Rationality vs. Intelligence

The work of Keith Stanovich over the past years has focused on an aspect of cognition that is extremely important: whether individuals can think rationally/systematically/shrewdly about a complex topic, weigh relevant factors, and avoid “group think,” biases, and egocentrism to come to plausible solutions and then test the likelihood of those solutions. As he points out, this form of thinking was investigated initially by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and his associate, the late Amos Tversky. For examples of Stanovich’s recent writings, see his piece in Project Syndicate, his article in British Journal The Psychologist, and his article in Scientific American Mind.

Stanovich has assembled considerable evidence that the capacity to think rationally is significantly different from the logical and mathematical capacities that are probed in IQ tests. (Typically, these take the form of short answer and right/wrong kinds of clever puzzles.) And since presumably we value rationality, it is important to understand that capacity better and to have ways of assessing it and also promoting it.

Stanovich does not invoke multiple intelligences theory; there is no reason to think that he believes that MI ideas are relevant to the assessment of nurturance of rationality. But in the article from The Psychologist, I was struck by the following passage: “Unlike the case of fluid intelligence, fluid rationality is likely to be multifarious—composed of a variety of different cognitive styles and dispositions. As a multifarious concept, fluid rationality cannot be assessed with a single type of item.”

My own hypothesis is that intelligences might contribute to rationality in two distinct ways. First of all, individuals with high amounts of intrapersonal intelligence (understanding themselves, including their predilections and prejudices) and interpersonal intelligence (understanding others, taking into account their perspective, not assuming that one’s gut feeling is necessarily on target) might be more aware of traps and therefore less likely to succumb to them. Second, individuals may display more rationality with respect to areas where they have a great deal of expertise. And so, for example, architects might be less likely to act irrationally when it comes to environmental matters (spatial intelligence), while athletes are more likely to behave rationally in sports (bodily-kinesthetic intelligence).

-Howard Gardner