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Surprising Science

Why Smart People Can Be so Dumb

New psychological research shows that people who perform well on intelligence tests are also more likely to give wrong answers on simple questions that test for an awareness of bias. 

What’s the Latest Development?

Answer this simple question: A bat and ball cost a dollar and ten cents. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? Most people quickly answer “ten cents,” but the correct answer is “five cents.” These kinds of small mistakes are due to shortcuts our brains take, preferring lazy, intuitive responses to laborious, arithmetic ones. Surprisingly, intelligent people seem to make these mistakes more easily, according to a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Researchers reached that conclusion by observing a positive correlation between performance on standardized intelligence tests, like the SAT, and rates of incorrect answers given to questions like the bat-and-ball one above.

What’s the Big Idea?

While it makes intuitive sense that receiving a better education would remedy these kinds of errors, psychological studies have found that “more than fifty per cent of students at Harvard, Princeton, and M.I.T. gave the incorrect answer to the bat-and-ball question.” The reason? Such questions test our awareness of bias, which is easy to spot in others but more difficult to see in ourselves because the error is unconscious. “In fact, introspection can actually compound the error, blinding us to those primal processes responsible for many of our everyday failings. … The more we attempt to know ourselves, the less we actually understand.”

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