How many times has an Orange County Criminal Defense Lawyer read a decision and wondered how allegedly smart judges can be so stupid? The answer might be that the judge is not. But, counterintuitively, they may very well have got it wrong because their smart not because they’re stupid.
When I was a kid, I remember adults saying of certain people, he’s brilliant but he doesn’t have any common sense. I used to think that this was just sour grapes. Turns out there’s a pretty good case that it’s true.
Smart people are actually more likely to get certain things wrong than less intelligent people. That is the premise of a book that came out last year called “The Intelligence Trap” by David Robson. Part of the idea is that smart people are more susceptible to biases than other people.
As has been remarked before, if new information fits with existing beliefs it is less likely to trigger critical thinking. Smart people are used to being right (e.g. on tests in school). So because of this, smart people are less likely to believe that what they think they know is wrong. They are less likely to check their instincts.
Thus, they are less likely to think critically about new information. If a nuance comes along that doesn’t match an expert’s mental map, an expert is more likely to miss it or disregard it.
Even if they do, smart people are better at creating rationalizations to prop up questionable beliefs which again keeps them from catching their errors. So smart people can actually be more likely to double down on an incorrect belief instead of correcting it. If you’re the kind that a smart person that considers being wrong to be a challenge to your self worth then you are the ideal target for being wrong and perhaps the poster child for using your intellect to prop up your wrong beliefs.
By the way, who especially thinks they’re right all the time? Experts. When you read the word experts you were probably thinking expert witnesses but remember, lawyers are experts too. Us criminal defense lawyers are supposed to be experts on the law. We have to stop thinking of being wrong as a challenge to our self-worth and instead think of it as being a learning opportunity, as a way to make ourselves smarter. The more strongly we hold a belief, the more susceptible we are to being wrong about it.
Furthermore, even if you’re very sure you’re right about something that doesn’t mean you don’t need to consider the possibility that you are wrong.
The opposite is probably true. That’s the time when we are most susceptible to being wrong. There was a time where it seemed obviously true that the world was flat and even smart people were pretty sure about that.
One mistake that I made is that just being skeptical of everything isn’t necessarily the answer either. That can lead to error too.
The author cites multiple instances of very intelligent people who believe incredibly stupid things e.g. a Nobel Prize Winner in a complex technical field. Here’s a nice quote from the book: “ Some science writers have even coined the term, Nobel’s disease, to describe the unfortunate habit of Nobel Prize winners to embrace dubious positions on various issues.”— David Robson, The Intelligence Trap.
The problem seems to most commonly arise when an expert goes outside of their field of expertise. They tend to think because they are smart in one area they are smart in every area.
Here’s an example of the trap. Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of super-rational Sherlock Holmes, was duped by a picture taken by a couple of adolescent girls into believing fairies exist. (The famous Cottingley fairies).
We tend to think when we hear of an example like that of Doyle that we could never fall for that. We don’t believe in fairies, we’re not that stupid. Doyle wasn’t stupid either. What we don’t get is that we’re all susceptible to that sort of thing and we have fallen for it in ways we don’t realize.
Consider this from the book: Jack is looking at Ann but Ann is looking at George. Jack is married. George is unmarried. Is a married person looking at an unmarried person?
Is the answer yes, no, or there’s not enough information?
A lot of smart people get this one wrong. They’ve given this question to many Ivy League students and many of them got it wrong too.
The correct answer is yes. The key is to think about Ann under two possible conditions. We aren’t told if Ann is married. So one might think we don’t have enough information but we do. If we assume that Ann is married then Ann is looking at George and a married person is looking at an unmarried person. If we assume that Ann is unmarried then Jack is looking at Ann and a married person is looking at an unmarried person. So the answer has to be yes.
What tricks us is that smart people are used to having relatively good instincts so we make a quick gut decision and assume we are right without thinking it through enough. We’re smart enough to understand how to get the right answer but we don’t use the necessary brainpower that we have. In other words, getting the above question wrong is sort of like believing in fairies we believe in things that are wrong because we don’t do a good job of thinking them through. Adopting a position of basic skepticism also leads to the wrong answer. It leads to not enough information to answer.
If you got it wrong, it doesn’t mean you’re stupid. Lots of smart people got this wrong. The good news is that we can learn how to avoid these traps— by buying his book of course. I just got started so I can’t tell you more about that yet but wanted to jot this down while I was thinking about it.
Now we may think I know all about the curse of knowledge. This is nothing new. That doesn’t mean ignorance is better. What this book shows is that that’s not the only choice. The choice offered is to understand better how the curse works and then to learn ways to avoid it. Not understanding this is ignorance.