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Opinion | All in the mind: No one is universally smart, we all operate in bubbles of competence

Innovators like Einstein and Edison ignored facts that contradicted their beliefs

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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes. Surprisingly, he was fooled by two schoolgirls who claimed to have photographed fairies frolicking around a park. Einstein came up with the equation of mass-energy equivalence. He also wasted the last 25 years of his career with a string of embarrassing failures. His Princeton colleagues started avoiding him as he knowingly ignored experiment results and well-known facts. Thomas Edison had more than 1,000 patents to his name but he waged a misguided war on alternating current even though he knew he was wrong. How is it that such smart people made such foolish choices?

In his book The Intelligence Trap, David Robson explains that no one is universally smart. We all operate in our bubbles of competence. Being smart or gifted doesn’t make us immune to biases. In fact, it can magnify them. Doyle started dabbling in his extra-terrestrial adventures at the same time he created Sherlock Holmes. He used his intelligence to come up with creative arguments to dismiss his sceptics and justify his whacky beliefs.

Let’s explore the contours of motivated reasoning, the technique Conan Doyle used to outsmart himself. It is an emotionally charged, self-protective use of our minds that takes two distinct forms. First, we preferentially seek and remember information that confirms our view. Second, we tear down reasonable, alternative arguments and become entrenched in our own cherished opinions. People like Edison, Doyle and Einstein are particularly prone to this aspect of motivated reasoning called disconfirmation bias. That’s why I think there is a fundamental flaw in how we measure intelligence. Colleagues we refer to as smart tend to have high scores in standardized tests, demonstrate good abstract thinking and are known for effortless logical reasoning. We admire them and start relying on their judgement without questioning. That’s where trouble begins.

Intelligence, in its narrow sense, has a modest correlation with rationality. A study published by the London School of Economics found that people with higher IQs tend to consume more alcohol or are more likely to smoke or consume illegal drugs. Obviously, it doesn’t mean that if you drink and smoke a lot, you have high IQ, but it does imply that smart people often make unsmart decisions.

In Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street, Karen Ho analysed behavioural patterns and decision-making frameworks of investment bankers during the 2008 financial crisis. She explained how an entire tribe of Wall Street natives used questionable methods to artificially inflate stock prices and then figured out creative ways to hide it. If anything, the higher collective IQ of Wall Street left the world worse off.

Bertrand Russell famously said the cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt. I feel such pronouncements can be thoroughly confusing at work. It incorrectly assumes that people are born stupid or smart.

Cognitive psychology’s Dunning-Kruger effect states that confidence and competence have a complicated relationship. It was inspired by the case of McArthur Wheeler, who tried to rob two banks in broad daylight. He was genuinely perplexed on being caught. Turns out, he believed that a coating of lemon juice would make him invisible in the CCTV footage. Unsurprisingly, the Dunning-Kruger effect is often used to explain why incompetent people have delusions of grandeur.

However, there is a silver lining. Education and training improve not only our knowledge but also metacognition and self-awareness. It doesn’t mean that reading a few books on relativity will make you an Einstein, but it does suggest that with increased self-awareness, you have it in you to stumble upon your bubble of competence. With perseverance and the right kind of exploratory support, you can transform perceived incompetence into competence you truly care about.

Intelligence is a discovery challenge. Your colleague who is lost during sales calls could be a genius in programming. Instead of mentally branding him as useless, help him discover his bubble of competence. On a different day, in a different context, he will do the same for you.

Millennial Matters discusses the skills needed to survive and find meaning in the workplace of tomorrow.

Utkarsh Amitabh is founder of Network Capital, a global peer mentoring community and a WEF Global Shaper.

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