by David Robson edited by O Society Dec 12, 2019
When you have a disagreement with your boss, how do you respond? Do you consider that you might be at fault and try to consider the other’s viewpoint? Or do you dig in your heels and demand that other people come around to your way of thinking? In other words, do you make wise, practical decisions, or are you prone to being stubborn and petty in the face of criticism?
As I describe in my recent book, The Intelligence Trap, a whole new field of “evidence-based wisdom” aims to measure these kinds of differences in people’s thinking and behaviour, and to understand the reasons for them. Taking inspiration from philosophers like Aristotle and Socrates, these psychologists argue that wise reasoning involves five qualities: intellectual humility (recognising the limits of your knowledge); a recognition of uncertainty about how a situation may unfold; a recognition of others’ perspectives; the use of an outsider’s viewpoint; and the search for compromise. There are now various measures of these ways of thinking, including self-report questionnaires and more involved laboratory experiments. And researchers have begun to study how wise reasoning is related to other individual differences: for instance, these measures appear to predict well-being above and beyond other cognitive traits (like IQ).
Igor Grossmann at the University of Waterloo is at the forefront of this work, and his latest paper, available as a preprint at PsyArxiv, examines whether people’s level of “rejection sensitivity” might determine some of the individual differences in wisdom. Working with Anna Dorfman and Harrison Oakes, he hypothesised that the threat of rejection could lead some people to become more self-defensive as they strive to protect their own ego, potentially reducing their willingness to accept their mistakes, see others’ viewpoints, and look for compromise — their capacity for wise reasoning, in other words.
To find out if that were true, the trio conducted a series of six experiments that asked a total of 1,617 participants to consider how they would respond to various workplace conflicts, such as excessive criticism from a colleague. After they had thought through their reactions, the participants were asked to rate how much they had engaged in each of the five qualities of wise reasoning (such as intellectual humility) described above.
They were also tested on more general “rejection sensitivity,” using a standard questionnaire. Participants were asked to rate how anxious they would feel before inviting family members to an important event, in case they refused to come, and in various other situations.
As Grossmann’s team hypothesised, the people who were more sensitive to rejection did indeed tend to score lower on all five of the qualities associated with wise reasoning when faced with the conflict: they reacted in a more defensive and closed-minded way, for instance, and were less intellectually humble. Interestingly, this was true even when the researchers controlled for personality traits, including neuroticism and narcissism — the fear of rejection was an independent factor in explaining the differences in wise reasoning. Given the importance of wise reasoning in resolving conflicts, these results also suggest people who fear rejection may be less likely to find an amicable resolution to these kinds of situations.
When designing the scenarios, the team also tried to manipulate the power dynamics within the conflict — some participants were told they were a supervisor, for instance, while others were a subordinate. Perhaps a sense of power makes you more ego-centric, the researchers theorised, which would mean you are less wise. However, the participants’ position with the company had little effect on the overall scores of wise reasoning, though it did influence some of the individual qualities. Imagining themselves in a more subordinate position increased people’s intellectual humility, for instance, while the high-flyers were more likely to see the other’s perspective. Your boss may seem aloof and uninterested in your feelings, but perhaps they are more capable of seeing your viewpoint than you think.
Like much of the research on evidence-based wisdom, this new finding gives us plenty of food for thought about our own actions and the dynamics of our relationships. It remains to be seen whether there are ways to overcome our sensitivity to rejection to increase our wisdom in these difficult situations. For those of us who struggle to take knocks to our confidence, old habits die hard.
Grossmann’s previous research suggests it should be possible, though. As I’ve written for Research Digest previously, a technique called “self-distancing”, in which you describe your dilemma in the third person (“David was angry about…”), can help us to become less immersed in the feelings of threat or upset, which allows us to take a slightly more dispassionate attitude — almost as if we are talking through someone else’s problem, rather than our own. You may feel like Elmo or even Donald Trump, but slight detachment encourages more open-minded and humble thinking, leading to higher scores on the wise reasoning tests.
Future research may suggest other ways of dealing with the fear of rejection, to reduce self-defensive and closed-minded behaviour during conflict. For now, the best approach would be to take a deep breath and try to advise yourself as if you were your best friend.
Rejection sensitivity hurts your open mind: Effects of rejection sensitivity and power position for wise reasoning in workplace conflicts [this study is a preprint, meaning that it has yet to be subjected to peer review and the final published version may differ from the version on which this report was based]
by Emily Bobrow
Every year brings more books about how stupid we are. Apparently humans are impulsive, gullible and prone to making all sorts of bad decisions. We are also fascinated by our shortcomings, if the shelves at airport bookstores are anything to go by. The latest contribution to the pile is from David Robson, a London-based science journalist, who offers an intriguing angle on our flawed habits of mind. In “The Intelligence Trap,” he argues not only that we are walking, talking, error-making machines, but also that the cleverest among us may make the biggest mistakes.
