IS GEORGE W. BUSH stupid? It’s a question that occupied a good many minds of all political persuasions during his turbulent eight-year presidency. The strict answer is no. Bush’s IQ score is estimated to be above 120, which suggests an intelligence in the top 10 per cent of the population. But this, surely, does not tell the whole story. Even those sympathetic to the former president have acknowledged that as a thinker and decision-maker he is not all there. Even his loyal speechwriter David Frum called him glib, incurious and “as a result ill-informed”. The political pundit and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough accused him of lacking intellectual depth, claiming that compared with other US presidents whose intellect had been questioned, Bush junior was “in a league by himself”. Bush himself has described his thinking style as “not very analytical”.
How can someone with a high IQ have these kinds of intellectual deficiencies? Put another way, how can a “smart” person act foolishly? Keith Stanovich, professor of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto, Canada, has grappled with this apparent incongruity for 15 years. He says it applies to more people than you might think. To Stanovich, however, there is nothing incongruous about it. IQ tests are very good at measuring certain mental faculties, he says, including logic, abstract reasoning, learning ability and working-memory capacity – how much information you can hold in mind.
But the tests fall down when it comes to measuring those abilities crucial to making good judgements in real-life situations. That’s because they are unable to assess things such as a person’s ability to critically weigh up information, or whether an individual can override the intuitive cognitive biases that can lead us astray.
This is the kind of rational thinking we are compelled to do every day, whether deciding which foods to eat, where to invest money, or how to deal with a difficult client at work. We need to be good at rational thinking to navigate our way around an increasingly complex world. And yet, says Stanovich, IQ tests – still the predominant measure of people’s cognitive abilities – do not effectively tap into it. …
As an illustration of how rational-thinking ability differs from intelligence, consider this puzzle: if it takes five machines 5 minutes to make five widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets? Most people instinctively jump to the wrong answer that “feels” right – 100 – even if they later amend it. When Shane Frederick at the Yale School of Management in New Haven, Connecticut, put this and two similarly counter-intuitive questions to about 3400 students at various colleges and universities in the US – Harvard and Princeton among them – only 17 per cent got all three right (see “Test your thinking”). A third of the students failed to give any correct answers (Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol 19, p 25). …
For example, consider the following problem. Jack is looking at Anne, and Anne is looking at George; Jack is married, George is not. Is a married person looking at an unmarried person? If asked to choose between yes, no, or cannot be determined, the vast majority of people go for the third option – incorrectly. If told to reason through all the options, though, those of high IQ are more likely to arrive at the right answer (which is “yes”: we don’t know Anne’s marital status, but either way a married person would be looking at an unmarried one). What this means, says Stanovich, is that “intelligent people perform better only when you tell them what to do”.
Test your thinking
When researchers put the following three problems to 3400 students in the US, only 17 per cent got all three right. Can you do any better?
1) A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
2) If it takes five machines 5 minutes to make five widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?
3) In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of it?
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Answers: 1) 5 cents, 2) 5 minutes, 3) 47 days
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