I don’t have cancer. I know most of you don’t give a damn about this, but it highlighted for me an under-appreciated fact - of just how limited a role intelligence plays in our life.

A week ago, I had a slightly alarming symptom I hadn’t experienced before. I thought it might be a side-effect of some eye-drops I’d been prescribed the day before, so I rang the doctor, expecting to either get the prescription changed or be told not to be such a big jessie. Instead, I was sent to hospital to test for a form of cancer, where I got the all-clear yesterday.

When the doctor told me there was a very tiny chance it could be cancer I didn’t hear the words “tiny”, or “chance” or “could”. All I heard was CANCER. Nor was I comforted  by statistics on high survival rates. Instead, I went the full Jacques Brel.

A bit of me knew this was irrational. Bayes’ theorem told me there was indeed only a tiny chance of cancer. My prior probability of having cancer was slim (no other symptoms, no family history) and I had little reason to substantially update this: my one symptom was, I knew, compatible with many benign possibilities.

But what use was such reasoning?

Fuck all.

Intellect told me to heed the words of the Great Man:

Fear is in your head, only in your head
So forget your head and you'll be free

But I couldn’t. My rational mind was impotent against my primal fears. It could not tame the beast in me. My little words were lost. There’s a huge gap between having intelligence and using it sensibly. Between thought and expression lies a lifetime.

There are of course countless examples of this sort of thing. Heightened emotions -  anger, joy or fear – can cause us to take more risk than we otherwise would. Sadness can cause us to make short-sighted financial decisions. And whilst my judgment was distorted by fear, others’ can be warped – especially in financial matters - by wishful thinking. In still other contexts such as investments or corporate takeovers intellect can be over-ridden by hubris (pdf) and overconfidence. In yet other cases, poverty reduces IQ by depleting cognitive bandwidth: you have to take so many decisions to get through the day that there’s little bandwidth left for thinking.

IQ alone, therefore, is feeble. It can be weakened or side-lined by passions, misjudgement or ill fortune.

To be useful It must be allied to something else. In the workplace, these somethings are soft skills. In the cases I’m considering, though, they are something else - self-control. You all know this from university: the best degrees go not necessarily to the most intelligent, but to those with the discipline to revise. When James Buchanan was asked the secret of success, he answered: "keep the ass in the chair". 

The ancient Greeks called this phronesis – an ability to apply intelligence properly in the appropriate situation. Not only does this require emotional control, but it also requires an ability to adapt to different situations. Sitting here at my desk in a state of calm, I’m intelligent enough. Put me into unfamiliar surroundings where I’m emotionally aroused and I’m an idiot.  Jimmy

At risk of sounding solipsistic or of committing the false consensus error, I suspect I’m typical. Very few of us have phronesis. People of great ability in particular contexts often behave stupidly in others. Think of Vicky Pryce going to prison because anger overwhelmed her intellect, or Bobby Fischer, William Shockley or James Watson being ostracised because they couldn’t shut up, or the countless businessmen led by overconfidence into terrible decisions. (One of the most tragic examples here was that of Jimmy Donley, one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time who committed suicide in poverty and obscurity).

What’s true of individuals might also be true of whole societies. A nation might be well-stocked with people of ability, but this will avail it little if those abilities are diverted into finance, rent-seeking or soulless drudgery. Nations, as well as individuals, need phronesis.

This, though, isn’t my main reason for writing all this. We hear all the time about people “battling” cancer. What we don’t hear so much are the thousands of everyday stories of tests being negative.  Through the availability heuristic, this increases our fears of having cancer. I hope this story helps redress this imbalance.

Also, being confronted, even irrationally, with one’s mortality forces one to realize what’s important. Hence the links.