Friday, April 10, 2009

Rationality vs Intelligence

I can believe that intelligence is somewhat uncorrelated with rational behavior (see below for definition; to some extent it is merely the requirement of self-consistency). But do smarter people become more rational once their foibles are revealed to them?

Rationality vs Intelligence: In 2002, the cognitive scientist Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University won the Nobel Prize in Economics for work done with his longtime collaborator Amos Tversky (who died in 1996).

Their work had to do with judgment and decision-making ― what makes our thoughts and actions rational or irrational. They explored how people make choices and assess probabilities, and uncovered basic errors that are typical in decision-making.

The thinking errors they uncovered are not trivial mistakes in a parlor game. To be rational means to adopt appropriate goals, take the appropriate action given one's goals and beliefs, and hold beliefs that are commensurate with available evidence. It means achieving one's life goals using the best means possible.

To violate the thinking rules examined by Kahneman and Tversky thus has the practical consequence that we are less satisfied with our lives than we might be.

Research conducted in my own laboratory has indicated that there are systematic individual differences in the judgment and decision-making skills that Kahneman and Tversky studied.

Ironically, the Nobel Prize was awarded for studies of cognitive characteristics that are entirely missing from the most well-known mental assessment device in the behavioral sciences: intelligence tests.

Scientists and laypeople alike tend to agree that "good thinking" encompasses sound judgment and decision-making ― the type of thinking that helps us achieve our goals. Yet assessments of such good (rational) thinking are nowhere to be found on IQ tests.

Intelligence tests measure important things, but they do not assess the extent of rational thought. This might not be such a grave omission if intelligence were a strong predictor of rational thinking.

But my research group found just the opposite: it is a mild predictor at best, and some rational thinking skills are totally dissociated from intelligence.

To an important degree, intelligence tests determine the academic and professional careers of millions of people in many countries.

Children are given intelligence tests to determine eligibility for admission to school programs for the gifted. Corporations and the military depend on assessment and sorting devices that are little more than disguised intelligence tests.

Perhaps some of this attention to intelligence is necessary, but what is not warranted is the tendency to ignore cognitive capacities that are at least equally important: the capacities that sustain rational thought and action.

Critics of intelligence tests have long pointed out that the tests ignore important parts of mental life, mainly non-cognitive domains such as socio-emotional abilities, empathy, and interpersonal skills.

But intelligence tests are also radically incomplete as measures of cognitive functioning, which is evident from the simple fact that many people display a systematic inability to think or behave rationally despite having a more than adequate IQ.

For a variety of reasons, we have come to overvalue the kinds of thinking skills that intelligence tests measure and undervalue other important cognitive skills, such as the ability to think rationally.

Psychologists have studied the major classes of thinking errors that make people less than rational.

They have studied people's tendencies to show incoherent probability assessments; to be overconfident in knowledge judgments; to ignore the alternative hypothesis; to evaluate evidence with a "my side" bias; to show inconsistent preferences because of framing effects; to over-weigh short-term rewards at the expense of long-term well-being; to allow decisions to be affected by irrelevant context; and many others.

All of these categories of failure of rational judgment and decision-making are very imperfectly correlated with intelligence ― meaning that IQ tests tend not to capture individual differences in rational thought.

Intelligence tests measure mental skills that have been studied for a long time, whereas psychologists have only recently had the tools to measure the tendencies toward rational and irrational thinking. ...


Bee said...

As far as I am concerned the biggest problem with intelligence tests is that many of them test knowledge instead of the ability to learn.

Besides this, the problem with the above elaboration on rational thinking is the notion of 'appropriate goals' or 'life goals' etc. Question is: do people have any, and if they do would they be really happy to reach them, and do they consciously know that. If no, this then raises the question whether people who act seemingly 'irrational' are actually acting rational in the sense that they are working towards goals they haven't formulated or possibly can't even formulate.

Maybe somewhat disturbing, but I believe few people actually know what they want.

Chris said...

Not unrelated: Daniel Gilbert on affective forecasting.

Steve Hsu said...

The first paragraph in which the author defines rationality is confusingly written.

I like the later one better:
"They have studied people's tendencies to show incoherent probability assessments; to be overconfident in knowledge judgments; to ignore the alternative hypothesis; to evaluate evidence with a ``my side" bias; to show inconsistent preferences because of framing effects; to over-weigh short-term rewards at the expense of long-term well-being; to allow decisions to be affected by irrelevant context; and many others."

The contexts in which people are shown to be irrational in a well-defined way are experiments where the goal is simple and uncontroversial: you are playing a game, you want to maximize your payoff in dollars, etc. But even then people are seen to be inconsistent, pursue suboptimal strategies, etc. That is classical Kanheman-Tversky stuff. What this guy has done is show that the presence of these irrational quirks is somewhat uncorrelated with IQ.

When it comes to "life goals" and all that the idea of rationality becomes ill-defined, of course.

anon said...

