Why smart people make stupid mistakes | BBC Ideas
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Why smart people make stupid mistakes | BBC Ideas

November 15, 2019

According to author David Robson, we’re not always as smart
as we think we are. Psychological research suggests
that greater intelligence, education and expertise might
actually amplify our errors. Consider this question. How many animals of each species
did Moses take on the ark? The answer of course is zero. But many intelligent people
get this wrong. They are cognitive misers, they are
capable of intelligent reasoning but they don’t apply
that brain power effectively, instead relying too much
on their gut feelings. Cognitive miserliness
can cause us to be swayed by irrelevant information
and our own feelings. For example, leading us
to poor financial decisions when buying a house. It can also explain why
apparently intelligent people can fall for fake news if they
rely too much on the gist rather than the details
of a statement. Sometimes, thanks to the
emotional pull of an argument, we think in a very one-sided manner. So Arthur Conan Doyle is the perfect
example of motivated reasoning. Now he was obviously
an incredibly intelligent man – he was a doctor and also wrote
all of the Sherlock Holmes books where he really shows
a very clear understanding of what logical
deduction should be. But in his own private life, Arthur Conan Doyle
was not nearly so rational. He had a very strong
emotional belief in spiritualism and often visited fraudulent mediums. Now, Arthur Conan Doyle’s friends which included
Harry Houdini the illusionist, often tried to persuade him
that he was wrong and to show him the evidence that he was being scammed
by these people, but Arthur Conan Doyle
just didn’t believe their arguments. So for instance he would
try to bring in the latest physics on the
electromagnetic field to explain how fairies might exist but just appeared
in another wavelength. You may not believe in fairies but motivated reasoning can lead
to polarized political views. It may also allow you to rationalise
poor business ventures or a failing love affair. You may hope that education
or professional expertise would protect you from error but these can also backfire. After years of experience in a job, experts for instance
may begin to act on auto-pilot and that automatic decision-making
can sometimes miss vital information. This may explain
a terrible case from 2004 when a man called Brandon Mayfield was accused of conducting
the Madrid bombings. Now Brandon Mayfield had not
left the USA during that time and yet the FBI’s
fingerprint examiners still accused him of the crime. The Spanish police
had found a fingerprint on a plastic bag
near the scene of the crime. Now the FBI had put that
into their computers and they had found
about 20 candidates who might have made the match. And when they looked
at Brandon Mayfield’s, they were sure
that they were identical. Yet when you look at the fingerprints there are actually some very
important differences that they had completely missed but thanks to the curse of expertise they were susceptible
to confirmation bias. So they only saw
the bits that matched and were completely blind
to the bits that didn’t match. Sometimes smart people
can act stupidly thanks to the people
who are around us. A sense of conflict
and competition within a group can actually reduce
each team member’s problem-solving skills
and creativity. Even just one or two
arrogant team members can completely ruin the group dynamic and reduce the performance
of the whole team. One study found that people’s
individual IQ levels actually drop when they feel
in competition with others. Just think of Iceland’s victory in
the 2016 Euro Championships. Now Iceland is a tiny country
compared to the rest of Europe, it really doesn’t have
a huge pool of talent, and yet they performed
extraordinarily well and in fact they humiliated
the England football team by defeating them despite
all of our really top tier players. Now this is an example
of the too-much-talent-effect. Because England with
so many star players really struggled to have
a cohesive group dynamic, there were too many egos
vying for attention. Luckily there are things that you can
do to avoid these thinking traps. For example, you can try
arguing against yourself. Consider your initial gut reaction and then deliberately try to think
from the opposite point of view. Another technique you can
use is called self-distancing. Step out of your shoes for a second and think about your issue
from an outside perspective. Or you might try mental time travel. Imagine yourself in a month
or a year’s time, looking back at your decision. Lastly, why not try fine-tuning
your emotional awareness. Being able to label our feelings
helps us to control them. Various studies have shown
that this simple technique has actually reduced
emotional responses and made people less biased. Thanks for watching. Don’t forget to subscribe and click the bell to receive notifications for new videos. See you again soon!

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  1. Do you recognise yourself in this video? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below and don’t forget to subscribe because we put out new videos every week!

  2. I don't find myself that smart, but this video answered some questions I had in mind about the intelligent people I admire.

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