June 15th, 2012
The New Yorker magazine’s audience is highbrow. Although the mag is undeniably informed by the city that gives it its name, it reaches well beyond to readers in Paris and St. John’s. Unlike the case of almost every other popular magazine today, The New Yorker features long, scrupulously fact-checked articles about politics and culture, books and theatre, architecture and music. You can’t scan or skim The New Yorker. You have to slow down and actually read it–digest it lovingly as if it were a perfectly ripened piece of fruit. Readers belong to a big special club who end up discussing a particular article at dinner parties.
So it is that this week the online piece by Jonah Lehrer titled “Frontal Cortex: Why Smart People Are Stupid” has been buzzing a lot of dinner party chatter. After all, the article is about readers of The New Yorker. Lehrer’s piece is inspired by some smart people’s research: Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate and professor of psychology at Princeton, and his team who had tirelessly been demonstrating for decades that smart people just aren’t as smart as they think they are.
I know what you’re thinking: we don’t need research to show us which way the wind blows. Just a glance at the history of US presidents, most of whom graduated from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, and makes you question the value and meaning of rational thinking. But recent research highly under the influence of Kahneman’s own studies takes the theory even further.
The earlier research relies heavily on abstract problem-solving, and so SAT-score-smart subjects were asked really simple arithmetic questions. Time and again the answers were wrong, demonstrating that the smart people took cheap mental shortcuts, thinking they were fast and clever but repeatedly proving their own bias—the bias of thinking they were clever. The updated research, stemming from psychologists at James Madison University and the University of Toronto, applies the theory to concepts of “intelligence” with some disturbing results.
For starters, the research underscored a truism: that we think that we are smarter than (almost) everyone else. We are really good, for example, at identifying why our friends have “blind spots” or can’t seem to solve their own problems. In fact, we are really superb at finding flaws in others but we can’t or do not even seem capable of identifying flaws in ourselves. Moreover, even if we do we don’t seem to be able to correct them.
The psychologists are getting more attention than usual because their research not only shows all of the above but reveals that intelligence makes things worse. The smarter you are the larger your brain bias. Subjects at Harvard, Princeton, and M.I.T. did no better than anyone else on the simple math tests.
What’s needed is a theory of why this is so. Perhaps, as Lehrer points out in the article, it’s easier to identify flaws when you are looking at the outside, harder when you have to look within. That doesn’t really tell us much, but it does make a certain amount of sense, something to do with perception and the advantage of distancing. What makes our mental patters biased is probably driven by forces we cannot actually see because they are buried in the unconscious. “The more we attempt to know ourselves, the less we actually understand,” Lehrer concludes. Any self-respecting philosopher from Aristotle forward knows this deeply, I suppose. Yet, it is interesting to read the blog post reactions to Lehrer’s New Yorker piece, many denouncing his reporting as inaccurate and false. Perhaps these are smart people who, as the research shows, are really good at finding flaws in others, if you get my meaning.
What the posts do point out, as far as I can understand them, is that the research does not mean that stupid people are actually less biased and, duh, therefore smarter. That would be too inside-out a theory for words. But it does show that smarter people do tend to think that they’re less biased.
Now, in another sphere of study, there is a mountain of research out there showing that smart people are happier than less-than- (measurably) smart people. It would follow that New Yorker readers are happier than non-New Yorker readers. Or at least that’s what New Yorker readers tell themselves—which is all that counts, really.