I’ve often heard the old saying that everyone has enough intelligence to be able to follow the 12-step program of recovery, but some have too much. It’s a great joke and a old saw that reminds us to keep things simple, but is it true?
Johah Lehrer, blogging on Frontal Cortex at the New Yorker website (http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/frontal-cortex/2012/06/daniel-kahneman-bias-studies.html) had a recent post titled “Why Smart People Are Stupid.” Lehrer writes about the work of Dr Daniel Kahnerman and others on our mental biases. These biases are based on mental shortcuts that seem to be our natural way of thinking. Psychologists look for these shortcuts by asking simple logic problems and noting the answers. Here’s an example. “Billy buys a bat and a ball for $1.10. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” The short cut answer, and the wrong one, is 10 cents. The ball costs 5 cents and the bat costs one dollar more, $1.05.
Lehrer wrote the blog to report on a new study by Richard West and Keith Stanovich in the Journal of personality and Social Psychology. West and Stanovich looked at a number of these classic bias questions but also looked at measures of intelligence in the same sample. Here’s two paragraphs from Lehrer summing up the findings.
“Perhaps our most dangerous bias is that we naturally assume that everyone else is more susceptible to thinking errors, a tendency known as the “bias blind spot.” This “meta-bias” is rooted in our ability to spot systematic mistakes in the decisions of others—we excel at noticing the flaws of friends—and inability to spot those same mistakes in ourselves. Although the bias blind spot itself isn’t a new concept, West’s latest paper demonstrates that it applies to every single bias under consideration, from anchoring to so-called “framing effects.” In each instance, we readily forgive our own minds but look harshly upon the minds of other people.
And here’s the upsetting punch line: intelligence seems to make things worse. The scientists gave the students four measures of “cognitive sophistication.” As they report in the paper, all four of the measures showed positive correlations, “indicating that more cognitively sophisticated participants showed larger bias blind spots.” This trend held for many of the specific biases, indicating that smarter people (at least as measured by S.A.T. scores) and those more likely to engage in deliberation were slightly more vulnerable to common mental mistakes. Education also isn’t a savior; as Kahneman and Shane Frederick first noted many years ago, more than fifty per cent of students at Harvard, Princeton, and M.I.T. gave the incorrect answer to the bat-and-ball question.”
So what does this have to do with addiction and recovery? Imagine if you’re faced with a problem that you can’t think your way out of, like addiction. If you trust your thinking more than you should, you’ll try harder and longer to think your own way out before you ask for help. And help can come in a number of ways. It could be asking another person. It could be in using simple tools given to us by others in recovery. I remember telling a very intelligent patient once that he should do a written 4th step inventory and read it to his sponsor. He told me he didn’t need to write these things down because he had them all straight in his mind. Unfortunately, he trusted his own brain.
What the work of these psychologists shows is that it’s a normal human trait to over-trust your own brain and that people with higher SAT scores over-trust their brains more than most. It’s not just people with addiction that can’t trust their own thinking, it’s all of us. However when you have an illness like addiction, which requires surrender rather than thinking to treat, this normal human trait can be a handicap to wellness. And perhaps smarter people have a greater handicap. So maybe it’s true that everyone has enough brains to be able to work a 12-step program, but some have too much.
© Howard C Wetsman MD FASAM 2012