Beware: Intelligent People

thinking choices

I just can’t stop thinking about this new rationality quotient test, the RQ, developed by Professor Keith Stanovich. While the beloved IQ test measures levels of abstract reasoning (but is questionably culturally biased in many ways) the RQ test measures a different aspect of the thinking altogether.  The RQ test seeks to measure our capacity for deep, reflective, critical thinking, a mode of thought that I believe is more important than ever to teach young children. The future will need these types of thinkers in order to deal with the  multitude of complex decisions new generations will face.

According to Stanovich, we have two distinct modes of thinking. Firstly, there is the abstract ‘algorithmic’ way, which can be measured in an IQ test, then there a second type of thinking which is intuitive, the mode we fall back on most of the time, our default mode if you like. In essence, there is ‘working it out’ thinking and then ‘just do it’ thinking.

While we clever, big headed mammals have evolved to think ‘outside the box’ and use our mass of connecting synapses for abstract reasoning, we have also held on to some of the old hard wiring that bypasses all that and moves quickly to action. Here we have various mental functions that are in effect cognitive short cuts, designed to deal very quickly with large amounts of information without much conceptual thinking at all. These are what psychologists call ‘cognitive biases’ or what I think of as ‘easy thoughts.’ These cognitive biases include such things as stereotyping, confirmation bias (agreeing with people who agree with us), in-group bias (agreeing with everyone in the group), gambler’s fallacy (just because it’s going well we think it’ll continue) and neglecting probably (for example, thinking driving a car is somehow safer than getting in an aeroplane). We have these easy thoughts automatically much of the time, and go with them most of the time too rather than questioning their validity.

However, Stanovich sites another mode of thinking apart from the intellectual and the intuitive types. According to him, there is a third mode which is the ‘reflective’ mind which ultimately, when faced with a mental problem or decision, chooses whether to go for thinking modes one or two. Put simply, a situation arises and your reflective mind can decide whether that situation requires abstract thinking or a quick cognitive short cut without all that processing. For Stanovich then, it’s possible to have very intelligent people with very high IQs who are weak in this third mode, the reflective mind, and who choose the wrong type of thinking for a situation. Hence very clever people can make very stupid decisions. Now and in the future, the world needs less of these poor thought choices from its leaders, and indeed the people who choose its leaders.

The point here is, so long as people lack the inner reflection to question their own thinking, poor (sometimes even catastrophic) decisions are likely to be made by what appear to be reliably intelligent people.  Our spontaneous, intuitive thoughts are not always correct or useful to us, while at times our intellectual thoughts might not always be either. The wisest people of all will be able to understand this and make the correct introspective thought choices.  What the rationality quotient test (RQ) seeks to measure is our ability to question our own thinking.

For me, the actual RQ test is irrelevant, but the teaching of introspective, critical thinking is principal. In order to encourage pupils to question their thought choices teachers need to enable young children to developed meta-cognition: the ability to think about thinking. This has never been more important for educators to understand. With its fluctuating curriculum, education is faced with an ever changing body of knowledge, and not always (perhaps never even) in line with the shifting knowledge required out there in the real world, and certainly never able to supply the knowledge needed for a future not yet known.  With knowledge being so volatile then, educators must themselves hone the ability to evaluate the validity of their own knowledge and in turn develop this ability in their pupils.

As a teacher,  I find this very exciting indeed. For so long in education it seems, introspection and self-awareness have not featured that much at all. While Blooms taxonomy of thinking is all the rage now, and certainly develops a higher order of thinking, this element of much deeper, reflective, ‘meta thinking’, is not often taught as a universal skill for decision making outside the core subjects.

Importantly, we want young people to recognise what kind of thinking they are using and indeed whether it is the right type of thinking. Stanovich suggests that one way to develop this introspective ability is to encourage children to think of the opposite decision once they reach a decision. After exploring contrary ideas, then they should return to and question the original decision to assess its validity. If teachers encourage this type of reflectivity, it will become a habit in young people. They will learn to question their own thinking and this will benefit them in all aspects of their lives,  in work, in school and importantly in their personal lives too. Life is not all about work and education, let’s never forget that. How much human suffering occurs because of the wrong decisions humans make for themselves and others?

Some excellent work on learning to learn as come out of places like the IOE; certainly Chris Watkins’ excellent work in this area has focused on how learners think. However, reflective thinking as a life skill is not a common focus for learners, teachers or perhaps anyone. ‘I think this, but why do I think this? What’s really influencing me? What if I think that instead? What effect might that decision have?’ Imagine how history might have changed if a few of its big personalities had been as introspective as that?

For Stanovich, humans are all too often over confident in what they know, especially the ‘clever’ ones. This is why having a high intellect, or high IQ, can be dangerous without this kind of advanced level of reflectivity running alongside it. Having a superior intellect is all very well, but it seems another thing entirely to be able to question one’s own thought processes in order to arrive at the right decision. The wisest people of all it seems, will never assume they are right.

Kurt  Kleiner’s piece on Stanovich offers further explanation: