Why is it that some smart people do really dumb things?

Why is it that some smart people do really dumb things? That’s the question Dr. Maggie Toplak, York University Psychology Professor and member of the York University Psychology Clinic, 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). 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.  Often in pathological gamblers and in individuals with ADHD, it’s their decisions and goal-making capacity that are causing problems. Toplak thinks that  “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.

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. 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.
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.

Test your own rational decision-making capacity with the following example

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).

What Toplak finds so exciting about this research is that if decision-making measures are unrelated to IQ and executive functions,

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