"whereas psychologists have only recently had the tools to measure the tendencies toward rational and irrational thinking"

Rediculous. Totally rediculous. There is not and never will be a means of measuring "tendencies toward rational and irrational thinking".

The virtue of IQ tests is they are not designed to measure anything outside the ability to take tests "in general". Then the results are interpreted by thier correlation to certain outcomes, traits, etc.

This endless cant of "IQ isn't that important", is so tiresome.

Mike said...

I'm a huge believer in the importance of general intelligence. However, I understand that there are many subsets of intelligence that can make people have radically different thought processes even if they have the same IQ. Logical/rational thinking is in short supply even among some people with high IQ's.

There is this blog I read from time to time. It has nothing to do with physics, it's another topic completely. Now the author of this specific blog ostensibly has a fairly high verbal IQ. He has extremely good writing skills and is fairly prolific. However greater than 95% of his ideas are pure junk. Its like reading a string of illogical absurdities and nonsense. He is totally unable to proportionally weigh the importance of issues in the external environment. He blows out of proportion trivial things that are in reality of no concern and are not really that important. He promulgates a bunch of absurd rehashed ideas that he throws funky new labels to. I'm drawn into reading his blog merely because it is so hard for me to figure out how a person can have such a disconnect between their IQ and their logical thinking. On one parameter (verbal IQ) he seems quite competent. On another level, however, (overall logical thinking), he is unable to say anything coherent or of any value whatsoever.

Another thing about intelligence is that many people suffer from "missing piece of the puzzleism". This basically means that there entire world view is totally wrong because they are missing crucial details of how the world actually works (IQ differences, evolution, selfish gene, sociobiology, physics etc.). Sometimes people have a high IQ, but they are not apt to seek out all the necessary information to make a complete picture of how the world really functions. However if your logical thinking is not up to par, then you are likely to have a really poor understanding of how the world works. Logical thinking confers a benefit of being able to fit together as many "world puzzle pieces" as possible together coherently and get a much clearer understanding of how the world works. Of course everyone is always going to be missing something from their worldview. However I think people with a higher IQ, good logical thinking and a willingness to leave no stone unturned (no matter how controversial) can really start to nail things with respect to accurately portraying what will happen in the real world. When people have all of the pieces lined up, they can really consistently make the right predictions/choices.

One thing I realize is that not many people have a built in brain mechanism to tell them if their reading something that is junk or of no value. So some people with high IQ's get easily duped into thinking something is important when its not. This is especially true in an internet environment where a person has to ignore extraneous and unimportant information. People who don't have this brain mechanism are more liable to be reading junk.

Here is a specific blog example ( So many posts on this blog are pure junk, even though the authors seem to have a fairly high verbal IQ.

See here;
and here for examples;

Maybe they would think the same of my blog, though. I tend to promulgate some weird stuff. I think in general, though, that my logic is better than most people even if some of my ideas are weird.

Also there is executive functioning which is another aspect of intelligence. A person with aspergers might have a high IQ, but be unable to function very well in many other endeavors.

Bee said...

Question remains though how clean and well-defined can you make an experimental setting since you can't clean people's minds. That is to say, they might well be acting according to strategies they aren't even aware of that in a non-experimental context works towards their (ill-defined) life goals, and the experiment merely reflects their inability to turn this strategy temporarily off.

(Btw, not sure what browser you are using but you should give your blog a look with MS IE or Google Chrome, some parts look odd.)

John Sidles said...

Like many people who are interested in cognition, I was saddened when two great artists of the Comic Enlightenment retired: Gary Laron (The Far Side) and Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes).

Their comic strips illuminated the nature of human cognition more deeply than any academic literature I know, for a reason that Steve Hsu's post makes clear: when it comes to describing and understanding cognition, comic strips are an immensely more powerful medium than rational arguments. So when Larson and Watterson retired, humanity immediately began getting stupider (IMHO).

Fortunately, last week my son introduced me to a comic artist who is one of the cognitive heirs to Larson and Watterson: Ryan North (Dinosaur Comics). This pointer is provided for people who like to think and laugh, simultaneously. :)

May the Comic Enlightenment never end!

Data said...

IQ tests are not a homogeneous bunch - each has pros and cons. Some are more power oriented (timed tests), some more achievement oriented (some WISC subtests) and some more undergirded by strong psychometrics (e.g., DAS). I've given hundreds of them, including many of the "brief" kind that have a reasonable relationship to the longer tests.

Most IQ tests include various forms of pattern recognition, analogic thinking, memory, and various levels of numerical/verbal fluency and comprehension. I don't know a single test across the social sciences that explains all the variance in any one outcome variable. IQ tests have pros and cons, as does the interpretation, which should be holistic, triangulated, corroborated, and tenable. In the end, however, most of life is probabilistic and the quest for causal certainty is more about the human animals need for control and dominion over their domain vs. some all-knowing test. Like most things, IQ tests can be used and abused.

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