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See Inside November / December 2009

Rational and Irrational Thought: The Thinking That IQ Tests Miss

We assume intelligence and rationality go together. But we shouldn't be surprised when smart people do foolish things.



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No doubt you know several folks with perfectly respectable IQs who just don’t seem all that sharp. The behavior of such people tells us that we are missing something important by treating intelligence as if it encompassed all cognitive abilities. I coined the term “dysrationalia” (analogous to “dyslexia”), meaning the inability to think and behave rationally despite having adequate intelligence, to draw attention to a large domain of cognitive life that intelligence tests fail to assess. Although most people recognize that IQ tests do not measure important mental faculties, we behave as if they do. We have an implicit assumption that intelligence and rationality go together—or else why would we be so surprised when smart people do foolish things?

It is useful to get a handle on dysrationalia and its causes because we are beset by problems that require increasingly more accurate, rational responses. In the 21st century, shallow processing can lead physicians to choose less effective medical treatments, can cause people to fail to adequately assess risks in their environment, can lead to the misuse of information in legal proceedings, and can make parents resist vaccinating their children. Millions of dollars are spent on unneeded projects by government and private industry when decision makers are dysrationalic, billions are wasted on quack remedies, unnecessary surgery is performed and costly financial misjudgments are made.

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