Smarter is not enough

Being smart can be a real benefit, in many different ways. I certainly don’t want to deny that.

But a lot of people would be better off with less smarts. A lot of people would be happier, better, even more right about a lot of things, if they were not so smart.

Smarter people are better at convincing themselves of falsehoods, when motivated, than people who are not as smart. Their arguments for their favourite falsehoods are more sophisticated, and their confidence is perpetually buttressed by a keen awareness of their own intelligence. They’re the sort of people who are especially good at finding the correct answer to a math problem, so shouldn’t they also assume they’re the sort of people who’d reach the correct conclusions in other kinds of investigations?

Of course, it’s not true. We all know it, at least if we pause and think. We all know that the smartest people who disagree with us are the most frustrating to see embracing fallacies. We’re numb to the fallacies that our smart allies are guilty of, but we see them as clear as day in the enemy’s speech. It doesn’t matter how good that other person is at math or grammar or reading comprehension. That person is engaging in self-deception, as obviously as anything that has ever happened, and all the smarts in the world are only going to make things worse for that person.

Our lazy instinct is always to say that the people who disagree with us are stupid, which is particularly tempting since statistically it’s always true that most of the people on the other side of the issue from us are not unusually smart. But if we slow down and reflect, most of us will admit that the other side isn’t necessarily all unintelligent. There are just some people who don’t know how to use their intelligence to reach the correct answer in the real world.

Except that that is all smart people, or virtually all smart people. We think we are different because we managed to arrive at the right answer, but it’s just as possible that we’re doing exactly the same thing as those people but from the other direction. In fact, not only is it possible, I say, it is almost a certainty.

All smart people are exceptionally good at self-deception, at convincing themselves of falsehoods. All smart people do it. If we ever want to stop, the first step will be to recognize it, admit it, and become vigilant about it. The second step will be to start trying to hold ourselves to the same standard we hold others to. It’s not as easy as we think it will be.

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