IQ is Important, But Decision-Making is Invaluable


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Numbers have power. If you take an IQ test and test out at 136, in the top 1% of the population, people will call you “smart.”  And as long as we’re defining “smart” with a number that measures intellectual capacity, you are. 

And then what? 

The latest issue of New Scientist has a tremendous article called “Clever Fools: Why a High IQ Doesn’t Mean You’re Smart.”  The gist of the piece is that while IQ is the widely accepted measure of intelligence, it’s only useful for assessing deliberative skills–which involve reason and working memory–and cannot assess our inclination to use those skills as a given situation demands. 

The distinction is one of capacity vs application, and it’s a bigger distinction than most of us realize.  Our brains use two different systems to process information: one is intuitive and spontaneous; the other is deliberative and reasoned. Quoting from the article:

Intuitive processing can serve us well in some areas – choosing a potential partner, for example, or in situations where you’ve had a lot of experience. It can trip us up in others, though, such as when we overvalue our own egocentric perspective. Deliberative processing, on the other hand, is key to conscious problem-solving and can help us override our intuitive tendencies if they look like they’re leading us astray.   New Scientist, 11/2/09

Some people will always check their gut feelings to ensure that they’re applying reason before taking action, while others will immediately act upon gut feeling.  IQ can’t tell us which path someone will choose, which is why “smart” people aren’t immune to making horrible decisions. 

Dave Perkins, who studies thinking and reasoning skills at Harvard Graduate School of Education, sums up the point well:

IQ indicates a greater capacity for complex cognition for problems new to you. But what we apply that capability to is another question. Think of our minds as searchlights. IQ measures the brightness of the searchlight, but where we point it also matters. Some people don’t point their searchlights at the other side of the case much, for many reasons – entrenched ideas, avoidance of what might be disturbing, simple haste. A higher wattage searchlight in itself is no protection against such follies.  New Scientist, 11/2/09

The “follies” Perkins mentions include irrational beliefs.  A survey of members of Mensa  in Canada  found that 44% of them believed in astrology, 51% believed in biorhythms and 56% believed in aliens (Skeptical Inquirer, vol 13).

A more useful measure than IQ, the article suggests, is RQ: Rationality Quotient. Studies, like this one, have indicated that one’s ability to make rational decisions is more important than IQ when it comes to life outcomes.  Solid decision-making skills are associated with lower levels of alcoholism, drug addiction, unplanned pregnancy, problems in school and overall risky behavior (Journal of Behavioral Decision-Making, vol 18).

Plus, rational decision-making can be taught. Professor Richard Nisbett at the University of Michigan discovered that just half an hour’s training in statistical reasoning can improve a person’s ability to use rational thinking in everyday situations.  (Read an interview with Nisbett on IQ here

So, perhaps as a society we should be less infatuated with IQ numbers and more concerned with decision-making skills.  Eight years of the Bush presidency illustrates that point nicely.  As True/Slant’s own Ryan Sager pointed out in a recent post, Bush was by IQ standards “smart.”  If that standard was enough to ensure a presidency brimming with excellent decision-making, we’d have all been golden. But it’s not, and we weren’t.  Capacity is important, but application is indispensable.


4 thoughts on “IQ is Important, But Decision-Making is Invaluable

  1. Terrific and timely election day post, our yearly collection of smart irrational decisions! I wonder what your thoughts are about curiosity as that which mediates between capacity and application (I’m thinking about Todd Kashdan’s recent book titled Curiosity).

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