Book Summary: The Intelligence Trap

This is a summary of some of the main points from the book The Intelligence Trap by David Robson (W. W. Norton & Company, 2019).

The main theme of the book is that even smart people make mistakes in logic. In fact, there are many kinds of logical errors that occur *more often* in well-educated people. Robson presents a number of useful ideas from psychology to support and explain his thesis.

Today, we blame conspiracy theories on ignorance. But in a way, the problem of “smart people” getting things wrong is a more serious issue than general scientific ignorance. Some people with high IQs seem to latch onto bizarre theories, and their intelligence combined with modern social media help them spread misinformation to the masses.

The book is a well-written explanation of many important ideas from psychology and human behavior. We like to think that “ignorance” is the biggest single threat to modern society – but it might be “people who fail to use their intelligence in a logical way.”

The principal problem Robson identifies: intelligence doesn’t equal rational thinking or wisdom. Robson draws on current research in psychology to point out four main issues:

Throughout the book, Robson tries to explain why even “intelligent” people believe weird things. He concludes that even if we are very intelligent, we don’t always use our intelligence well. We might be fooled by complex or confusing data, we might make logic mistakes, or we might be lazy and not think things through.

Robson offers a number of techniques for avoiding various forms of the intelligence trap.

Techniques for avoiding the intelligence trap

Robson also gives some good advice about how we can improve our “reflective skills”

Fake news and conspiracy theories

Robson also has a long chapter on fake news, conspiracy theories, how cognitive biases contribute to believing lies, and how difficult it can be to “debunk” false beliefs. Robson gives the following arguments about our failure to stop fake news:

[I remember using this myth-debunking technique in the 2020 election campaign. There were certain candidates that were attacking mail-in voting as a potential source of fraud. When I worked for a local candidate’s phone bank, our script included answers to questions about mail-in voting. Our standard first line was: “Mail-in voting in New Jersey is safe and secure.” (A simple and fluent message, as fluent as the fraudulent fake news.)]

Robson talks about the work of Gordon Pennycook [Univ. of Waterloo] on decreasing your own “bullshit receptivity” – you need to improve your ability to resist inaccurate or fraudulent data.

Robson points to some attempts to “inoculate” people against bullshit... making them better equipped to spot other forms in the future. The idea is to set up red flags in our minds, warning signs that trigger our analytical thinking when we need it.

Other topics

The remaining sections of Robson’s book explore two other areas: techniques and principles that can help people use their minds better and the common properties of successful and unsuccessful teams.

One section explains the elements of Carol Dweck’s theory of “growth mind-set.”

Finally, Robson has a short section on effective and not-so-effective teams. It is the weakest section of the book: many glorious examples of overachieving sports teams and horror stories of clueless management teams. But there are a few important ideas hidden in Robson’s examples:


Last modified: October 25, 2021
Dennis Mancl - dmancl@acm.org

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