Critical thinking skills are more important than IQ for making good decisions in life

GettyImages-536092577.jpgBy 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.

Predicting Real-World Outcomes: Critical Thinking Ability is a Better Predictor of Life Decisions than Intelligence

Update: Concerns have been raised about the statistical analyses used in this study.

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

40 thoughts on “Critical thinking skills are more important than IQ for making good decisions in life”

  1. If all behaviour is (in evolutionary terms) about adapting to habitat, then flexibility towards change would naturally be the most predictive factor for success. All animals do one of three things when faced with a change in habitat 1) mitigate against the change according to their adaptive potential both innate and learned; 2) migrate to where conditions are more suited to them, as they are; 3) become less and less able to cope with the new conditions. Overspecialisation, especially in the presence of rapid change spells extinction and is the antithesis of adaptative flexibility. So, yes, critical thinking skills are more important than IQ for making good decisions(on the face of it) because if you overspecialise (genius level skill) in one area e.g. playing piano or excelling in a single sport, then there must be limitations and deficits in other areas less well developed and practiced – a cost attached to that. If you have an accident or the environment rapidly changes and you can’t do the thing you have spent your life training, become overly reliant on technology for instance, then when the Kessler Effect kicks off (inevitable), it will be the people who have kept up skills of writing or star/ sextant navigation that will be most likely to survive. (o.k. so I’m a technophobe !)
    Just one more point. Maybe, IQ comes out as less important for adaptive potential than critical thinking skills ability, because critical thinking ability(rational, logical, system 2, conscious, considered thought) tends to arise from negative life experiences i.e. we learn more from mistakes than from successes. Resilience in the face of negative life events means we question everything, are less likely to be gullible and self- deluded, never take things at face value, question the source credibility. I propose that religious or other ‘belief’ (accepting things to be true without any evidence), whilst it may not exclude those with a high IQ (scientist or sports- icon ‘believers’) – an argument used by ‘believers’ to reinforce the righteousness of their delusion, critical thinking ability would be negatively correlated.

    1. Made some good points, Helen. However the need to call out someone as delusional who in the midst of an unreliable world system, can still have some faith, negates experience which trumps critical thinking or IQ.

      1. Not necessarily. It turns out we can be pretty poor at drawing conclusions from experience. It all depends on how quickly we receive feedback, and whether we can accurately ascertain cause and effect (Kahneman, 2011). For example, the confirmation bias, and motivated confirmation bias, leads people to believe that their intuitions (experience is accurate). And confirmation bias can lead to disastrous decisions, such as the decision to invade Iraq, and speculation bubbles. Of all the biases, confirmation bias is the most harmful, because it gives us a feeling of being right. The consequence of this is that we tend to be overconfident, poor learners, and also tend to be dogmatic, because if I feel right, it means others with different views are incorrect. While we are not rational, copies research shows that conservatives tend to be more irrational than most. They have an intuitive style of thinking, and of course many have been shown to be dogmatic, more so than liberals (Altemyer, 2006, Jost et al. 2003; Jost and Kurlich, 2014) and so on.

        David G Myers has written a great book on the perils of intuition and he is an expert on critical thinking. He has a very pleasant style of writing as well.

        Keith Stanovich, and West have a more extensive series of studies than the researcher above. And the research cited above is in line with their extensive findings. I firmly believe children should be thought critical thinking skills, and about 30% less content than they are currently thought. They will live longer, be healthier, and be happier. Plus, the world will be a safer place.

  2. Good article stressing the need of critical thinking skills. While evidence does indicate those with higher IQ’s who practice critical thinking skills become better critical thinkers overall, the evidence also shows that all can become better thinkers if these skills are applied.

    1. I.Q. primarily relates to acquired knowledge, with some critical thinking (e.g. solving a mathematical problem). Critical thinking relates to evaluation and assessment of that knowledge.

  3. I agree with the importance of critical thinking and that it seems plausible that IQ correlated weakly with critical thinking when measuring against decision quality. But, it is also important to note that social, behavioral, psychological factors that contribute towards decision making. An impulsive and rash person with high IQ is more likely to make a specific decision (let’s say a bad one) when compared to a less impulsive and more thoughtful person with a comparably lower IQ.

    I think decision making cannot be reduced to a simple factor of either IQ or critical thinking – there are a host of other factors that play a role. However, based on this article, it is clear to me that traditional measures of intelligence (western to be specific) are simply no adequate in predicting whether a person is going to excel at real life decision quality.

  4. Thanks a lot for this wonderful article and i am sure this is going to help in every aspect of everyone’s life if they follow these guidelines.

  5. However, the critical thinking paper is based on the self report of students. It would be far better to look at the investment and employment history of adults.

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