Back in January I asked a somewhat similar question: "If we're so smart, how come...?". There I introduced some of the notions about judgment and some of the psychological work that has been done on the subject. Robert Sternberg even edited a book on this very question (see the above link for a reference). Throughout the past few months I have raised the issue of poor judgment running rampant in education, leadership, and the general populace's inability leading to problems in the democratic political process. I want to re-raise this question and delve more deeply into what my own questioning has led me to suspect about judgment and wisdom.
Later in January I gave an introduction to the concept of sapience (What is sapience? in which I argued that judgment, one of the key functions of sapience, is the brain function that guides intelligent and creative decision processing from tacit knowledge — from learned experiences. Good judgments depend on two things: 1) the processing machinery inherent in the brain (the prefrontal cortex), and 2) the experience-based knowledge one has accumulated over one's lifetime. The better both of these factors, the better the judgment brought to bear on complex life and social decisions.
In "Should we be talking about an upgrade to Human 2.0?" I suggested that sapience, the brain's processing machinery for judgment, is still a fairly new, emergent, and therefore not strongly developed, capacity in Homo sapiens. Intelligence and creativity, on the other hand, are very highly developed in our species. The facility of language — the ability to manipulate symbolic representations — once it emerged in human evolution, accelerated the evolution of the human mind in terms of intelligence and creativity. And it was the basis for the emergence and start of expansion of sapience. But, if my conjecture is on the money, sapience became a retarded development, evolutionarily, because we simply got too clever, too fast, for our own good. I suspect that the invention of agriculture marked the beginning of decline in selective pressures in favor of greater sapience. Today the facility remains almost vestigial. Every human exercises some judgment capacity, of course. But nothing like what is needed to cope with the world we have created through our clever designs.
As for why smart people do dumb things: It should be clear that if intelligence and judgment are different cognitive processes, then it is entirely possible for people we judge to normally be very intelligent to do something we think is stupid from time to time. This is especially the case if my conjecture regarding the stunted quality of sapience is correct. Sternberg used examples of Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon as two people most others judged as very smart men, even if the judges didn't agree with their politics. Both men got caught in compromising acts that nearly undid one of them and did undo the other. The acts were foolish. Both men exercised exceedingly poor judgment, letting their affective selves influence their decisions. One from lust, the other paranoia.
But what is this thing called judgment? How does it work? How should it affect our lives if it were sufficiently developed?
In the "What is sapience?" posting I provided a diagram of the four main domains of mental life, sapience, intelligence, creativity, and affect. I showed them overlapping to emphasize that they all interact with each other, sometimes cooperatively, sometimes in competition. These are the main 'functions' of the brain. But they should not be confused with specific brain areas per se. The whole brain is engaged in supporting these four domains. This diagrammatic view is from the perspective of psychology, not neurology. That being said, it is true that various regions of the brain do have greater dedication of processing machinery to one or another of these domains. The limbic system, for example, is largely devoted to affect but also early sensory perception and routing motor outputs.
Below is another, more elaborate version of that diagram but with the ovals separated in order to expose some of the interconnections between domains. In this diagram arrows represent flows of information from one domain to another. Double headed arrows represent recurrent flows. Not all flows have been drawn in order to not clutter up the diagram. I want to focus on the overall inter-domain communications and how judgment plays in this view. [click on thumbnail to see image in another window]
Briefly, intelligence (as represented here) refers mostly to what the psychologists refer to as general intelligence. It includes things like learning efficiency, recall ability, working memory capacity, etc. This model does not (at this level) break down intelligence into more refined domains, e.g. multiple intelligences ala Howard Gardner. Intelligence is the engine that makes decisions. It accumulates perceptual information (what is going on in the world) and learned knowledge from past situations and results of past decisions and constructs a set of decision options for actions that will lead to new states of the world. Ideally the new world will be better for the decision maker.
From Antonio Damasio's work we know that a great deal of decision making is modulated by emotional inputs from the affective domain. It has to be so. The lower brain contains all of the accumulated wisdom of survival gained in the evolution of animals. The primitive parts of the brain, the parts of the limbic system inherited from reptiles, has proven their worth in influencing actions. In early mammals, the addition of more elaborate cerebral cortices and learned behavior did not change the fact that fast reactions to danger were beneficial to the species. Damasio went on to show that even more subtle affective influences, such as feelings and moods can have a substantial impact on the way decisions are made. The sheer complexity of life for higher mammals and humans makes it virtually impossible to consider all possible options when making even common decisions. Rather, the affective domain will tend to tag various options with a valence (positive or negative disposition toward) based on past emotional outcomes with similar situations. In other words, the affective system works to prune the decision tree, guiding the decision engine toward some options and away from others. Damasio argued this is what even makes it possible for humans to approximate rational decision making. Without emotional guidance we would be locked in analysis paralysis (as one of his patients demonstrated). Hence the arrow flowing from affect to intelligence represents this influence.
