The Intelligence Trap: Being a Thinker Beats Being Smart.

It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

Shakespeare, MacBeth,

This picture illustrates Edward DeBono's point that it is better to be a good thinker than intelligent.
Dude, Stop slumping. You’re killing your back.

Our society, especially in fields like law, medicine, and business values intelligence greatly and perhaps too highly. Unfortunately, intelligence, while a good quality, comes with its own set of problems. These problems often lead to making poorer quality decisions. In common language, we might say that a person has “outsmarted” himself or herself or was “two smart for his [or her] own good.” As Daniel Kahneman observed, “The person who acquires more knowledge develops an enhanced illusion of her skill and becomes unrealistically overconfident.” Kahneman, Daniel, Thinking Fast and Slow.

We call this dilemma the intelligence trap. Edward DeBono, in his book deBono’s Thinking Course, describes seven reasons that “intelligent” people might be worse at making decisions than other people:  

  1. A highly intelligent person can make a case for anything.
  2. People mistake big words for good thought.
  3. Their ego is wrapped up in their own intelligence
  4. Critical use of intelligence such as criticism or destruction is more satisfying than constructive use.
  5. Highly intelligent minds often prefer the certainty of solving specific pre-defined tasks than dealing in the more abstract world of decision making.
  6. Quick minds jump to conclusions too quickly.
  7. Intelligent people can place too much value on cleverness over wisdom.

Many of these reasons share a common theme of arrogance. In other words, the “intelligent” person is too in love with the idea of being intelligent.

This problem can lead not only to poor decision making, but also the ability to grow as a person.  Carol Dweck, in her book, Mindset, discusses the importance of having a “growth” mindset verses a “fixed” mindset. People who have a growth mindset belief that they can learn and improve themselves through constant effort. On the other hand, those with a “fixed” mindset attribute any achievement (or lack thereof) to their own innate abilities. As a result, identifying oneself as being “smart,” an identity, as opposed to identifying with the process of learning, doing, and learning some more, can lead a person to perfectionism, a fear of risk-taking, and a fear of looking stupid.

As a result, we must be able to realize our own fallibility, know that we do not have all of the answers and then attempt to follow an objective decision making process. As Annie Duke says: “We can learn better and be more open minded if we work toward a positive narrative driven by engagement in truth seeking and striving toward accuracy and objectivity: giving others credit where its due, admitting when our decisions could have been better and acknowledging that almost nothing is black and white.” Annie Duke, Thinking in Bets. Or as my grandad would say “Get your head out of your ass.”

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