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Why some smart people do dumb things: Professor Maggie Toplak on intelligence and rationality

Why some smart people do dumb things: Professor Maggie Toplak on intelligence and rationality

Why is it that some smart people do really dumb things? That’s the question York psychology Professor Maggie Toplak is trying to answer through her research on rationality.

What she’s found is that intelligence as measured by IQ tests is not the same as rationality or a rationality quotient (RQ). “There’s a folk idea that being smart in the IQ sense translates to being smart in the rational decision-making sense, but they’re not that related,” says Toplak. “It’s time for IQ to move over and make room for RQ.”

Left: Maggie Toplak

What that means is that although someone’s IQ may be high, their RQ may be rather low and if that’s the case, they are more likely to be irrational in their behaviour and decision-making capacity. That explains why some people who appear to be quite bright can make astonishingly silly decisions.

The problem with IQ tests, says Toplak, is that they don’t measure all of someone’s intelligence or mental ability. They don’t assess rational thought and that's because rational thought can’t be measured through timed performance tests the way IQ can. “Intelligence and executive functions are one component, but there are many others,” she says. “We’ve found that IQ tests are unrelated or only modestly related to measures of rational thinking.” Rationality shouldn’t be left out of the equation as it is key to whether people make choices that lead to happiness and fulfillment or possible misery.

When it comes to RQ, there are two main types – getting what you want most and finding truth in the world. Someone with a high RQ could be doing just fine, whereas someone with a high IQ may wonder why their decisions aren’t leading to happiness and life satisfaction.

Below: Steve Paikin, host of TVO's "The Agenda", interviews York Professor Maggie Toplak about her research on rational quotient, or RQ

People with low RQs are often cognitive misers, meaning that they take the easy way out when trying to solve problems, often leading to solutions that are illogical and wrong. Mindware gaps are another type of cognitive failure. It's when people lack the specific knowledge, rules and strategies needed to make rational choices. Another category of cognitive failure is called contaminated mindware – for example, belief in luck and superstition can lead people astray, such as pathological gamblers, she says.

What Toplak finds so exciting about this research is that if decision-making measures are unrelated to IQ and executive functions, then there are novel possibilities for training people to be better decision makers. “One of the big motivations for me is the taxonomy of types of cognitive errors and failures that people can make. We may find some areas that are more amenable to training than others. Some of the exciting directions of this work are to apply it to special populations, such as pathological gamblers, people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or youth offenders.” Many individuals with these difficulties have trouble creating goals for themselves. Assessment and training in the domain of rational thinking has been given little or no consideration in these special populations, and offers promising directions for training and intervention.

Test your own rational decision-making capacity. Toplak gave the following examples when she was interviewed by Steve Paikin on TVO's "The Agenda":

Q – Jack is looking at Anne, and Anne is looking at George; Jack is married, George is not. Is a married person looking at an unmarried person? Yes, no or can’t be determined?

A – Most people say it can’t be determined, but the right answer is “yes”. That’s because whether Anne is married or not, a married person (Jack or a married Anne) is looking at an unmarried one (a single Anne or George).

Q – If a bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total and the bat costs $1 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?

A – Most people say 10 cents, but the right answer is five cents, since the bat would have to cost $1.05 to be worth $1 more.

The research is showing that their level of IQ or executive functions has little to do with their ability to make rational decisions. Often in pathological gamblers and in individuals with ADHD, it’s their decisions and goal-making capacity that are causing problems. “In our most recent work, we are examining this in a sample of young offender adolescents with my graduate student, Geoff Sorge. I think the domain of rational thinking will help us quantify the difficulties that some of these individuals experience, and this will be very important from a training and treatment perspective.” This is an area that people really haven’t paid much attention to in the past.

In another study, Toplak and colleagues reviewed 43 studies that had explicitly examined the relationship between performance and cognitive abilities on the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT), which is used to study decision-making differences. What they found was that “the majority of studies reported a non-significant relationship…between decision-making on the IGT and cognitive abilities, which is consistent with recent conceptualizations that differentiate rationality from intelligence,” as Toplak and colleagues wrote in the April 2010 issue of Clinical Psychology Review.

In conjunction with other researchers, including Stanovich who wrote the book What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought, Toplak and her colleagues are in the process of creating a taxonomy to understand why some people are better decision makers using a series of tasks to test RQ. And she and her colleagues have found that people with high IQs only do better than people with average IQs on RQ tests when they are told they have to use their rational thinking skills to solve them.

“Rational thinking is a really big construct with several components. We're carving out an area that people really haven't paid enough attention to," says Toplak. “We know that rational thinking predicts real-world outcomes.”

Toplak’s research on reasoning and decision making has been funded by the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada and she is collaborating on this work with psychology Professor Keith Stanovich, who has held a Canada Research Chair at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and psychology Professor Richard West of James Madison University.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer

Republished courtesy of YFile– York University’s daily e-bulletin.