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Science shows: simple is smart

There has been a strong, and extremely unfair, assumption in much modern intellectual thought that people are irrational, silly and even downright dumb. The view is summed up acidly by H.L. Mencken, the twentieth-century American journalist, who stated, “No one in this world, so far as I know—and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me—has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.”

What began with the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud was then taken up by succeeding generations of intellectuals. Today, you may recognize it in the theories of modern-day advertising gurus, political spin doctors and even some economists.

Recently, however, many thinkers have concluded that human beings are really rather clever. They often resort to simple solutions for important problems, but simple is not the same as stupid. Simplicity can, in fact, be the best option of all.

Human beings are really rather clever.

Gerd Gigerenzer, a German psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, points out that simple ways of making decisions, based on rules of thumb and general impressions, sometimes work better than complex calculations of all the available data. This more basic method is known as heuristics.

In a recent talk, Gigerenzer cited the 2009 case of the airliner whose two engines were knocked out by geese shortly after it had left La Guardia Airport in New York.

The co-pilot looked at the official checklist to see what they were supposed to do, but as it stretched to three pages he didn’t have time to read it when the aircraft was only 3,000 feet from the ground. Instead, the pilots relied on their own common sense and knowledge. The first step was to decide if they should return to the airport. The rule of thumb for pilots is that, if a tower near the airport appears to be rising,  you won’t have time to get to it because the plane is falling. They chose instead to land in the nearby Hudson River. Everyone in the plane survived. 

Gigrenzer also cited a tragicomic case when a colleague chose complex calculations over a general impression and lived to regret it. The colleague wanted to get married, but could not decide who among the women he knew would make the best life partner. His scientific solution was to work out the probabilities for each one, that they would let him do what he wanted, including allowing him to work undisturbed, and the probabilities that each would stay with him as his mate for life. After a series of complex calculations of the likelihood of various desired outcomes, he settled on one particular woman, wooed her and married her. Only one thing went wrong: she divorced him.

Elaborate calculations often work better than simple solutions when it’s possible to get and use all relevant information in existence. But there are many times when this doesn’t apply, such as when we’re crash-landing a plane, falling in love or making various more prosaic decisions.

In these cases, we must rely on the high innate levels of intelligence that evolution has given us. “What a piece of work is a man!” says Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play. “How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty!”

We agree.

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