Academics and 'The Intelligence Trap’

Some of the mistakes about online education that I might be making.

December 12, 2019

The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes by David Robson

Published in August of 2019.

Reading The Intelligence Trap shook my world. Or, as my college-going kids might say, "I'm shook."

Here is the problem. There is a non-trivial probability that the things that I believe most strongly about higher education are, in reality, wrong.

The Intelligence Trap is all about how smart people make dumb mistakes. There is at least some evidence that academics are smart people.

Unfortunately, smart academics may be highly vulnerable to succumbing to biases and blind spots. Our entire IHE community might be made up of highly intelligent, but irredeemably wrongheaded, higher ed insiders.

Why might academics be susceptible to the intelligence trap? Robson explores how the relationship between wisdom and intelligence is, at best, tenuous.

Someone with a high IQ might be more likely to develop a worldview that is as skewed by misinformation, or self-interest, than individuals who test at the IQ mean.

Those with high measured intelligence, however, may disproportionately excel at coming up with arguments and evidence to support their blinkered views.

One of the biases that Robson discusses, and which academics may be especially susceptible, includes that of earned dogmatism. Anyone with a PhD is at particular risk for this bias, in which we believe that our credentials give us the right to claim expertise across a range of subjects.

The challenge of escaping the intelligence trap is that academia rewards many of the biases that Robson identities.

In the marketplace of ideas, impact is correlated with certitude. And yet, certainty is the enemy of wisdom.

As someone who has built his career in online education, I am highly incentivized to argue for the benefits of low-residency and online learning. (Motivated reasoning).

I am certain that online programs can be a catalyst to build institutional capacity in learning science and instructional design.

I'm also fully convinced that all but a very few face-to-face master's programs will disappear, and that the future of professional education is mostly low-residency and online.

Further, I have no doubt that we are on the cusp of a bifurcation of graduate professional education. Soon, the vast majority of all master's degrees will be conferred through scaled online platforms that enable lower price points (~$25K).  Only highly selective schools with global brands will be able to charge premium tuition (>$100K). And that the undifferentiated middle of the master's degree market ($26K-$99K) will implode.

Added to my highly confident assertions about online learning, I also think that the funnel into graduate education at an inflection point.  I'm sure that we will be moving university recruiting dollars away from Google, LinkedIn, and Facebook Ads - and towards investing in non-degree scaled online programs that channel participants into applicants for graduate degree programs.

Reading The Intelligence Trap has persuaded me that it would be wiser to be less sure of my beliefs.

Robson quotes Ben Franklin's famous words from the Constitutional Convention of 1787:

I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them. For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others.

What Robson advocates for is that we embrace the new discipline of evidence-based wisdom and that we approach the work of formulating our beliefs with openness and humility.

Do you think our IHE community can be less certain of the rightness of our beliefs?

Might we model, in our opinion pieces and comments on IHE, the benefits of doubt and hesitation?

What other books about the cognitive traps that academics are susceptible to do you recommend?

What are you reading?


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