And Now, a Brief Quiz: Find Out If You’re a ‘Cognitive Miser’

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Even smart people often make not-so-smart decisions. You buy something you don’t need to get the “free” gift; you are given the chance to “pay what you want” and instead choose to buy nothing at all. To Keith E. Stanovich, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Toronto, these are not bad examples of “dysrationalia,” a term he coined in his book What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought to describe intelligent people making irrational decisions.

Here’s a question he’s used in his research (borrowed from the work of Hector Levesque, a University of Toronto colleague) to help illustrate his point:

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?

That’s correct. That’s incorrect.

If you guessed wrong, Stanovich says you were acting like a “cognitive miser,” by which he means that you looked only for information that was explicitly stated, rather than information that could be inferred. But don’t feel too bad: This has nothing to do with your intelligence. It’s a decision-making strategy that makes sense in certain contexts — knowing when to deploy it is what seems to matter most.

Besides, according to research he cites in his book, more than 80 percent of respondents answer this question incorrectly. The key, he explains, is Anne. “If Anne is married, then the answer is ‘Yes’ because she would be looking at George, who is unmarried,” he writes. “If Anne is not married, then the answer is still ‘Yes’ because Jack, who is married, would be looking at Anne.” To answer correctly requires something psychologists call “fully disjunctive reasoning,” a rather showy term with a simple meaning: It’s thinking through all possible options when making a choice, rather than quickly arriving at the most obvious (or obvious-seeming) one.

For that matter, arriving at either the right or the wrong answer involves our Anne. The question at hand reveals the marital status of Jack and George, but not of Anne — and since she is part of both of the looking-at scenarios, it makes sense that you might assume the answer cannot be determined, especially if you’re answering quickly. “People make the easiest (incorrect) inference from the information given,” he writes, “and do not proceed with the more difficult (but correct) inference that follows from fully disjunctive reasoning.”

Stanovich has found no correlation between IQ and correctly answering this question. People of higher intelligence “were no more likely to solve the Anne problem and similar problems than were people of lower intelligence,” he writes. “If told to reason through all of the alternatives, the subjects of higher intelligence would have done so more efficiently. However, without that instruction, they defaulted to computationally simple cognition when solving problems — they were cognitive misers just like everyone else.”

Here’s a variation on the Anne problem, one that’s often used in cognitive psychology experiments:

A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

That’s correct. That’s incorrect.

Most people immediately say 10 cents. But that can’t be right — that would mean the bat cost $1.10, which would bump the total cost up to $1.20. Stanovich also argues that this error stems from shallow processing, and like the Anne problem, intelligence doesn’t protect from making this mistake.

Studies abound suggesting how this processing error could potentially cause real-life harm. For just one example, consider a study conducted by Kimihiko Yamagishi, a cognitive scientist at Shukutoku University in Japan, who presented participants with several cancer-death statistics and asked them to choose the one that sounded the deadliest. Among their options: “1,286 out of 10,000” or “24.14 out of 100.” In two experiments, most participants incorrectly rated the former as being a more dangerous cancer than the latter. (Yamagishi borrowed from that finding for the title of his paper: “When a 12.86% mortality is more dangerous than 24.14%.”)

And yet much of the time, being a cognitive miser makes a certain amount of sense. Sometimes, we need mental shortcuts; without them, we’d waste time and energy laboring over mundanities like what to have for breakfast each morning. “Being a cognitive miser preserves processing capacity for other tasks,” he writes. But it can also backfire, when we “[over-generalize] to situations that require not a quick approximation but, rather, precise calculating.”

Again: According to the research, IQ does not accurately predict a correct answer to problems like these. But, clearly, there are times when a decision requires patient, careful thought, just as there are times when going the miser route will do. (Times such as taking a silly online quiz, for instance! If you went the miser route here, perhaps you’ve secretly outmaneuvered us all.) The real key is knowing when to use which. Intelligence is one thing; wisdom is another.

And Now, a Brief Quiz: Are You a ‘Cognitive Miser’?