Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Smartness – is more always better?

Recently, we asked what scienceblog topics our readers were interested in. We would like to thank all respondents. Apparently the most interesting topic is Learning and Memory, followed by Creativity, and then Positive Psychology, Brain Fitness, Motivation, and Perception. So our readers seem to be really interested in research on how we can improve our cognitive functioning. But is more always better?
Against the backdrop of pharmaceuticals that improve our mood, attention, and alertness, Thomas Hills and Ralph Hertwig from the University of Basel, Switzerland, asked themselves the question why evolution has not made us smarter already. In their article in the December issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science (you can find an outline of it on the APS homepage), they argue against the notion that more is always better.

The pivotal concept in their article is trade-off: Every enhancement comes at a cost, and costs and benefits of an enhancement must be balanced. They describe two different kinds of trade-offs, trade-offs within domains and trade-offs between domains.

With respect to within-domain-trade-offs, they sum up different studies on drugs enhancing attention that all come to the same conclusion: there is a balance between too much and too little focus. Whereas drugs improve initially poor attention, they are detrimental to good performers’ attention. Hills and Hertwig explain this with the fact that whenever we pursue a goal, we need to regulate our efforts between goal maintenance and abandonment. Until what point does it make sense to further pursue a goal? Apparently optimal control is not more control, but the right amount of control. And this is not a linear more-is-better relationship, but rather one that has the shape of an inverted U.

This relationship also applies to the trade-offs between domains, the second kind of trade-off described by the authors. For example, gains in IQ often come with certain neural diseases, and the reason for these diseases is the same that accounts for the gain in IQ. Another example is a perfect visual memory that makes remembering people’s faces almost impossible because makes it impossible to generalise, to abstract, and to detect trends.

These findings might also explain why we perform so poorly on many rational tasks, as Keith E. Stanovich outlines it in his book “What intelligence tests miss” (we reported on this in an earlier post). The costs of relying on cognitive heuristics can be that we lose a lot of money, but the benefits may be that we can make our decisions more quickly. So apparently it is all about finding the right balance!

Here are the results of our poll:

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