Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

The Intelligence Trap

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Back in 1959, average was desired and intelligence was a deviation, viewed with at least as much suspicion as stupidity. In that year, Admiral Hyman Rickover wrote:

 We admire “science” greatly and we place in it an almost childlike trust; we expect it will continuously pour out delightful wonders to make our lives even more agreeable. But upon “scientists” and “scholars” many of us look with a somewhat jaundiced eye; we call them “eggheads” and “intellectuals”; we do not consider them to be entirely normal persons.
— Rickover, Education and Freedom, p. 122.

We have traveled far from this world in some respects, although have far to go in others. Certainly intelligence is no longer viewed as a disorder. It has become so worshipped that Daniel Goleman found it necessary to reclassify athletic ability, musical talent and empathy as athletic intelligence, musical intelligence and emotional intelligence.

Yet it is always possible to overcorrect, and in many ways we have done so. Edward de Bono studied thinking and wrote about what he called the intelligence trap in his 1982 book de Bono’s Thinking Course. He found that intelligent people do not necessarily have a natural advantage in their ability to think. Further, the intelligent person has seductive ways to cut corners and appear to be thinking:

  • People often mistake verbal ability for thinking. The intelligent person gets rewarded for developing verbal ability and substituting it for real thought.
  • The ego, self-image and peer status of a highly intelligent person depend on being seen to be right and clever.
  • It is easier and more immediately gratifying to use one’s intelligence to criticize than to construct and execute a plan of action. When one criticizes someone else’s idea, one appears intelligent; when one puts forward one’s own idea, one is exposed to the criticism of others.
  • The highly intelligent person often prefers to be clever than to be wise.

de Bono noticed that highly intelligent people often prefer to engage in what he called reactive thinking, such as solving puzzles where a problem is placed before the person, rather than projective thinking, where the person has to figure out what the question is, let alone the answer. He called this pattern the “Everest effect”; much like a mountain climber scaling a mountain “because it is there,” an intelligent person will often tackle well-defined problems simply because they are brought to her attention. However, in real life, most of the important problems, including how to make a living and what should be the purpose of one’s life, require projective thinking.

Intelligent people don’t like accountability any more than anyone else. Being intelligent, they have crafty ways of avoiding accountability. Do not let them get away with it.

It is not my purpose to disparage intelligence. I have no desire to return to the cultural climate of 1959. However, intelligence must be kept in perspective. Being intelligent is rather like driving a Formula 1 race car: it can run faster than a Mercury Grand Marquis, but the driver must have additional skill or the car will slam into a ditch that much harder and faster.

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Written by srojak

June 2, 2016 at 11:01 pm

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