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Why Are Intelligent People So Easily Tricked?


This is an extract from the chapter ‘Don’t Overthink It,’ from the new book Free Your Mind: The new world of manipulation and how to resist it by Laura Dodsworth and Patrick Fagan. Patrick is co-author of the article below.

‘As a rule, I have found that the greater brain a man has, and the better educated, the easier it has been to mystify him.’

So said master illusionist Harry Houdini. He said it during his spat with Sherlock Holmes’ creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle over the latter’s belief in seances and fairies. Despite being a literary genius, Conan Doyle nevertheless had some foolish ideas.

He’s not alone. Researchers have even coined ‘Nobel Disease,’ referring to the tendency for some Nobel Prize winners to embrace unconventional beliefs. Charles Richet, for instance, won the 1913 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine but also believed in dowsing and ghosts.

Taken to the extreme, almost half of all German doctors in the 1930s joined the Nazi Party early, which was a higher rate than any other profession. Their education and intelligence did not shield them from madness – quite the opposite.

We are all deluged with attempts to manipulate us, from Big Tech and politicians to salespeople and colleagues. It is comforting to think that this is only a concern for the less intellectually gifted: we conjure up stereotypes of backwards ‘conspiracy theorists’ and ‘science deniers’ who need protecting from misinformation.

Yet the reality is that intellectuals are just as vulnerable to bias, if not more so. The scientific term is dysrationalia. Psychology professor Keith Stanovich researched it thoroughly and once concluded that ‘none of these [biases] displayed a negative correlation with [intelligence]… If anything, the correlations went in the other direction.’

Why might that be?

The first explanation is motivated reasoning, where logic is used to satisfy an underlying emotional motivation. Conan Doyle, for example, may have convinced himself of the truth of fairies and seances because he was struggling with the recent death of his son. With a deep psychological need to fill, Conan Doyle’s remarkable intellect simply provided the justification.

People reach the conclusions they want to reach, and then post-rationalise it – but smarter people are better at coming up with these justifications. To paraphrase George Orwell, some things are so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.

One study found that scientific messaging around climate change was more likely to be accepted by liberals if they were smarter, whereas intellect made free-market capitalists more likely to reject the message and say it was an exaggeration.

The second reason intellectuals might be more persuadable is the cultural mediation hypothesis. This theory suggests that intelligent people are better at sussing out what the dominant cultural norms are, and therefore what to think and say in order to get ahead in life. The intelligentsia are more likely to be liberal today, so the theory goes, for the same reason so many doctors joined the very illiberal Nazi Party in the 1930s. 

In other words, smart and privileged people are more likely to figure out and adopt so-called ‘luxury beliefs.’ An op-ed from, ironically, the New York Times summed it up this way: ‘To feel at home in opportunity-rich areas, you’ve got to … possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality.’

Thirdly, according to the clever sillies hypothesis, intelligence brings with it the tendency to overuse logic in problem solving and to underuse the instinct and common sense which has evolved over thousands of years. People who work in intellectual professions – like science and academia – also tend to have a particular personality profile. They are more likely to cooperate well with others and follow the rules. This makes for a good doctor, say, but it also makes for a compliant subject; it makes for someone who submits to the crowd and to authority.

So, besides a lobotomy, what’s the answer?

Trust your gut. Our instinct has developed over millions of years of evolution and, though we may call it irrational, it has actually served us very well. Without our emotional intuition, we would actually be rather bad at decision-making. As famed neuroscientist Antonio Damasio wrote, ‘Rather than being a luxury, emotions are a very intelligent way of driving an organism toward certain outcomes.’

One study found that a 15-minute mindfulness session reduced the incidence of a particular cognitive bias by 34 percent. Another had doctors jot down their immediate gut instinct and then consciously interpret it, resulting in diagnostic accuracy increasing by up to 40 percent.

Similarly, a good protection against brainwashing is good old common sense. Psychologist Igor Grossman drew on classic philosophy and broke the concept of wisdom down into four principles: seek other people’s perspectives even if they conflict with your own; integrate different perspectives into an overall middle ground; recognise that things can change, including your own convictions; and have humility about your own limited sense perception.

Benjamin Franklin, after reading an account of Socrates’ trial, determined to always question his own judgment and to respect other people’s. He made a deliberate effort to avoid words like ‘certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion.’

So with a little more sensitivity to your gut instinct and a little less faith in the certainty of your rational conclusions, you could prevent your brain from taking you, like Conan Doyle, away with the fairies.

Free Your Mind: The new world of manipulation and how to resist it by Laura Dodsworth and Patrick Fagan is out now and available to buy in the UK and US.

Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
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