Why Smart People Sometimes Do Dumb Things
It’s interesting to look at lists of things that smart people are said to do. For example, smart people question the status quo. They’re able to quiet that inner voice that claims they’re wrong. They try to understand other people’s perspectives and are willing to admit they’re wrong. And they don’t expect instant gratification, don’t display arrogance, and don’t spend time with people who can bring them down.
But even demonstrably smart people sometimes do things that are not so smart. For example, some smart people spend too much time thinking and too little time doing. Some fail to appreciate the importance of interpersonal skills in career success. Some mistakenly equate education with intelligence. And many smart people sometimes behave in foolish ways, such as by texting while driving, eating too much junk food, and falling victim to groupthink, following the crowd even when they’re convinced the crowd is wrong.
Being smart, alas, sometimes actually makes things worse. That’s the view of Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate and professor of psychology, whose research has demonstrated that in certain circumstances, the smarter people are, the dumber they are.
For example, here’s a puzzle for you. Try to come up with your response before looking at the answer below. A bat and ball cost a dollar and ten cents. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much do the bat and ball cost?
According to Kahneman, most people given this puzzle quickly respond that the bat costs a dollar and the ball costs ten cents. If that was your answer, you’re wrong. The bat costs $1.05 and the ball costs five cents. Are you experiencing an aha moment?
This is a thinking error, and perhaps it’s reassuring to note that in experiments by Kahneman and others, more than 50 percent of students at Harvard, Princeton, and M.I.T. wrongly said the bat costs a dollar and the ball ten cents.
Kahneman says smarter people are more vulnerable to thinking errors than those who are less smart. In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, he explains that in uncertain situations, people draw upon a set of mental shortcuts rather than carefully evaluating the information, and these mental shortcuts can cause them to make unwise decisions. The ball-and-bat puzzle is a great example of when smart people tend to follow the path of least mental effort to the wrong answer.
If you’re a smart person, the smartest thing you can do may be to recognize the ways in which you are not so smart.