Anyone who has spent time on a college campus has probably intuited innate intelligence and common sense don’t necessarily go hand in hand. But Mr. Robson bolsters his case with a raft of studies that show all the ways in which a fine mind can trip up. People with high SAT scores, for example, are less likely to either take advice or learn from their blunders. Folks with multiple degrees and professional expertise are often blind to their own biases. The consequences of these gaffes are often merely personal and embarrassing, but sometimes they are catastrophic. In American hospitals, one in 10 patient deaths appear to be the result of diagnostic mistakes.
To help distinguish between smarts and wisdom, Mr. Robson offers the analogy of a car. A fast engine can get you around quickly, but horsepower alone doesn’t guarantee you’ll arrive at your destination safely. Without a proper understanding of the rules of the road, a speedy driver is, in fact, a menace. Philosophers have perceived the shortcomings of sharp minds for millennia, but the pursuit of “evidence-based wisdom” really gained steam after the financial crash of 2008, when nearly everyone suffered from the costly mistakes of “experts.” New institutions such as Chicago’s Center for Practical Wisdom now apply scientific techniques, including randomized control trials, to explore and understand human reason. “The study of wisdom now seems to have reached a kind of tipping point,” Mr. Robson tells us.
In keeping with the driving comparison, this book is most entertaining when it allows readers to rubberneck at the collisions. The author’s anecdotes about the missteps of masterminds offer plenty of opportunities for schadenfreude—although the assumption that these problems only afflict other people is a perfect illustration of the blind spots intelligent people often have about themselves.
Arthur Conan Doyle, for example, was easily hoodwinked by photographs of some fairies frolicking in Cottingley, England. In reality these sprites were cardboard cut-outs, but Conan Doyle, a devoted spiritualist in addition to being a doctor of medicine and the creator of Sherlock Holmes (the “perfect reasoning and observing machine”), claimed that they offered evidence of a supernatural world, and used his superior analytical reasoning to dismiss the skeptics and rationalize his beliefs. When the girls behind the photos finally confessed to the hoax, one of them admitted her surprise that adults would be so easily fooled—“they wanted to be taken in,” she observed.
Beliefs often arise from emotional needs, which we intellectually rationalize post hoc. Clever people are as prone to irrationality as everyone else—a phenomenon called “dysrationalia”—yet they are often even more skilled at justifying their superstitions. College graduates are more likely than those with less education to believe in extrasensory perception and “psychic healing.” High-IQ types are just as likely to have financial problems, even though they often have better jobs with higher salaries. Because many “brainiacs” expect to outsmart others, they are often more heedless of risks and less aware of their own flaws in thinking. As the 19th-century psychologist William James once said, “a great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”
Mr. Robson offers some proven tricks for dodging these intellectual pratfalls. Many are familiar enough to be cliché: Be humble and keep an open mind; weigh opposing views with less emotion by taking a step back. These ideas may sound like common sense, but Mr. Robson convincingly shows us that they are not quite common enough. He cites the research of Eli Finkel at Northwestern University, who found that simply encouraging couples to view their conflicts from a more detached, dispassionate perspective helped them achieve greater intimacy and trust. Doctors who are pushed to analyze their gut responses and consider alternative hypotheses improve their diagnostic accuracy by up to 40%.
The good news is that wisdom, unlike intelligence, can be taught, and these lessons bear real fruit. People with superior reasoning skills are more content and generally happier with their relationships. Yet in industrialized Western countries, where bravado is often mistaken for strength, a slower, humbler, more deliberative approach to decision-making tends to garner little respect. Our schools still prize innate abilities over other skills, and most students are encouraged to believe that speed (in answering questions and processing information) is an essential and even fateful sign of superiority. We also prefer “strong” leaders who stick to their convictions, even though closed-mindedness typically leads to more aggressive tactics and occasionally calamitous misunderstandings.
It is fascinating IQ scores in industrialized countries have never been so high, rising the equivalent of 30 points in 80 years. Access to factual information has also never been so widespread. Yet we are no less susceptible to the allure of fake news and pseudoscience. We are as likely as ever to opportunistically prop up our own positions and take down those of our rivals. Clearly, we need to find new and better ways to teach critical thinking and measure good judgment. Reading David Robson’s book would be a good place to start.