Malo periculosam, libertatem quam quietam servitutem.



June 2012

About Those Smartest Guys in the Room

Written by , Posted in Big Government, Culture & Society, Liberty & Limited Government, The Nanny State & A Regulated Society

The left always seems to salivate at the idea of setting a lot of really smart people loose on society’s problems. And don’t get me wrong, a lot of them are indeed really smart people. Yet no matter how many times the top-down central planning approach is tried, it fails. Some interesting research might shed light, in part, on why that is:

When people face an uncertain situation, they don’t carefully evaluate the information or look up relevant statistics. Instead, their decisions depend on a long list of mental shortcuts, which often lead them to make foolish decisions.

…A new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology led by Richard West at James Madison University and Keith Stanovich at the University of Toronto suggests that, in many instances, smarter people are more vulnerable to these thinking errors. Although we assume that intelligence is a buffer against bias—that’s why those with higher S.A.T. scores think they are less prone to these universal thinking mistakes—it can actually be a subtle curse.

…The results were quite disturbing. For one thing, self-awareness was not particularly useful: as the scientists note, “people who were aware of their own biases were not better able to overcome them.” This finding wouldn’t surprise Kahneman, who admits in “Thinking, Fast and Slow” that his decades of groundbreaking research have failed to significantly improve his own mental performance. “My intuitive thinking is just as prone to overconfidence, extreme predictions, and the planning fallacy”—a tendency to underestimate how long it will take to complete a task—“as it was before I made a study of these issues,” he writes.

Perhaps our most dangerous bias is that we naturally assume that everyone else is more susceptible to thinking errors, a tendency known as the “bias blind spot.” This “meta-bias” is rooted in our ability to spot systematic mistakes in the decisions of others—we excel at noticing the flaws of friends—and inability to spot those same mistakes in ourselves. Although the bias blind spot itself isn’t a new concept, West’s latest paper demonstrates that it applies to every single bias under consideration, from anchoring to so-called “framing effects.” In each instance, we readily forgive our own minds but look harshly upon the minds of other people.

And here’s the upsetting punch line: intelligence seems to make things worse. The scientists gave the students four measures of “cognitive sophistication.” As they report in the paper, all four of the measures showed positive correlations, “indicating that more cognitively sophisticated participants showed larger bias blind spots.” This trend held for many of the specific biases, indicating that smarter people (at least as measured by S.A.T. scores) and those more likely to engage in deliberation were slightly more vulnerable to common mental mistakes.

And this is just part of the reason why getting a bunch of smart people into a room to direct the affairs of everyone else has never worked. But even without these mental errors, the truth is that there is just too much information for any person or group of people to consume to properly make such decisions. Decentralized decision making simply works better.

But what really galls me is how questioning the get-the-smartest-people-in-a-room approach always solicits accusations of being anti-intellectual. I am a smart person according to various objective measures conducted over the years, and more importantly in my opinion, I constantly seek to learn and acquire out new information. But unlike some of my peers, I don’t believe my intelligence makes me qualified to tell everyone else how to live, nor able to solve all of the nation’s problems if only I were given the kind of broad power desired by those on the left.

The people who try to control us for our own good may be smart, but they are not wise enough to realize their own limitations. This is why it is so important to limit their powers and ensure that individuals retain as much freedom as possible to make their own decisions.