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10 Strange Ways We’re All Getting Intelligence Wrong

Morris M.


Most of us like to think we’re pretty clever. Maybe not Mensa-level geniuses, but still above average in the braininess stakes. If pressed, we’d probably describe ourselves as “fairly intelligent.”

Unfortunately, we’d probably be wrong. Although it may seem like we’re head and shoulders above the idiots we encounter online, science disagrees. Here are 10 ways that we all get our notions of intelligence completely wrong.

10 Search Engines Make You Feel Smarter Than You Really Are

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We’ve all been there. In the middle of a passionate debate over trivia, someone whips out a phone and looks up the answer. Maybe you’ve even been that person. If so, we’ve got some bad news. All that googling has made you feel smarter than you really are.

In early 2015, a group of Yale researchers decided to test how the Internet has affected our perceptions of intelligence. Over a series of nine experiments, subjects were given questions of varying levels of difficulty and asked to answer them either with or without the use of a search engine. Then they rated their own level of knowledge on utterly unrelated topics. Care to guess what happened?

Those subjects who’d used the Internet vastly overrated their own intelligence. In one experiment, when they simply looked up how to use a zipper, they were convinced that they knew about stuff like the formation of America’s first labor unions or seasonal hurricane patterns. In another, when they failed to find the answer to a question about ancient Kushite culture, the subjects felt like history geniuses.

This happens because of something called “transactive memory systems.” When in groups, we humans tend to divide up cognitive tasks to make things simpler. As long as one guy knows about seasonal hurricane patterns, no one else has to. Well, that one guy is now the Internet. As a result of his omnipresence, we’re no longer differentiating between what we know and what we think we know. This leads all of us to overestimate our expertise in everything to a hilarious degree.


9 Even Experts Pretend They Know More Than They Do

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On the other hand, not everyone is lying about their expertise. Some people really are experts and could give you a detailed analysis of Kushite history without batting an eyelid. Yet these experts might not be as clever as they think. Studies have shown that even geniuses will pretend to know about things they couldn’t possibly understand.

You know those sketches where Jimmy Kimmel asks a bunch of hipsters about bands that don’t exist, and the hipsters act like they know what he’s talking about? Researchers at Cornell have been doing this for years. Only instead of bands, they’ve been asking about made-up scientific terms. And instead of hipsters, they’ve been asking actual scientists. They’ve found that up to 90 percent of self-identified experts will proclaim knowledge about fictional concepts like “plates of parallax,” “ultra-lipid,” and “cholarine.”

In fact, the more subjects seem to know about actual science, the more willing they are to claim that they know about made-up science. The problem is one of confidence. If we assume that we are experts in a field—even if we really are—we start to mistake the bits of clutter in our minds, like false theories and bored naval-gazing, with the honest-to-God truth.

8 Men Highly Overestimate Their Mathematical Abilities

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It’s no secret that there are far more men working in science and engineering than there are women. It’s also no secret that girls tend to score higher on math tests than their male peers. The source for this discrepancy might not be due to workplace sexism. Studies have revealed that men tend to wildly overestimate their own mathematical abilities.

In 2015, researchers gathered two pools of subjects, one with 122 undergraduates and the other with 184 regular participants. Each group was asked to take a math test and then report on how well they thought they did. In both cases, researchers found that female subjects guessed their results with surprising accuracy. Male subjects, on the other hand, overestimated their abilities to an insane degree.

As an add-on, those in the 184-strong group were asked about the graduate courses they’d be willing to take. The overconfident men were far more likely to pump for math-related courses, suggesting that this inability to measure their skills might be why more men study science and tech.



7 Your Brainpower Is Worth Less Than You Think It Is

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The human brain is an amazing thing. Without even thinking about it, you can monitor your own body, read a listicle, and pretend to be working, all at once. Given all this phenomenal capacity, how much do you think that your brain power would be worth? The answer is—not a lot.

In a slightly tongue-in-cheek paper, a University of Leicester researcher recently calculated how much your brain power might be worth. Assuming that the average power consumption of an adult human equals 100 watts, they deduced that the human brain takes 20 watts to run. Then they compared this to the average charges of UK electricity companies. The results were disappointing, to say the least.

They concluded that a single penny should be able to buy 3 hours, 7 minutes, and 30 seconds of continuous human thought. Even if you’re proudly sporting an IQ of just 65, that’s a depressingly low amount. While the study was obviously done in semi-jest, it does show that even the cleverest brain isn’t the titanic, energy-spewing supercomputer that we undoubtedly wish it was.

6 You Become Stupider In A City

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Some cities are bywords for intelligence. New York, Paris, and London all reek of sophistication and clever wit—places where geniuses ponder existence from their penthouse apartments. But city living isn’t quite as intellectually engaging as we might suppose. Move to a city and watch your mental faculties fall off a cliff.

Scientists have found that being in an urban environment can have a catastrophic effect on your intelligence. In one University of Michigan study, scientists found that just a few minutes on a crowded city street can reduce our self-control and damage our ability to remember things. To prove this, the researchers had two groups of subjects take a walk, either in an arboretum or on a busy downtown street. Then the participants were asked to complete some simple tests. Those who’d been walking on the city street performed abysmally.

Attention and working memory were both badly hit, and the subjects’ moods were also worse. In short, their brains stopped functioning properly, turning their owners into temporary idiots. Frighteningly, the study concluded that you can induce some of these effects simply by looking at a picture of a bustling city street.

5 Your Social Attitudes Affect Your Intelligence

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Republican wing nut. Libtard. Modern American English is full of handy insults for suggesting that your political opponent is a moron. But it turns out that not all of those insults are utterly groundless. Researchers have shown that those with specific social attitudes may be considerably less intelligent.