Most of the time we are not even aware that our decisions, the ones we make consciously, are so influenced by our emotions or feelings. So well integrated is the processing of our neural networks that it just happens without awareness. Occasionally, of course, we are aware. And that is the tip off that judgment is something different.
But before getting into the role of sapience and judgment, a few other quick comments about the diagram. The double headed arrow running between intelligence and creativity is labeled 'cleverness'. That is, the cooperative processing of concepts by intelligence (decision making) and creativity (trying new combinations or looking for analogies, metaphors and the like) I have called cleverness to emphasize that these two domains, in their extent in our species, truly differentiate us from other animals. I have, elsewhere, suggested that a better scientific name for our species would be Homo calidus, man the clever. Affect also influences creativity. Anyone who has had a passion to create something, a painting or an invention, knows this very well.
The box in the upper right represents the long-term memory. This is the accumulation of a lifetime of experience, the learned knowledge a person has. Knowledge comes in different forms. Some, like episodic or fact memory represents discrete events or ideas, such as names of things and people. This is the memory that you have to explicitly access when thinking. But much of our knowledge is not explicit. It is tacit in that there is no single event represented. Rather this is where we build general models of the world, other people, and ourselves. Some of this tacit knowledge is available in the form of intuitions and heuristics (rules of thumb). But a lot of it requires a special kind of accessing. Models can be run in a fast forward mode using various inputs to the 'variables' (concepts) in order to generate a possible future — a scenario of what might be in the future. Akin to daydreaming or rehearsal of future situations (what I will say to the boss to get a raise), this form of modeling is used to anticipate the results of various decisions. But, and this is the crucial thing to understand, just like we aren't aware of where our intuitions come from, we are not aware of this modeling process. It is subconscious.
And this is what sapience is doing! Using the tacit knowledge to run models of the possible future given decision options produced in the intelligence domain, sapience evaluates those scenarios and issues influence — judgment — over the decision process. Sapience, in other words, plays a very similar role to the influence on rational thinking that affect does but using learned, and therefore much more relevant, knowledge from one's experience. This is what you experience when you lose your temper but catch yourself as your higher executive functions evaluate the situation and override your anger (the simple version). Your sapience monitors and regulates aspects of the affective domain.
What counts is just how sapient one is in terms of how capable one is in developing models and then using them to generate scenarios. Finally, one needs to have competence in comparing these scenarios with desired outcomes. So in a sense, the 'size' of the sapience domain has a great deal to do with effective judgment.
But it is just a tad bit more complex than that. It turns out that judgment is recurrent. What this means is that sapience is needed to judge what will be learned in the first place! Sapience doesn't just guide intelligence in making real-time decisions. It also guides attention with respect to what will be the focus of learning. It takes some basic native sapience in order to make good decisions about what to learn in life. One who is sapience-challenged is more than likely going to ignore important social phenomena while developing and maturing. As an adult, this individual will be incapable of making wise choices in these social situations because they failed to learn the tacit knowledge needed to do so. Thus I argue that there is a fundamental, and genetically influenced, basis in the brain architecture that leads to different levels of sapience (just like intelligence) and ultimately its external expression in the form of wise choices.
Smart people, clever people, are those who we see solving problems, creating artifacts, and inventing things. But the problem domains or kinds of artifacts are highly circumscribed and local in nature. Even someone clever enough to run a multi-billion dollar international corporation is faced with a limited number of decisions in a way. It is, in fact when they are forced to enter a problem domain that they have no prior experience with that they start making very bad judgments. Sapience competency translates into a capacity to deal with scales of time and space as well as new domains of problems. Given the kinds of problems we have created from our very effective cleverness are global in scale, long-term in time, and involve problems never ever experienced by mankind the need for superior sapience and judgment is upon us. Yet, by definition, the average person will not be able to bring adequate judgment to the fore to even understand what they need to attend to, let alone know what decisions should be made. What we need now are very clever people with superior sapience and an adequate storehouse of tacit knowledge to tackle the threats to our planet.
Next up: What kind of tacit knowledge would best produce the kinds of models needed to deal with global issues?