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Intelligence Vs. Rationality

I recently took a Rationality Test and discovered that I was surprisingly rational. (I took it twice to be sure.) How could that be? I wondered. It’s a plain fact that I’ve committed millions of stupid errors, in my life, and was STILL making them! What’s more, few people would ever call me a world class intellect, in terms of intelligence tests or other abstract-thinking measurements. Logically speaking — Mr. Spock I am not.

On the other hand, perhaps the fictional Mr. Spock from the iconic Star Trek series was a combination of both intelligence and rationality. He could solve 3-dimensional chess problems, for example — but he could also be hands-on and practical when the situation warranted. The correlation of high IQ with smart behavior is often not the case, according to intelligence studies. Highly-intelligent people often blunder at rational decisions, and often will practice little common sense.

The brain has limited real estate. Could the paradox of brilliant minds riddled by stupid behavior be a zero-sum game? In other words, could the act of starving one section of our cerebral garden result in the cultivation of more fertile growth in another? Not necessarily, say the experts. Our brains are much more plastic than we realized.

That being said, when it comes to IQ, our capacities may be inherited, and more difficult to shape. When it comes to rationality, on the other hand, our brains are more flexible and fertile. Unbiased reflection can be learned. Critical thinking can improve with age. Wisdom can be a gift for both the young and old.

So what are the differences between intelligence and rationality? Intelligence can be defined by IQ, which encompasses visuospatial puzzles, math problems, pattern recognition, vocabulary questions and visual searches. Rationality is the result of critical thinking, which often includes unbiased reflection, goal-oriented skills, flexible insight, and real-world interaction.

What are the relative effects of these cognitive attributes, in the vast scheme of things? Well, it’s beneficial to possess either of these brain traits, but rationality may trump intelligence in terms of overall life satisfaction.

High IQ predicts the benefits of academic success, financial reward, career achievement, and less likelihood of criminal behavior. High rationality predicts well-being, health, longevity, and fewer negative life events.

Heather A. Butler, an assistant professor in the psychology department at California State University, examined five components of critical thinking skills, which are often associated with rationality. The components include “verbal reasoning, argument analysis, hypothesis testing, probability and uncertainty, decision-making and problem-solving.” Although both intelligent and rational people experience fewer negative events in life, rational people do better than intelligent people according to her study.

Butler defined “negative events” in terms of various “domains of life,” such as academic, health, legal, interpersonal, financial, etc. She also provided an example from each domain.

Here are a few: “I have over $5,000 of credit-card debt” (financial); “I forgot about an exam” (academic); “I was arrested for driving under the influence” (legal); “I cheated on my romantic partner who I had been with for more than a year” (interpersonal); “I contracted a sexually transmitted infection because I did not wear a condom” (health).

Researchers in this field often make a distinction between reasoning and intelligence. Intelligence can be fooled by the gullible acceptance of weak evidence, often based on intuition or logical bias. Reasoning, by contrast, often relies on skeptical examination, less steeped in traditional mental bias.    

According to York University associate professor Maggie Toplak and Boston University professor Carey Morewedge, one of the more frequent reasons for less rational thought includes being a “cognitive miser.” In other words, spending less time on a problem than you should, due to overconfidence. In this case, perhaps mental humility is the key: According to Socrates, “The only thing I know is that I know nothing.”

Perhaps that is the reason I did so well on my rationality test. In any case, I am encouraged by the evidence that I may be highly rational. I plan to go out and celebrate, as soon as I can locate a fresh pair of socks.

Intelligence Vs. Rationality


John DiPrete

John DiPrete has contributed to Psych Central, MacWorld, Perceptual and Motor Skills, Medical Hypotheses, Speculations in Science and Technology, among other outlets. His Web site, MindBluff.com, explores the fun side of neuroscience (ranging from tactile illusions to brain teasers), and has been recommended by PC World Online.


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APA Reference
DiPrete, J. (2019). Intelligence Vs. Rationality. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 18, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/intelligence-vs-rationality/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 6 Jun 2019 (Originally: 6 Jun 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 6 Jun 2019
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.