cost a dollar and ten cents. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
Frederick found that some people have the tendency to confidently blurt out the wrong answer, stating that the ball costs ten cents. You, of course, knew that the correct answer is that the ball costs five cents, and you’re completely justified if you’re wondering if the, well, less-than-smart people were the ones blurting out the wrong answer.
Psychologists from James Madison University and the University of Toronto wondered the same thing. They gave similar tests of logic to hundreds of people and compared the accuracy of their answers to their levels of intelligence. Theresearchers found that smart people were more likely to blurt out the wrong answer because they actually make more mental mistakes when problem-solving.
Smart people are more prone to silly mistakes because of blind spots in how they use logic. These blind spots exist because smart people tend to be overconfident in their reasoning abilities. That is, they’re so used to being right and having quick answers that they don’t even realize when they’re blowing it by answering without thinking things through.
The dummies getting the bat-and-ball question wrong weren’t so dumb, either. When Frederick gave the question to students from Harvard, Princeton, and M.I.T., more than half of them got it wrong. Even students from some of the most prestigious universities in the world make stupid mistakes.
Perhaps the scariest thing about the errors that highly intelligent people make is how unaware they are of them. People of all levels of intelligence succumb to what’s called the “bias blind spot.” That is, we’re great at spotting other people’s mistakes and terrible at recognizing our own. The sillier the mistake, the harder it is for an intelligent person to accept that they’ve made it.
“I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing.”
While it might seem like we don’t spend our days solving logic problems like the bat-and-ball question, the brain functions involved in solving these problems are the same ones we use in everyday thinking. Hence, the tendency to do stupid things follows smart people into the workplace. Consider some of the most common ways in which smart people manage to shoot themselves in the foot.