Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Too Smart?

Bessie was a pony, a smart one. She learned how to open gates. She learned how to steal grain. She learned how to get into the apple orchard. Bill, her owner, was proud of her ability and used to brag about what she could do. Her life was interesting, spectacular – and short.

One day Bessie watched Bill put some grain near the tractor, then drive off. It only took a minute for her to open the gate, and another five minutes to figure out how to open the lid on the container where the oats were. When Bill got back Bessie was on the ground, writhing in agony. By the time the vet got there it was too late. The oats were intended for use as seed and were treated to kill pests. That treatment was also highly poisonous to horses.

As a boy on the farm I saw similar events. Many animals would be smart enough to get in trouble. Their intelligence allowed them to find what they wanted but they lacked the wisdom to realize that what they wanted might not be good for them. I'm afraid humans can have similar problems. We often fail to recognize that intelligence and wisdom are not the same thing. For example, intelligence may allow us to solve a complex problem (as Bessie the pony did getting to the grain). However wisdom can tell us that what we see is only part of the situation and there may be more that we don't know about. If we arrogantly assume that we know all we need to know, we can get in trouble.

For example intelligence may show us that a particular investment looks good, so we put our money there. However wisdom might have shown us that the only information we have is from the company itself with nothing from an independent auditor. Maybe that information is correct or maybe the company is run by someone like Bernie Madoff. Or maybe the company was audited but the auditors were fooled or even bought off. In fact wisdom will tell us that any investment that sounds too good to be true probably is.

We can trust our intelligence too much. Then we tend to ignore the fact that we don't know everything, nor is our reasoning ability perfect. This leads to a dangerous intellectual arrogance. For example the decision to invade Cuba's Bay of Pigs was made by a group of the most intelligent men ever assembled in the White House. However they depended on their own thinking, not even asking for outside advice. That and other decision-making problems led to one of the worst foreign policy disasters in U.S. history.

This problem can affect our personal lives, our business success, and our national well-being. In personal life it has the advantage of affecting only the culprit and his family. However such arrogance in business or government affects people not involved in the mistakes. If a businessman makes a mistake it can cost the jobs of employees. If a political leader makes a mistake, it can cost the country or state in terms of money, safety or even freedom.

What can we do about this? The first step is humility, the recognition that we don't know everything. We can be fooled or make mistakes. Intelligence is not the problem, intellectual arrogance is. Any time we are very confident that we are right we should re-examine the question, looking for flaws in our thinking. In fact we should go farther and look for similar decisions in the past where we were wrong in spite of all we could do. We should recognize that perfection is not given to men, and that includes the person we see in the mirror. We just might be wrong and we should consider the consequences of a mistake.

This intellectual humility does not preclude stretching our abilities, but it does mean care in what we attempt. That is especially true for those who find themselves in the role of third-party decision-makers, making a decision that affects others who have little or no say in the matter. The temptation there is to follow our own preference since we do not suffer the consequences or our own decisions. The result may be problems imposed on others while we go on our merry way, congratulating ourselves for our accomplishments. Meanwhile our victims suffer for our decisions.

However a bigger problem with “too smart” third-party decision-makers is the tendency to assume that they have solved the problem. After all, they are smart enough (at least in their own minds) to fix things. Therefore the solution they concocted must be the right one. No need to evaluate the results, the effort has been made so let’s move on to the next issue. This is especially a problem with government functionaries who can “solve” a problem by edict, usually throwing lots of money and regulations at it. Once the program is in place it takes on a life of its own and is seldom subject to critical evaluation by its supporters.

A bit of intellectual humility, in personal, business, and public life will go a long way toward a better life for everyone.

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1 comment:

miloraddzombic said...

im going and make reading of your older posts. you are smart man hale. it is good to see man who is thinking. i generally think americans are all boastful and unappreciative prigs. i had two men one time stop by. american men. they talked about their prophit, jimmy smith. they were sensless men and very rude to my family. talk to me about something serious, something universal. why does us military stay fighting taliban?