Jurists: How to Outsmart Those Who are Outsmarting You

Currently studying at Bucerius Law School, a highly selective law school in Germany, I am surrounded by many intelligent young women and men who are able to outsmart me in many different disciplines. However, I have to admit that there is one field where my esteemed fellow students are ignorant. When I tell them about cognitive biases, they usually answer something along the lines of: “No, this does not apply to me. I can think rationally!” Instead of losing my mind over such a statement, I try to tell them about the clear evidence and the studies indicating the biases of human minds. Yet, many do not  seem to believe me. For instance, I would ask them:

An individual has been described by a neighbor as follows: “Steve is very shy and withdrawn, invariably helpful but with little interest in people or in the world of reality. A meek and tidy soul, he has a need for order and structure […], and a passion for detail.” Is Steve more likely to be a librarian or a farmer? (Kahnemann, Daniel, 2011, “Thinking, fast and slow” Introduction Chapter)

Even if they are bit curious at this point, many of my fellow students would answer “Librarian!” without considering the other option – just as I did before I heard about Bayesian Rationality and the Representativeness Bias. And as you probably would have answered, had I asked you some time ago. I then normally point out the mistakes their System 1 just led them to do. But they are still ignoring the fact that their mind was fooled by a bias just seconds ago. They often call it a trick. Or manipulation. As many of us will agree, it is easier to find the mistake in someone else than in yourself.

Explaining the Data

What I can experience every day on campus, you could as well. Especially when you are talking to a highly intelligent person, there is a good chance that they will deny the mistakes their mind is capable of doing. There is astounding data indicating that more intelligent people are fooled by their own biases and prejudices more often.

Keith Stanovich discovered by testing rationality and unbiased decision-making that higher intelligence does not automatically lead to better decisions. Participants with a higher IQ are actually not more likely to overcome their own biases, such as the Confirmation and My-Side Biases. Furthermore, people with high cognitive abilities are more likely to have a “bias blind spot”. It is harder for them to see their own errors. However, they are quite good at seeing such mistakes in other people.

Surprisingly, intelligent people tend to believe in paranormal activites in higher numbers. Stanovich discovered also that the smart participants were more likely to fall for the “gamblers fallacy” (believing that it was more likely for a coin to fall tails when it has been falling heads 10 times in a row). As a BBC Article points out, this phenomenon can hit roulette players as well as investment bankers who sell their shares believing that their luck might run out soon – and therefore ironically missing the peak value of their portfolio.

So, if you are, like most of our readers, a legal professional, there is some bad news for you. While you will probably consider yourself a person of above-average intelligence (Hauser, Robert M. 2002. “Meritocracy, cognitive ability, and the sources of occupational success.” Figure 12, see here and here), you are more likely to be ignorant towards your own biases.

Taking a Deep Breath

But do not despair, there is good news too. The reporter of the same source quoted Igor Grossmann’s concept of wisdom, namely: “But if you look at the lay definition of wisdom, many people would agree it’s the idea of someone who can make good unbiased judgement.” Although smart people may be fast with generating arguments, those arguments might be biased. Grossmann strongly believes that “wisdom can be trained”. He suggests the outside view as an effective way to overcome biases (as we indicated here). Recognizing your biases seems to be easier when you talk about your problems in the third person.

Reading these lines, you might have realized that you are already a few steps ahead in this process. As a reader of the Rational Think Tank’s posts, you are challenging your way of thinking in order to overcome  your biases.

Next Steps

While many of your co-workers may think that they are unbiased, you can start to improve your decisions. Hopefully, by reading more about rational decision-making, you can  eventually outsmart those who have been outsmarting you. For instance, as suggested by Grossman, you can talk or think about your problems in third person. We hope that you continue reading on how to overcome biases. Join our quest for rational thinking and become a follower on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn!


Philip J. Hattemer is in his second year at Bucerius Law School. Before University, he has been trained to be a Hypnotist and partly trained in Neurolinguistic Programming. In this time his penchant for psychology led him into Rational Thinking.