Smart people obviously do a lot of smart things or they wouldn’t be considered smart people. For example, they behave like a curious person (whether they’re really curious or not) by asking questions and seeking information. They focus on the message rather than the messenger, even if the messenger is someone they don’t like. And when they hear themselves contradict someone else, they pause and consider the person’s point of view.
Smart people also focus on being productive rather than merely busy. They work outside their comfort zone, recognizing that nobody ever feels 100 percent ready to tackle a new opportunity. They track their progress. And they maintain a positive attitude and learn from their mistakes.
But smart people sometimes do dumb things too. They talk on a cellphone while driving. They supersize their fries. They buy high and sell low. They waste time in pointless meetings. They let email take over their lives (along with an assortment of social media). They let excuses interfere with things they know they ought to do. They stop striving to achieve their goals. And more.
In some cases, the explanation for such behavior is simple. Much of the time, we’re overwhelmed by all our responsibilities, all the information being thrown at us, and our constantly racing thoughts. So what we know we should do is masked by our stress.
Another theory for why we behave in foolish ways is that we are “cognitive misers” who try to avoid thinking too much. Thinking is time-consuming and resource intensive. And sometimes it’s actually counterproductive. So we’ve developed heuristics and biases to limit the amount of brainpower we apply to a problem. These techniques provide answers that are right much of the time—but not all the time.
The result is that, when we face an uncertain situation, we don’t always carefully evaluate the information. Instead, our decisions often depend on mental shortcuts, which lead us to make unwise decisions. And being smart, alas, might actually make things worse. Research studies have found that smarter people are slightly more vulnerable to common mental mistakes.
Are you smart? If so, take this pop quick (tenth paragraph down). I confess that I got it wrong, and let the record show that I’m pretty miffed about it because I’m pretty smart and I can usually figure these things out. But not this time.
What about you?
Naomi Karten is a writer and speaker who draws from her background in both psychology and IT. Naomi's recent books are Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals and Changing How You Manage and Communicate Change. Readers have described her newsletter, Perceptions and Realities, as lively, informative, and a breath of fresh air. Naomi is a regular columnist for StickyMinds.com.