Lazy Thinkers and Dysrationalia

Pop Quiz:

Jack is looking at Anne, but Anne is looking at George. Jack is married but George is not. Is a married person looking at an unmarried person?

a. Yes
b. No
c. Cannot be determined

(No, the polar bears have nothing to do with Jack, Anne, or George).

What's your answer? If you answered c. Cannot be determined, you're probably one of the 80% who is a lazy thinker, or a 'cognitive miser' as Keith Stanovich proposes in his book What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought. Excerpt from the Toronto article (Why smart people do stupid things) below:

"... most people have the intelligence if you tell them something like “think logically” or “consider all the possibilities.” But unprompted, they won’t bring their full mental faculties to bear on the problem.

And that’s a major source of dysrationalia, Stanovich says. We are all “cognitive misers” who try to avoid thinking too much. This makes sense from an evolutionary point of view. Thinking is time-consuming, resource intensive and sometimes counterproductive. If the problem at hand is avoiding the charging sabre-toothed tiger, you don’t want to spend more than a split second deciding whether to jump into the river or climb a tree.

So we’ve developed a whole set of heuristics and biases to limit the amount of brainpower we bear on a problem. These techniques provide rough and ready answers that are right a lot of the time – but not always."

The solution is easy (a. Yes) if you take the time to work out the two possibilities re: whether Anne is married or single.

At least at the time this post is being written, the entire Scientific American article can be read: here.

In this older paper by Stanovich, "thinking dispositions" (habits of mind?) (e.g. length of time spent on difficult problems, disposition to weigh new evidence / other opinions vs. a favored belief, etc.) are presented as being very different from the cognitive capacities measured by conventional IQ tests, and this would seem quite true.

Stanovich would like our educational system to spend for effort on teaching (and requiring) more rational thinking, and this seems to be a lofty goal (examples given...more general thinking strategies, scientific thinking, basic statistics). Hey given the magnitude of educational need, it would even be helpful if students were given more hard problems to solve with opportunities to be put into difficult spots so that can examine their assumptions and consider others' opinions and perspectives.

The truth is, some of this concept of being a 'cognitive miser' is part of the dark side of expertise. Expertise strives to categorize seemingly random choices, simplifying and speeding downstream decisions. But of course it can result in mistakes like the Jack-Anne-George dilemma.

I liked coming across this article because like jolt of coffee, it woke me up a bit about mistakes I can make by thinking too quickly.

What I am not so sure about is the Dysrationalist discussants might be placing too much importance on rationality as the ultimate guide to decision-making. What about moral philosophy in decision-making for instance? Last night as an exercise in philosophy we watched 'Fountainhead' as a family, and couldn't help but wondering whether uber-rationalism can also lead smart people to dumb conclusions.

Why smart people do stupid things
Rationality, Intelligence, and Levels of Analysis pdf
Lazy polar bear


  1. Unfortunately, the first link is broken.

  2. Thanks, Francois. I tried link 1 and was able to open it (the Sci Am article is posted on a forum), and typed in the listed link at the bottom of the post. This worked for me too. Let me know which one didn't work and I can see if there's a typo or something....


  3. Sylvia Zhang10:38 AM

    The first link, "What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought.", has a bad link. Instead of "http", it links to "ttp". Therefore cannot be viewed.

    Thanks for the great article!

  4. Got it. Thanks Sylvia and Francois. The first link goes to the book sold on Amazon. If you want to read the whole Scientific American article, go to the second link indicated by *here*. For the Toronto article, go to the link for "Why Smart People Do Stupid Things".

    The entire book is not online, but the book can be previewed through Google books at: What Intelligence Tests Miss - Google Books

  5. Anonymous5:38 AM

    I'm a bit confused as to why if you answer c you would be considered a lazy thinker.

    You could in fact be an over thinker. The question is based on mainstream thinking. It cannot be assumed that just because Anne is looking at George that she is unmarried making the answer yes, she could be married to Jack but looking at George for any number of reasons which makes the answer no. If you come up with both solutions you then have to answer c.

  6. If Anne is unmarried, then the answer is yes because Jack is looking at Anne.
    If Anne is married, then the answer is yes because Anne is looking at George.

    Get it?

    I think this is a disjunctive syllogism.

  7. Anonymous10:23 PM

    "Is a married person looking at an unmarried person?" The answer is actually C, because at no time is Anne identified as being a person; for all we know she may be someone's pet cat.

  8. Jingle4:01 PM

    How do we know if Jack can see George?

  9. Hi Jingle,

    It doesn't matter. What matters is that Jack is looking at Anne, and Anne is looking at George. If you figure it out either way re: Anne, the one of them is true. Get it?

    It does make my head spin a little!

  10. Anonymous12:16 PM

    The link is a little different, just in case someone gets here.