Which Is More Important In Life, Intelligence or Critical Thinking?


In this article in Scientific American, Heather Butler (California State University/ Dominguez Hills) says the advantages of having a high I.Q. are undeniable: “Intelligent people are more likely to get better grades and go farther in school. They are more likely to be successful at work. And they are less likely to get into trouble (e.g., commit crimes) as adolescents.”

But Butler’s family delights in pointing out times when she, a university professor, “makes really dumb mistakes.” The assumption is that a person with a high I.Q. is smart in the everyday sense of the word. But what do I.Q. tests contain? Vocabulary questions, math problems, pattern recognition, visuospatial puzzles, and visual searches. It’s not surprising that measured intelligence doesn’t predict some very important life outcomes, including well-being, life satisfaction, and longevity. And people who score high on I.Q. tests still do stupid things.

So what is the secret of a long, happy, satisfied life? Critical thinking, says Butler – a collection of cognitive skills (including verbal reasoning, argument analysis, hypothesis testing, judging probability and uncertainty, decision-making, and problem-solving) that gets us thinking in a rational and goal-oriented fashion in everyday life. “Critical thinkers are amiable skeptics,” she says. “They are flexible thinkers who require evidence to support their beliefs and recognize fallacious attempts to persuade them. Critical thinking means overcoming all sorts of cognitive biases (e.g., hindsight bias, confirmation bias).”

Butler and her colleagues recently completed a series of studies correlating negative life events experienced by adults in the U.S. and abroad with people’s intelligence and critical thinking skills. Some examples of problems in different arenas:

Academic – I forgot about an exam;

Financial – I have over $5,000 of credit card debt;

Legal – I was arrested for driving under the influence;

Health – I contracted a sexually transmitted infection;

Interpersonal – I cheated on a romantic partner I’d been with for a year.

“Repeatedly, we found that critical thinkers experience fewer negative life events,” reports

Butler. “This is an important finding because there is plenty of evidence that critical thinking can be taught and improved… Anyone can improve their critical thinking skills. Doing so, we can say with certainty, is a smart thing to do.”


“Why Do Smart People Do Foolish Things?” by Heather Butler in Scientific American, October 3, 2017, http://bit.ly/2xX58xw; Butler can be reached at hbutler@csudh.edu.


Marshall Memo 716 December 18, 2017