June 13, 2012
The Dangers of Being Smart
I just read a short essay at the Big Think, "The Dangers of Being Smart," that reminded me of nearly every faculty workshop I have ever attended. In a nutshell, brilliant people -- and law faculty are filled with them -- can wax eloquent on cognitive bias, yet the deft ability to describe and comprehend does little to enable brilliant people to rein in the bias. In fact, being smart can be disadvantageous because we fall in love with the beauty and nuance of our own rationalizations and justifications.
This really hit home for me because I have witnessed hundreds of examples in which data are never sought out or consulted because the brilliant lawyers were so persuaded by their own reasoning. (And I stipulate that I am sure I have done this many times myself.) Or worse, good but not perfect data are dismissed because a lawyer or law professor could theorize a plausible flaw in the sample or methodology. The glee in finding the flaw then shortcircuits the right response, which is a simple discussion of probability -- that is, what is more or less likely based on all available evidence.
The Big Think essay reminded me of Dan Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow, especially the section titled "Overconfidence." Kahneman, a psychologist, won the Nobel Prize in economics because he, along with co-author Amos Tversky, identified several predictable, recurring cognitive biases in human decisionmaking.
Kahneman later revealed that the basis for their breakthrough research was errors they detected in their own judgments. “People thought we were studying stupidity,” said Kahneman. “But we were not. We were studying ourselves.” For a wonderful primer on Kahneman's unusual worldview, see this Michael Lewis essay.
[posted by Bill Henderson]