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Critical thinking skills are more useful than IQ while making real life decisions

Datum:24 december 2018
Auteur:Burcu Subasi
Critical thinking skills are more useful than IQ while making real life decisions
Critical thinking skills are more useful than IQ while making real life decisions

Once I happened to meet a lady who graduated from the engineering department of one of the top universities in Turkey. In order to get accepted to this department in this university, you need to be very intelligent and be among the top performers of the university entrance exam which is held in the whole country. In the end of our conversation she invited me to a religious cult. Both she and her husband who is also graduated from the same engineering department were the followers of the cult. I told her that I have been invited to this cult two times before and I was not interested. She said this holy knowledge comes to a person only three times in life. This was my last chance. Later I learned from the main news bulletin of a national TV channel that the leader of the cult was sued by many of her followers for committing fraud.

So, I was wondering how come even highly intelligent people make bad decisions that can affect their lives drastically. Science has an answer to my question: while intelligence is important, it is critical thinking skills that have shown to be way more important to be able to make good decisions.

Butler and her colleagues [1] have studied the relative contributions of intelligence and critical thinking in real life decision making.  They described intelligence as the ability to do visual processing, quantitative reasoning, to have short-term and long term memory. Critical thinking is described as thinking rationally, holding beliefs that are commensurate with available evidence, and taking the appropriate action given one’s goals and beliefs. They conducted a study to test whether intelligence or critical thinking skills predict real life decisions better. With intelligence measured with a standard IQ test, in the critical thinking test scenario (an example - the original questions are kept secret for test reuse) the participants, for instance, were told that a newspaper wrote that kids who attended kindergarten are better at reading at school. Participants were then asked whether kindergarten should be compulsory for kids. Participants had to explain their reasoning. The researchers then provided some extra information about the topic (e.g. There is an income disparity between parents who send their kids to a kindergarten and those who do not send). Participants were then asked to rate how each information piece would help to make an informed decision on the main issue. Afterwards, researchers gave participants an inventory of real life outcomes in order to assess the negative life events they experienced or not. For example, whether they went to work consistently late, whether they quit a job after a week, whether they arrived on the wrong day for an exam, etc. 

The researchers found that both intelligence and critical thinking predicted the occurrence of negative life events, but critical thinking ability was a stronger predictor than intelligence. This means that you can have high IQ but still make decisions that may lead to negative life outcomes.

The good news is that critical thinking skills can be learned and enhanced. Critical thinking is crucial not only for personal life but also for thinking about and deciding on a wide range of world issues.

How can you foster your critical thinking skills?

There are multiple ways of fostering critical thinking skills, and these can be found in the internet. For the sake of briefness of this blog, I will mention four of them here.

  • Be aware of your own biases. Accept the fact that you might be wrong. And accept the fact that your motivations and emotions can affect your judgments. Consider that you might be believing in something just because you want it to be true despite the evidence.

  • Think about alternative explanations or solutions, before holding on to the explanation and solution in your mind.

  • Consider both the advantages and disadvantages of two incompatible viewpoints.

  • Distinguish opinions from facts by questioning the sources of information you receive.


Butler, H. A., Pentoney, C., & Bong, M. P. (2017). Predicting real-world outcomes: Critical thinking ability is a better predictor of life decisions than intelligence. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 25, 38-46.

Dr. Burcu Subasi (b.subasi is a psychologist and a post-doctoral researcher working at the Faculty of Economics and Business on a project about how to increase decision making performance of individuals in order to enhance resilience against disruptions.