The Relative Independence of Thinking Biases and Cognitive Ability

Abstract(Via Toronto & Madison)

In 7 different studies, the authors observed that a large number of thinking biases are uncorrelated with cognitive ability. These thinking biases include some of the most classic and well-studied biases in the heuristics and biases literature, including the conjunction effect, framing effects, anchoring effects, outcome bias, base-rate neglect, “less is more” effects, affect biases, omission bias, myside bias, sunk-cost effect, and certainty effects that violate the axioms of expected utility theory. In a further experiment, the authors nonetheless showed that cognitive ability does correlate with the tendency to avoid some rational thinking biases, specifically the tendency to display denominator neglect, probability matching rather than maximizing, belief bias, and matching bias on the 4-card selection task. The authors present a framework for predicting when cognitive ability will and will not correlate with a rational thinking tendency.


The framework in Figure 1 illustrates why rationality will not be uniformly related to intelligence. Instead, that relationship will depend upon the degree that rational responding requires sustained cognitive decoupling. When the heart of the task is recognizing the need for heuristic override but the override operation itself is easily accomplished, no sustained decoupling is necessary and rational thinking will depend more on the operations of the reflective mind than on those of the algorithmic mind (Stanovich, 2008a, 2008b). Thus, relationships with intelligence will be attenuated. Additionally, as Kahneman (2000) has argued, when detecting the necessity for override is very difficult (Parameter 2 is low), performance overall will be quite low and no relationships with cognitive ability will be evident.

Most Important Conclusion:

Conversely, however, highly intelligent people will display fewer reasoning biases when you tell them what the bias is and what they need to do to avoid it. That is, when Parameters 1 and 2 are ceilinged and considerable cognitive capacity is needed to sustain decoupling while the correct response is computed, then highly intelligent people will do better in a rational thinking task. However, if there is no advance warning that biased processing must be avoided (as is the case in many between-subjects designs), then more intelligent individuals are not much more likely to perform any better on the task. Another way to phrase this is to say that, often, people of higher cognitive ability are no more likely to recognize the need for a normative principle than are individuals of lower cognitive ability. When the former believe that nothing normative is at stake, they behave remarkably like other people (equally likely for example to be “anchored” into responding that redwoods are almost 1,000 ft tall!—see Table 1). If told, however, that they are in a situation of normative conflict and if resolving the conflict requires holding a prepotent response in abeyance, then the individual of high cognitive ability will show less of many different cognitive biases.

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27. January 2010 by Miguel Barbosa
Categories: Curated Readings, Psychology & Sociology | Leave a comment

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