Sunday, March 04, 2012

Making Yourself Stupid

James's post Believing Headlines Makes You Stupid put me in mind of an informal experiment in a college Speech class. We were discussing small-group dynamics, learning about Harmonisers and Tavistock Observers and the like, and were assigned group projects from a list. Our group measured changes in measured intelligence when the group dynamics changed.

Bear with me in my description of the set-up. 19 in the class, three in my group, leaving sixteen subjects. Everyone took the "Stranded On The Moon" test, in which you have to rank which items in the crashed ship will be worth carrying to help you survive on your emergency trip back to base. It's a flawed test in many ways, but over time a consensus of answers result in stable scoring. You have a parachute What for? That's out - no atmosphere. But wait! We could carry things in it!

We ranked the scores and told people where they had ranked in the class, then divided them into four groups to take the test again. But we did not tell them that we had put the top four scorers together, then the next four, #5-8, then #9-12, and #13-16. We set them the task of taking the test again as a group.

 Group B, with scorers #5-8 got the highest score (by a lot), and Group C with #9-12 finished second, a little ahead of Group A, the top four scorers. The professor explained to us that this was a fairly typical result - every few years a group would pick that experiment off the list and it usually ended up that way. His observation was that knowing you had a top score made you unwilling to listen to others as much as you should. Having an only decently high score provided the right balance of confidence and humility. You could appreciate that someone else might have an insight you missed, while still believing that you were basically on track as to what was required here.

The last group, BTW, just got discouraged and fairly random.

This doesn't generalise to everything, of course. Had the top four known they were the top four they might well have done better as a group than as individuals, being more willing to listen to other "experts" than to random others. If Group D knew that Group B could improve so much, they might have worked better together and gotten somewhere. But it is revealing about the default setting people may have when they are told they are a little better or worse than the others.


james said...

I suppose it isn't hard to verify that there can be a "best-and-brightest" deterioration--I can think of a few meetings... But more often the know-it-all's eventually fell by the wayside and the survivors would listen to anybody--and generally gave credit, too. Maybe I'm just lucky in the groups I've worked with, though. (I'm a low level guy, not one of the brass.)

The scary bit is that the low ranked group got discouraged so easily. These are all college students, and presumably already believe they are among the best and brightest. Maybe they'd started to realize how much they didn't know.

I remember that moon challenge. I succeeded in persuading my group that we needed to bring the revolver. (If you detect search craft, shoot in two different directions--the dust clouds kicked up form a V with you at the join.)

Roy Lofquist said...

An aphorism, mine, which comes from years of observation: intelligence is often an impediment to wisdom.

Texan99 said...

I love the revolver idea, but would it fire in vacuum?

karrde said...


this is scary, slightly. The smartest students when put together, didn't do as well...but they might have if the whole team had been told that they were the smartest.


if the revolver is a modern (metallic-cartridge) kind, then it will work in a vacuum.

The explosion of pressure that drives the bullet forward is created entirely from the gunpowder inside the metallic cartridge. Outside air (or lack thereof) doesn't effect that process.

Sam L. said...

They will fire underwater.

Donna B. said...

reminds me of one of the points in Lehrer's "How We Decide". These points could be related, but they seem distinct.

"Instead of praising kids for trying hard, teacher typically praise them for their innate intelligence (being smart). Carol Dweck (a spychologist at Stanford) has shown that this type of encouragement actually backfires, since it leads students to see mistakes as signs of stupidity and not as the building blocks of knowledge. The regrettable outcome is that kids never learn how to learn."

Texan99 said...

I have limited experience in teaching, just some tutoring of fourth graders. What lit me up, and made me most likely to say something warm and approving, was a kid who showed pleasure at the dawning of new understanding. It didn't matter much to me whether it was a difficult or easy understanding, or if the kid had to work a lot or a little to reach it. But if a kid didn't get a kick out of that kind of thing, I couldn't make much contact or help him much. That is, I might be able to gain skill at making a new understanding dawn, but I depended entirely on the child's innate ability to enjoy the experience of the dawning. Others may be good at inspiring that enjoyment in a child that doesn't have it. For me it's the root of almost all the most intense pleasure in my life.