By Alex Fradera
To lead a good life, we need to make good decisions: manage our health and financial affairs, invest in appropriate relationships, and avoid serious lapses like falling for online scams. What equips us to do this? One candidate is IQ: after all, people who score higher on intelligence tests tend to go on to do better academically and in their careers. But many of us know intellectual titans who still make grave errors of judgment in their lives. Book-smart doesn’t necessarily make you life-smart, and a new article in the journal Thinking Skills and Creativity examines the utility of IQ in navigating existence, and how another mental ability may put it in the shade.
Whereas IQ is – crudely speaking – a measure of the mental horsepower we have for handling abstract content, some researchers say that “critical thinking” – the ability to make judgments dispassionately without jumping to false conclusions – is a separate ability. To find out if critical thinking ability might be important for real-life outcomes, perhaps even more than IQ, Heather Butler of California State University and her colleagues asked 244 participants – a mix of students and adults recruited online – to complete tests, of their IQ and critical thinking skills.
The intelligence test was fairly standard and covered memory, visual processing and quantitative reasoning. The critical thinking assessment involved participants evaluating courses of action in hypothetical scenarios and also considering the relevance of contextual information that could have a bearing on the decisions.
For example, a typical critical thinking question might require participants to explain whether they would want preschool to be mandatory for all children if research had shown that kids who attend preschool are more likely to excel at school (note this specific question wasn’t used in the test). Successful critical thinking would include recognising that correlation is not causation and reflecting on other possible explanations, and rating as valuable further information such as the income disparity between parents who send their children to preschool and other parents.
As per previous research, critical thinking correlated with IQ moderately (.38), suggesting some overlap but that each test was measuring something distinct.
The researchers were especially interested in how these measures correlated with scores on an inventory of real-world outcomes, on which participants indicated whether they had experienced events ranging from the mildly bad (e.g. fined late fees for a video rental) to the more severe (e.g. acquiring a sexually transmitted disease). The avoidance of these kinds of experiences gives an indirect measure of wise, effective decision making, and the data showed higher IQ individuals did do better. However, high critical thinking was even more strongly associated with these real-world outcomes (even after factoring out IQ). So it’s possible to have a modest IQ and navigate life wisely, or to have a high IQ and make clangers that leave your peers shaking their heads. It’s a question of critical thinking.
And that’s something that can be worked on. Critical thinking isn’t about mental resources so much as a way of looking at the world and a tool-kit to use at the relevant moments. But unfortunately, as a society, we don’t give enough attention to how to foster these skills. Some researchers are very pessimistic about the benefits of formal education for critical thinking, and although a recent meta-analysis has since suggested that attending college produces improvements in critical thinking, it could not identify where the skills were coming from. It should be possible to design better ways to impart and hone these skills, skills critical for the decisions that make up the stuff of our lives.
Update: Concerns have been raised about the statistical analyses used in this study.