The Intelligence Trap

I had the opportunity to hear the author David Robson speak at a recent literary festival. His most well regarded book The Intelligence Trap documents his research and how we can all improve our thinking and decision making.

Robson’s work arose from research into many great minds who, perhaps surprisingly, have acted foolishly. He gave some vivid examples, including the story of a brilliant physicist and Nobel prize winner who was tricked into carrying a caseload of cocaine in the US by a young woman he had never met!

Robson also spoke about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who in later life, held a conviction that Houdini had spiritual powers which allowed him to dematerialise to slip out of chains. This was from a man who valued the powers of logical deduction!

The research into intelligence shows that those with a higher IQ are able to process information more quickly. This can mean there are fewer checks in place when a substantial error of judgment is being made.

Cognitive Errors

The latest psychological research in the book shows there are 5 forms of cognitive errors made.

Cognitive miserliness occurs when we use only our intuition and don’t add any thought or scan for relevant other information. Mental laziness might be a good description here.

Motivated reasoning occurs when we apply our mental effort to pre-existing beliefs. We refuse to let our existing beliefs be challenged by new material.

Robson talks with great humour of the curse of expertise. Some research has been carried out with graduates who completed university a while back – they almost universally overestimated how much they remembered from their degrees, knowledge that by now will not be as up to date. This he describes as confusing peak knowledge with current knowledge.

Earned dogmatism – a perception of our own expertise makes us closed minded, indeed that we have the right to be closed minded. Closely linked is entrenchment – being determined not to be flexible in our thinking.


There are real and sometimes serious consequences as a result of these traps. Miscarriages of justice and medical errors are examples. Controversial consequences include those who deny the holocaust despite the evidence, and something similar is happening now with the climate emergency.

Being aware of these cognitive errors is a first step for us all to work towards improving our decision making.

Robson believes that to improve, we must take the time to reflect. He recommends mindfulness as a tool to understand ourselves better, to slow down and to observe what is going on in the mind. In action learning, we find people often pick apart the tangled threads of feeling and thought related to each feeling.

Action learning improving decision making

Such interrogation, looking deeply at what an issue means to us, how we feel about our often conflicted thinking, is one of the ways that action learning helps us develop reflective learning practises as well as more insight.

We’re allowed the time and space to think and delve deeper into an issue. This process helps us improve our decision making and reduces the possibility of making the cognitive errors described here both in life and at work.

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