In one of the most controversial studies of the last decade, a paper from Brock University, Canada, linked conservative beliefs with having a low IQ. Researchers took two studies from the UK that followed children born in 1958 and 1970. These kids had their intelligence tested at age 10 or 11 and their levels of social conservatism measured at age 30 or 33. The researchers found that those who tested poorly for intelligence as children were far more likely to hold typically right wing social views.

We should note that this didn’t include fiscal conservatives or libertarians, only those with reactionary social opinions. The reason is that people with a low IQ might find the world a scary place and flee to reassuring structures with simple messages. The authors noted that you could probably make a similar argument for those with extreme liberal views (the sort of people who declare that “everyone’s special!”), although this has yet to be studied.



4 We Wildly Underestimate Our Learning Abilities

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After multiple entries about how we’re all dumber than we realize, here’s a reassuring one. According to the Journal of Consumer Research, we all underestimate our learning abilities to a ridiculous degree.

In 2010, researchers presented subjects with new tasks that they might find slightly difficult, such as quickly folding a shirt in a new way or using a keyboard with a different layout. Initially, the subjects were confident about their ability to perform the task. But after a few minutes of experimentation, almost all of them changed their view, becoming insanely pessimistic about their ability to perform the task in either the short or the long term.

That happened because humans aren’t good at seeing a learning curve. We expect to be good at what we do. When we’re not, we immediately give up and decide we can’t do it. That’s why people stop studying Spanish or learning to play the flute. At the first hurdle, we decide we must naturally suck.

Luckily, the study proved otherwise. After four sessions of practicing their new task, the participants stopped underrating themselves and became confident again. The lesson: Don’t give up. You’re probably a better learner than you realize.

3 IQ Scores Don’t Just Measure Intelligence

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IQ scores are the universal standard of intelligence. Everyone knows that a guy with an IQ of 175 must be a Stephen Hawking–level genius. Equally, they know that someone with an IQ of 65 must be absolutely stupid. At least, that’s how it’s meant to work. In reality, IQ scores measure more than just your intelligence. They measure how motivated you are in taking the test.

Generally, the people who get high scores on IQ tests are the ones who want to do well. To get a gargantuan IQ score, you need to be both intelligent and determined. To get a low score, you only have to be lacking in motivation.

This means that while the guy with a 175 IQ is undoubtedly clever, the guy with a 65 IQ might well be a genius who just happens to be unimaginably lazy. In 2011, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania set up a series of incentives for subjects to do well on an IQ test. Across the board, they noticed that people’s scores skyrocketed. Far from being the last word on intelligence, IQ scores mostly measure how much or how little you care.

2 Politics Makes All Of Us Stupider

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As presidential campaigns heat up and the news turns up its partisan hectoring to full blast, it can be easy to assume that modern politics is making our world a worse place. But according to science, the culture wars aren’t just wrecking America. They’re making all of us stupider.

In 2013, a Yale study set out to measure the effects of political allegiances on our intelligence. Participants were given a math test to gauge their numeracy and then assigned to one of two fake studies. One study was about the effectiveness of a hand cream, using made-up numbers to point to an inevitable conclusion. The other study used the same numbers but was dressed up as a study about the effectiveness of gun control. Half of those getting the gun control study were given data showing that gun control worked. The other half received data suggesting that gun control didn’t work. Insanely, the subjects wound up answering along political lines.

Depending on their beliefs, both Democrats and Republicans went out of their way to “prove” what either MSNBC or Fox had already told them about gun control. In the process, they tortured the numbers until the math fit their political biases. Rather than being dispassionate or rational when it comes to politics, it turns out that we’re all just one fake study away from plumbing new depths of dumbness.

1 The Smartest Of Us Are Often The Stupidest Of All

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Let’s say that none of this applies to you so far. Let’s say that you’re a math expert with an IQ of 205 who never lies, who lives in the country, and who never uses search engines. Now let’s go even further and say that you have a whole shelf full of Nobel prizes and a big fat sash proclaiming that you’re the “Smartest Human on Earth.” You still won’t be safe from the curse of dumbness. In fact, science says that you may be the stupidest of us all.

In day-to-day life, most of us take mental shortcuts to avoid overtaxing our brains. In most cases, this allows us to concentrate on the stuff that really matters, like writing our Star Wars fan-fic. But occasionally, it leads us to make hilariously bad decisions that can ruin our lives.

To show you what we mean, we’re going to ask you to answer a simple math question. A bat and ball cost a dollar and 10 cents. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

Most of you took a simple shortcut here and wrongly said that the ball costs 10 cents. In reality, it costs five cents (with the bat being $1.05). It’s the sort of question that nearly everyone gets wrong. We know this because genius psychologist Daniel Kahneman has been asking people this question for years, along with other questions designed to uncover our lazy mental shortcuts. He found that the cleverest among us tend to be more prone than anyone else to these dumb mistakes.

This goes beyond simple math questions. Other psychologists have found that respected critical thinkers are less likely to engage their brains when thinking about globally important things like climate change and the risks associated with nuclear power. Instead, they ignore all the evidence in favor of jumping to the simplest conclusions (and then sounding off loudly about how qualified they supposedly are). In some ways, it’s kind of comforting to know that the brightest are more capable of being dumb than the rest of us. In other ways, it’s utterly terrifying.

Morris M.

Morris is a freelance writer and newly-qualified teacher, still naively hoping to make a difference in his students' lives. You can send your helpful and less-than-helpful comments to his email, or visit some of the other websites that inexplicably hire him.

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