Jamie Hale

Jamie Hale

Friday, October 22, 2010

Good Thinking: More Than Just Intelligence

by Jamie Hale

Are intelligent people good thinkers? Some are, some are not. Society is replete with examples of intelligent people doing foolish things. There is a plethora of scientific data showing intelligence does not necessarily predict rationality. Intelligence shows a low to moderate association with some critical thinking / rational thinking skills, while showing little to no association with other rational thinking skills. A study published in 2008, in Thinking & Reasoning (Stanovich & West), investigated two key critical thinking skills- avoidance of myside bias and avoidance of one side bias.

2008, 14 (2), 129 – 167

On the failure of cognitive ability to predict myside and one-sided thinking biases
Keith E. Stanovich
University of Toronto, Canada
Richard F. West
James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA, USA

Two critical thinking skills—the tendency to avoid myside bias and to avoid one-sided thinking—were examined in three different experiments involving over 1200 participants and across two different paradigms. Robust indications of myside bias were observed in all three experiments. Participants gave higher evaluations to arguments that supported their opinions than those that refuted their prior positions. Likewise, substantial one-side bias was observed—participants were more likely to prefer a one-sided to a balanced argument. There was substantial variation in both types of bias, but we failed to find that participants of higher cognitive ability displayed less myside bias or less oneside bias. Although cognitive ability failed to associate with the magnitude of the myside bias, the strength and content of the prior opinion did predict the degree of myside bias shown. Our results indicate that cognitive ability—as defined by traditional psychometric indicators—turns out to be surprisingly independent of two of the most important critical thinking tendencies discussed in the literature.

Key cognitive skills required for critical thinking are the ability to evaluate evidence in an objective manner, and the ability to consider multiple points of view when solving a problem, or coming to a conclusion. Most people fail to demonstrate these critical thinking tendencies. Myside bias is displayed when people evaluate evidence and come to conclusions that are biased towards their own beliefs and opinions. One side bias is demonstrated when people prefer one sided arguments over arguments presenting multiple perspectives. Intelligent people are just as likely as less intelligent people to demonstrate these thinking biases. Before going further, it is important to mention that intelligence in this context refers to cognitive abilities measured by popular intelligence tests and their proxies. These tests do a good job assessing computational power and certain types of declarative knowledge. But, they do not adequately assess critical thinking skills. Avoidance of myside bias and one side bias are not measured on intelligence tests. It seems that intelligence tests are missing an important element of good thinking- evaluating evidence in a unbiased manner, and considering a multitude of perspectives when problem solving. I don't think any sane person would argue that these skills are not important.

In a series of experiments Stanovich and West examined the association between cognitive ability and two cardinal critical thinking skills- avoidance of myside bias and avoidance of one side bias. In Experiment 1 natural myside bias was investigated in 15 different propositions. In Experiment 2 myside bias and one-sided bias was studied. In Experiment 3 associations between thinking dispositions- in addition to cognitive ability- and one-sided and myside bias were investigated.

In Experiment 1, the researchers concluded, there was "no evidence at all that myside bias effects are smaller for students of higher cognitive ability" (p.140). The main purpose of Experiment 2 was to investigate the association of cognitive abilities with myside and one side bias. "The results... were quite clear cut. SAT total scores displayed a nonsignificant 7.03 correlation with the degree of myside bias and a correlation of .09 with the degree of one-side bias (onebias1), which just missed significance on a twotailed test but in any case was in the unexpected direction" (p.147). It was also revealed that stronger beliefs usually imply heavier myside bias. In Experiment 3 "the degree of myside bias was uncorrelated with SAT scores", and "[t]he degree of one-side bias was uncorrelated with SAT scores" (p.156). Myside bias was weakly correlated with thinking dispositions. One side bias showed no correlation with thinking dispositions.

The final two sentences or the research report read: "Our results thus indicate that intelligence—as defined by traditional psychometric indicators—turns out to be surprisingly independent of critical thinking tendencies. Cognitive ability measures such as the SAT thus miss entirely an important quality of good thinking" (p.161). The good news is critical thinking abilities are malleable, and in fact, probably more malleable than intelligence

Stanovich, K. & West, R. (2008). On the failure of cognitive ability to predict myside and one-sided thinking biases. Thinking & Reasoning, 14 (2), 129-167.

Additional Sources
What IQ Tests Miss- Dr. Toplak Interview

Stanovich, K. E. (2009, Nov/Dec). The thinking that IQ tests miss. Scientific American Mind, 20(6), 34-39. First Link at the top of this page -

Next week I will be publishing an interview with the Stanovich, West, Toplak Research Lab.

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