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Rationality versus Intelligence

The mental skills that intelligence tests measure do not include rationality. Yet it is the development of our rational capacities - adopting appropriate goals, taking the appropriate action given one’s goals and beliefs, and holding beliefs that are commensurate with available evidence - that could substantially increase human well-being.

TORONTO – In 2002, the cognitive scientist Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University won the Nobel Prize in Economics for work done with his longtime collaborator Amos Tversky (who died in 1996). Their work had to do with judgment and decision-making – what makes our thoughts and actions rational or irrational. They explored how people make choices and assess probabilities, and uncovered basic errors that are typical in decision-making. 

The thinking errors they uncovered are not trivial mistakes in a parlor game. To be rational means to adopt appropriate goals, take the appropriate action given one’s goals and beliefs, and hold beliefs that are commensurate with available evidence. It means achieving one’s life goals using the best means possible. To violate the thinking rules examined by Kahneman and Tversky thus has the practical consequence that we are less satisfied with our lives than we might be. Research conducted in my own laboratory has indicated that there are systematic individual differences in the judgment and decision-making skills that Kahneman and Tversky studied.

Ironically, the Nobel Prize was awarded for studies of cognitive characteristics that are entirely missing from the most well-known mental assessment device in the behavioral sciences: intelligence tests. Scientists and laypeople alike tend to agree that “good thinking” encompasses sound judgment and decision-making – the type of thinking that helps us achieve our goals. Yet assessments of such good (rational) thinking are nowhere to be found on IQ tests.

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