Consider this question. A bat and ball cost a dollar and ten cents. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
Many intelligent people insist that the ball costs 10 cents. This both feels obvious and yet is egregiously wrong. If you look back at the question for a moment, you’ll realize that the correct answer is five cents for the ball and a dollar and five cents for the bat. How could you, a reasonably smart person, fall for such a disarmingly stupid trick?
What is a cognitive miser? If you did answer wrongly to that first question, you may actually be one. It’s a term coined by Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor to describe the tendency of our brain to seek solutions that require the least mental effort. Our brains are hardwired to take shortcuts. Instead of applying our cognitive power effectively, we’re often relying on our gut feelings. This way, irrelevant or tricky information can sway our reasoning. But that’s not the only reason why smart people make stupid mistakes.
Sometimes, the emotional pull of an argument can make us think in a very one-sided manner. It’s a well-known and studied cognitive bias, called motivated reasoning. Rather than process information in a way that reflects the available evidence, we produce justifications and make decisions that feel better or are just more desirable.
Climate change denial is probably the perfect example of motivated reasoning. The vast majority of the scientific community agrees that climate change is real and that it is caused by humans. However, accepting the scientific consensus portends unpleasant consequences. It would require us to dramatically change our lifestyles. Shrugging off Greta Thunberg is more or less effortless.
According to author David Robson, education and professional expertise may actually make you more prone to stupid mistakes. After many years in a job, people start acting on auto-pilot. By doing so, they risk missing crucial information. Education doesn’t really help either. More than fifty percent of students at Harvard, Princeton, and M.I.T. gave the wrong answer to the opening bat-and-ball question. Actually, there is a positive correlation between how smart you are and how many of those stupid mistakes you make.
What To Do About It?
I know what you’re thinking – that I’m about to tell you that thanks to this article you’re now aware of these stupid mistakes and that you’ll be better at avoiding them. Well, you’re wrong. Self-awareness doesn’t help you one bit. As Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate and professor of psychology at Princeton, admits:
“My intuitive thinking is just as prone to overconfidence, extreme predictions, and the planning fallacy as it was before I made a study of these issues.”
You can try using a technique called self-distancing. When considering the irrational choices of a friend, it’s easier to recognize the reasoning errors behind their behavior. However, when we’re trying to make sense of our own bad decisions, we engage in elaborate introspection that usually leads us nowhere. The reason behind this? The fact that those biases are largely unconscious and impermeable to intelligence. Stepping out of your shoes and looking at your issue from the outside can make you less susceptible to them. Or maybe you can try new ways to process your emotions to reduce your instinctive responses to them. Ancient Chinese Philosophy can help you with that.