Very often we are discussing how to broaden what we assess beyond the narrowly defined cognitive skills which we are what are most frequently in our sights: reading comprehension and literacy, math and quantitative analysis. We argue for assessing creativity, collaboration, and communication; we are looking for ways to evaluate student character: integrity, compassion, resilience, perseverence, grit, empathy.
Keith Stanovich, who is new to me I am afraid to say, offers a different tack in his highly acclaimed 2009 book, What Intelligence Tests Miss: the Psychology of Rational Thought, which won the 2010 Grawemeyer Award in Education. Stanovich pleads with his readers, quite passionately I would say, to broaden our gaze beyond intelligence (the IQ g, and SAT style testing, about which Stanovich says “has remained constant[ly] a stand-in for an IQ test”) but not beyond the cognitive. We must divide the cognitive into two quite distinct arenas, so distinct that it is easy to find abundant examples of individuals strong in one, but not the other: intelligence (IQ-g) and “Rational thought.”
Beyond asking us to recognize that there are two distinct cognitive domains, Stanovich makes the case that rational thought is the ugly step-sister of intelligence, neglected and overlooked by society, and yet is ultimately of equal or greater significance for the makings of success in all that we do, and hence deserving of a great leap forward in valuation by schools and employers.
In short, we have been valuing only the algorithmic mind and not the reflective mind. This in part the result of historical accident. We had measure of algorithmic-level processing efficiency long before we had measures of rational thought and the operation of reflective mind.
The lavish attention devoted to intelligence (raising it, praising it, worrying when it is low, etc.) seems wasteful in light of the fact that we choose to virtually ignore another set of mental skills with just as much social consequence– rational thinking mindware and procedures.
I simply do not think that society has weighed the consequences of its failure to focus on irrationality as a real social problem. These skills and dispositions profoundly affect the world in which we live.
As illustration to open the book, Stanovich offers a very engaging discussion comparing Presidents, quoting in an opening epigram George W. Bush in a wonderfully revealing personal self-assessment:
I’m also not very analytical. You know I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about myself, about why I do things.
Now, according to the data able to be assembled and analyzed, Bush’s IQ is nothing to sneeze at– 120 give or take, the same as that of John Kerry, his 2004 opponent- but as Stanovich explains, citing several Republican and generally Bush partisan supporters to make his case:
there is considerable agreement that President Bush’s thinking has several problematic aspects: lack of intellectual engagement, cognitive inflexibility, need for closure, belief perseverance, confirmation bias, over-confidence, and insensitivity to inconsistency. These are all cognitive characteristics that have been studied by psychologists and that can be measured with at least some precision. However, they are all examples of thinking styles that are not tapped by IQ tests.
Bush’s cognitive deficiencies do not impair performance on intelligence tests, but they do impair rational decision-making. His cognitive deficiencies instead are the cause of “dysrationalia”… the inability to think and behave rationally despite having adequate intelligence.
Rational thought is itself a fairly broad category, and of course, Stanovich is right, an extremely important one, including among its aspects “adaptive behavioral acts, judicious decision-making, efficient behavioral regulation, sensible goal prioritization, reflectivity, the proper calibration of evidence.”
The bulk of the book features a series of different elements of dysrationalia, and many familiar to all of us who inhabit the planet. Ponzi schemes, driving a car 1000 miles rather than flying because of a fear of plane-crashes, disregarding cockpit instruments and instead flying the plane by one’s “sense” of the horizon, flying a plane into a building to achieve a religious goal, and even the insane obsession with “recovered memories” of widespread horrific childhood satanic ritual abuse (remember that inanity of the early ’90s?): all are vivid examples of dysrationalia.
The chapter on “myside processing” is especially interesting and amusing. The epigraph is from Cordelia Fine: “If it’s at all feasible then your brain will interpret the question in a way that suits you the best.”
This is pervasive, myside processing, and it takes a disciplined, reflective mind to cut through the prejudice: but do we teach such discipline and reflection? Forget gut impulses and what Gladwell called “Blink;” instead: think already.
We have known for some time that it is cognitively demanding to process information from the perspective of another person. It is thus not surprising that people are reluctant to engage in it.
Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, whose book Stumbling on Happiness is an exemplary treatment of the challenges we all have in using rational thought to understand our own happiness (and what makes us so), offers one strategy to offset “myside processing:”
Use a surrogate– someone who is presently undergoing the event whose happiness you are trying to simulate. for example, if you are wondering how you will react to “empty nest” syndrome, ask someone who has just had their last child leave for college rather than trying to imagine yourself in that situation.
But, as wise as this is, Stanovich and Gilbert explain to us that this is rarely effective: myside trumps even those efforts to outwit it.
People tend not to want to use this mechanism because they think their own uniqueness makes their guesses from introspection more accurate than the actual experiences of the people undergoing the event.
[As Gilbert explains] “If you are like most people, then like most people, you don’t know you’re like most people.”
One bright light about dysrationalia, Stanovich only briefly explains at the end, is that far more so than intelligence (IQ), it can be taught, and hence, we should teach it. As above, we can teach the surrogate strategy, we can teach principles of probability and falsifiability, we can teach far better than we do currently critical thinking. We can teach “implementation intentions” and “mental goals,” by which people “perform better in a task when they have are told to form a specific, challenging goal as opposed to being given generic motivational instructions such as do your best.”
Stanovich at the beginning and end of the book calls for us to elevate the prominence and reinforce the teaching and learning of rational thought by doing far more than we do now to assess it.
Why do the selection mechanisms used by society tap only algorithmic-level cognition and ignore rationality? It makes little sense to test for the narrow concept of intelligence and then confer rewards as if someone had been vetted on the larger concept.
Future jurists, scientists, and civil servants are often sub-optimal. Their performance fails to measure up, not because they lack working memory but because their dispositions toward rationality are sometimes low. they may not lack intelligence, but they do lack rational thinking skills. Why: because rationality assessments never take place.
The call is compelling, but the distance is depressing. Stanovich claims it is entirely possible, conceptually, to develop such tests, but they will take millions of dollars. Though we can have little expectations of arriving at this station soon, Stanovich and this valuable book helps clarify, considerably, that this is a critically important destination toward which we should strive.