Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : April 30th 2015 Contents If you ever doubt the idea
that the very clever can also be
very silly, just remember the time the
smartest man in America tried to electrocute
a turkey. Benjamin Franklin had been
attempting to capture "electrical fire" in glass
jars as a primitive battery.
Having succeeded, he thought it d be
impressive to use the discharge to kill and
roast his dinner. Soon it became a regular
party trick, as he wowed guests with his mag-
ical ability to command this strange force.
During one of these demonstrations, how-
ever, Franklin became distracted, and made
an elementary mistake---he touched one of
the live jars while holding a metal chain in
the other hand.
"The company present...say that the flash
was very great and the crack as loud as a
pistol," he later wrote.
"I then felt what I know not how well to
describe, a universal blow thro out my whole
body from head to foot which seem d within
as well as without; after which the first thing
I took notice of was a violent quick shaking
of my body."
Clearly, intelligence doesn t mean that you
are more rational or sensible---a fact that we ve
explored before on BBC Future. Although it
is easy to laugh at Franklin s eccentricity, the
other examples are sobering.
The American surgeon Atul Gawande has
written powerfully about a great tragedy in
modern medicine. Despite their astonishing
skill, surgeons can cause the needless loss of
life through sheer carelessness---something as
simple as forgetting to wash their hands or
apply a clean dressing. In business, short-
sighted thinking might involve cutting corners
that eventually lead to the downfall of a com-
A new way to think
The problem, says Robert Sternberg at Cor-
nell University, is that our education system
is not designed to teach us to think in a way
that is useful for the rest of life. "The tests
we use---the SATs or A-levels in England---are
very modest predictors of anything besides
school grades," he says.
"You see people who get very good grades,
and then they suck at leadership. They are
good technicians with no common sense, and
no ethics. They get to be the president or
vice-president of corporations and societies
and they are massively incompetent."
What can be done? Sternberg and others
are now campaigning for a new kind of edu-
cation that teaches people how to think more
effectively, alongside more traditional academic
tasks. Their insights could help all of us---
whatever our intelligence---to be a little less
1 Recognise your blind spots
Like Hanna-Barbera s Yogi, do you secretly
think "you re smarter than the average bear"?
Don t we all. It s something called "illusory
superiority", and, as Yogi shows, it s particularly
inflated among the least able.
In your defence, you might claim that you
know you re smart because of your report
cards, or that impressive performance at a
pub quiz. If so, you might be suffering from
"confirmation bias"---the tendency to only
pick evidence to support your viewpoint. Still
unconvinced? Then psychologists would claim
that you are suffering from the "bias blind-
spot"---a tendency to deny flaws in your own
The fact is that we all suffer from some
subconscious biases, clouding everything from
the decision to buy a house to your views on
the conflict in Crimea.
Fortunately, psychologists are finding that
people can be trained to spot them. There are
about a 100 to consider, so start swotting up
with this comprehensive list.
2 Be ready to eat humble pie
"A man should never be ashamed to own
he has been in the wrong, which is but saying,
in other words, that he is wiser today than
he was yesterday," wrote the 18th Century
poet Alexander Pope. To psychologists
today, that kind of thinking is considered a
core personality trait known as "open-mind-
Among other things, it measures how easily
you deal with uncertainty, and how quickly
and willingly you will change your mind based
on new evidence.
It s a trait that some people find surprisingly
hard to cultivate, yet the moment of self-
deflation pays off in the long term.
For example, Philip Tetlock at the University
of Pennsylvania is currently asking ordinary
people to predict the course of complex political
events in a four-year contest. He has found
that the best forecasters depended just as
much on open-mindedness as a high IQ.
• Continues on Page B45
Thursday, April 30, 2015 www.guardian.co.tt Guardian
step guide to not being stupid
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