Why Do Smart People Make Stupid Decisions?

Why Do Smart People Make Stupid Decisions?
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Lance Cheung

On Monday, the list of male celebrity sex scandals grew even longer when another unexpected name was added to the list. This time it was Mario Batali, famous Italian chef and co-host of The Chew. Several sources reported that Batali had been accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women, most of whom worked for him in his restaurants.

This new story breaks as more and more accusations of sexual assault are popping up each day, many against some of the most recognizable names in the country. Names such as Batali, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose and Senator Al Franken lead a long list of male celebrities who have recently stepped down from their positions of power due to sexual misconduct in their workplaces.

While the volume of these accusations is shocking, the world is no stranger to hearing about seemingly smart celebrities making bad decisions. Anthony Weiner, Tiger Woods, Bill Cosby and Charlie Sheen only start the long list of scandals that shook our culture.

Each accusation seems to surprise us as much as the last, and they all beg the question: how can someone who is seemingly smart and successful make such awful choices? Several of these previously well-regarded men boast Ivy League-educations and multi-million dollar business empires – yet they’re willing to put it all on the line to satisfy their image and power impulses. If we look deeper at the situation, we’ll find that even those with high IQs and business savvy aren’t immune to making career-ending mistakes.

Being Smart Goes Beyond IQ

The problem is, we view traditional intelligence from a narrow perspective. If someone has a high IQ that means they’re smart, and if it’s low then they must not be intelligent at all. However, measuring someone’s smarts only with their IQ is too limiting.

Over the last two decades, we have seen the term emotional intelligence (EQ) gain popularity, thanks to the great work of Daniel Goleman. This expanded our understanding of intelligence. His research showed we could also measure intelligence and maturity by how someone handles their emotions and interpersonal relationships.

ChoiceLadder Institute

But we can’t stop at emotional intelligence either. To understand how high-IQ and high-EQ people can still make stupid decisions, we have to consider another form of intelligence that reflects the quality of our choices — Judgment Quotient, or JQ. It’s your judgment, not just intelligence that determines how smart you are. It also determines how much success you will be able to attain and, more importantly, maintain over time. So why do people make dumb choices? It comes down to the ABCDs of human judgment.

The ABCDs of Human Judgment

Decisions that we make in only a few minutes or even a few seconds, the majority of our decisions, are likely to be dominated by automatic, heuristic thinking. Such thinking is prone to unconscious biases. Overcoming these biases is the key to sound judgment. Learning the basics of these biases starts with learning the ABCDs of judgment — Our Assumptions, Beliefs, Conditioning, and Drives.

ChoiceLadder Institute

Gaining awareness to the power of these factors can help us begin to understand how even accomplished, successful and intelligent people aren’t immune to bad judgment. Most of us are not fully aware of the assumptions and beliefs that drive our decisions. While we may explicitly track a few, many of them remain implicit. To add more complexity to the equation, our conditioning may include habits and other ingrained behaviors that often result from learning and prior experience. Last but not the least, are the three main drives that lead to poor judgment as outlined in my book, Beyond the PIG and the APE, with PIG and APE being acronyms for two of the drives. PIG stands for Pursuing Instant Gratification, and APE stands for Avoiding Painful Experiences. The third drive, which is abundant in many of these high profile cases, is the human ego.

The problem with Batali, Weiner, Lauer, Woods and so many others isn’t that they lack intelligence, but that they engage in self-sabotaging behaviors and seem to be stuck in a pattern of such behaviors. They fail to acknowledge and take the time to reflect on their mistakes. Blinded by their invisible influences and urges, they repeatedly yielded to temptation and allowed their judgment to be clouded by power, position and pride.

Reflecting deeply on our impulses and actions is what raises our awareness of the inherent influences like unconscious bias, social conditioning, cultural beliefs, and hidden motivations that are driving our day-to-day choices, and it is the key to breaking the cycle of bad judgment.

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