You are intelligent: have you done something dumb?

One of my colleagues does her research on strategic thinking and in one of our conversations we discussed what is critical thinking, and how is it different from other concepts that are commonly used in management and leadership education. I chanced upon the research by Heather A. Butler (California State University Dominguez Hills) on the difference between intelligence and critical thinking. In this piece provocatively titled, Why do Smart People do Foolish Things?, she argues that intelligence and critical thinking are different. In this blog post, I will discuss how intelligent people should/ can acquire critical thinking skills.

Intelligence vs. critical thinking

Intelligence is measured through standardized tests like the IQ test that measures skills like visuo-spatial skills, calculations, pattern recognition, vocabulary and diction, and memory. Intelligence therefore, arms people with the ability to solve problems.

Critical thinking on the other hand is the ability to rationally think in a goal-oriented fashion, and a disposition to use those skills when appropriate. It has been defined as “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skilfully conceptualizing, applying, analysing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness” (Michael Scriven & Richard Paul, 1987). In simple words, critical thinking is about questioning both information and beliefs, and using that questioning to guide behaviour. It is that ability to ensure the quality and consistency of information that forms the bedrock of critical thinking. While intelligence is about pattern-seeking and projection, critical thinking is about questioning the quality of information.

What intelligence creates is smartness. But that does not ensure that smart people don’t do stupid/ foolish things. Who hasn’t heard of intelligent Albert Einstein cutting two holes in the door for large cats and small cats? I am not going to tell any stories of all those stupid and foolish things I have done! If you were waiting for it, I am equally flattered (thank you for acknowledging that I am intelligent!), but I am going to disappoint you.

Developing critical thinking skills

Critical thinking creates rational thinking. The way a critical thinker would solve problems would be very different than someone with just intelligence. I conceptualize critical thinking as a skill over and above basic intelligence. Critical thinking encompasses “reflective and reasonable thinking” that is focused on defining “what to believe or do”. Defining “what to believe and do” requires three core skills – deduction, induction, and value-judging. Deduction is the process of making inferences based on a general statement, a set of hypotheses, and statements. The inference is based on a general theory of science, and is a top-down process. So, what is true of a class of things/ events in general, is true for each of the components. Therefore, if you were a German, you would be punctual.

Induction on the other hand, is bottom-up; where a set of data and observations from the ground will help make the inference. Data is collected, patterns sought, and from these patterns the theory is generalized. The key in inductive inference making is the collection of right quality and quantity of data to make good inferences.

The third and most important component of critical thinking skills is value judging. While it is easy to teach and train people on deductive and inductive reasoning, value judging is very difficult. Value judgement is an assessment of something good or bad, given one’s realities and priorities. At the definitional level, value judgements are made independent of data – these are value judgements. However, critical thinking as a competence integrates deduction (top-down inference making), induction (bottom-up inference making), and value judgements (assessment of good or bad).

As we define value judgements as “a choice of what we like or want” or “what is good or bad in this context”, it is very difficult to teach in a classroom, through any of traditional methods. In-situ experiential methods are required to train someone on making robust value judgements. Internships, externships, and apprenticeships are some useful methods for teaching/ training value judgements. Do you now realize why certain professions are called ‘practice’ – like law, consulting, or accounting?

Why should I learn critical thinking?

Critical thinking helps you in many ways. One, it helps you remain goal-directed. Armed with critical thinking skills, everyone will collect, collate, and make inferences based on what is good/ desirable for them. In the absence of critical thinking (all of deductive-inductive-value judgement or DIVj), one might not be able to make inferences in relation to the goal. For instance, if my objective is to choose an investment plan, I need to surely invest in a manner that matches my financial goals; and DIVj surely helps.

Two, critical thinking allows you to be flexible thinkers and evolve into amiable sceptics. It would not be easy to convince you in the absence of good theory (deductive), solid data (inductive), or goal-directed behaviour (value judgements). You are most unlikely to be swayed away by mob beliefs and unscientific arguments.

Three, critical thinking helps you be aware and accept your conscious and unconscious biases (including hindsight and confirmation biases).

Practising critical thinking

It is therefore important for you as a smart person to learn and practise critical thinking. Practising critical thinking is about consciously using deductive, inductive and value judgements. I know a lot of managers we train at our business schools with deductive and inductive skills, but much less of value judgements. One of my favourite arguments for the case method of learning is that it is the closest it gets to training people to make value judgements (read my earlier post on Judgements).

Some may argue that intelligence is part genetic and you may be born with or without intelligence. On the other hand, critical thinking is surely developed; albeit only through conscious efforts. Here’s calling all intelligent and smart people: to go out there and acquire/ practise critical thinking.

(c) 2017. R Srinivasan


Author: Srinivasan R

Professor of Strategy at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore. All views are personal. The views and opinions expressed here are of the author, and not those of the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore; and are not intended to endorse, harm, malign, or defame any individual, group, or organisation.

4 thoughts on “You are intelligent: have you done something dumb?”

  1. Wonderfully explained. Cant agree more. However I humbly feel beyond the integillent thinking and creative thinking lies the intuitive wisdom that emerges from within. It does not follow the intelligence or rationalisation. Some may call it Gut feel while some may see us as mad.
    Still it is when we allgn with that wisdom truly great things happen.
    We all know Neil Armstrong but none of us remember Yuri Gagarin. While Yuri who should have ideally stepped down first was debating between his intellgence and rational , Neil just followed and honoured the emergence and rest is history. Hope this makes some sense. Though it may not happen all the times ,those who honour makes the difference .
    Hari om tat sat


    1. Sorry. The man who accompanied Neil was Buzz Aldrim and this is were I understand the flaw of Intellgent thinking. Aravind . Yes , it is abolutely right , what you wrote about intelligent thinking and simple mistakes .
      I stand corrected.

      Liked by 1 person

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