We all know of people like that.
They are educated, intelligent, sophisticated, verbal and very often
successful. They run companies, run for
office, teach in major universities, and receive coveted awards for competence
in their chosen fields: People that, once in a while, without reasonable explanation,
do stupid things - - sometimes very stupid things.
This collection of eleven loosely
connected chapters provides a good foundation from which to launch an inquiry
into why smart people commit serious goofs, and yet leaves plenty of room for
the reader to continue with her or his own speculations.
The authors, distinguished
academics, are all well respected in their areas of specialization. The list of contributors includes Prof. Robert
Sternberg, the current President of the American Psychological Association
(for 2003) and a frequently published researcher in the area of intelligence,
and Prof. Walter
Mischel, with whose work every psychology student is familiar.
The list of stupid acts covered in
this book ranges from the commonplace to the epiphanic. For example, the labeling of children with
learning disabilities or low intelligence is demonstrated to be an everyday
epidemic, with 12% of U.S. schoolchildren being not just labeled disabled, but
also actually placed in special education programs (p. 161). At the other extreme are (relatively) rare
but highly newsworthy events, e.g., former president Bill Clintons escapades
with Monica Lewinsky and his subsequent embarrassing gymnastics, the analysis
of which warrants its own chapter in this book (pp. 106-123).
A basic first requirement in a work
such as this, which seeks to bridge science and popular thought, is to define
the important terms. The common
meanings of smart and stupid must be reconciled with their more
rigorous scientific meanings, in order for science to contribute usefully to
Ray Hyman points out early in the
book that The key words smart and stupid belong to folk
psychology (p. 1). He explains that
the popular sense of smart is the same as the psychological meaning of
the term intelligence. (This
equivalence, however, for some psychologists, would emphasize the fuzziness of
the term intelligence rather than help bridge the gap between folk and
Although Sternberg provides the
reader with a dictionary definition of stupid, (p. 232), it is helpful
only to remind us of the popular sense of the word. Some of the books authors see stupidity as the opposite of
smartness, while others view it in a different light. According to Hyman, While most of the [other] authors treat
stupid as the opposite of smart (intelligent), Stanovich [treats] stupid as
the opposite of rational (p. 3). Hyman
correctly explains that there is no equivalent psychological term for
stupidity, which can variously be seen as a property of an act, behavior,
state or person (p. 1). Stupid may
also be defined as folly (see below).
This emphasis on the meaning of stupid
and smart may seem excessive, but the importance cannot be overstated;
after all, it is the readers purpose to understand why people who otherwise
routinely function in very adaptive, profitable ways, sometimes behave in
disastrously inappropriate ways.
The essential questions are: Can
someone be both smart and stupid? And if so, how does it happen, and
under what conditions? Is there
anything I can do to minimize my own stupidity, and maximize my smartness?
Once the reader is comfortable with
the practical meanings of these terms, he or she can move on to various more
specific issues. For example, given the
current emphasis on standardized testing in schools, do people who do well
academically also tend to do well in the workplace, in relationships, and in
making real-life choices? Does being
book-smart mean being life-smart?
According to Richard Wagners
chapter on managerial incompetence, Academic and practical intelligence are
not highly correlated (p. 60). Wagner
references earlier, seminal work by Neisser that demonstrated that while
academic problems are characterized by being strictly defined and formulated by
others, containing all information needed to solve, and having only one correct
answer which is to be found using one correct method, real-world problems are
most often characterized by the opposite of all these conditions. In the workplace, or in life in general,
problems are most often ambiguous, poorly defined, and have various right
answers that can be arrived at in several ways. People who are (or become) highly skilled at dealing with the
former type of problems do not necessarily become adept at the latter types of
real-world problems. Book learning
doesnt translate into practical smarts.
Another interesting issue addressed
in this book is the confusion between being gifted and being successful. (pp.
24-40). Although schools often appear
to be educational factories designed to churn out uniform products, some have
set aside a few dollars for programs to help students identified as
gifted. Although districts have
flexibility in how these students are identified, this designation is usually
granted to students who score high on a measure of non-verbal intelligence
(e.g., Ravens Progressive Matrices) and who have proven their academic
aptitude. Research suggests that when children are praised simply for being
gifted (presumably an innate quality), they exert less effort and take fewer
risks than when they are praised for their efforts. How does this fit into a book about smart people doing stupid
things? Because many smart people
become too invested in being smart (p. 24), and therefore behave in stupid
According to Ozlem Ayduk and Walter
Mischel, another reason smart people do dumb things is akrasia, a term
ancient Greeks used to refer to a deficiency of the will (pp. 87), which
results in a failure to exert appropriate self-control. The idea is that a biologically hardwired
automatic response system (p. 97) is responsible for sending out problematic
impulses, and that some people are just better at controlling these impulses
than others. Apparently being smart is
not highly correlated with having self-control, because smart people succumb to
these impulses at about the same rate as less-smart people. Fortunately, the authors suggest that we
can, if properly taught, learn these self-control skills.
One author prefers the term folly
to stupidity, and further delineates between blind folly and plain
folly. In the former, one simply
does not see the likely consequences of a stupid act; in the latter, one sees
the risks but proceeds nonetheless. In
the latter camp would be smoking or engaging in other almost-certainly harmful
behaviors. (I would add a third
dimension, sheer folly, which would refer to intentional, persistent
folly that doesnt even bring the momentary pleasures often associated with
Implicit in many of these chapters
is the power of the personal unconscious and the power of groupthink to
overrule the individuals own rationality and impulse-control.
This is a book well worth reading,
but it was not intended to be conclusive.
This is a book designed to broaden the readers knowledge base and
stimulate her or his own thoughts on the subject, rather than to present a
tight, packaged account of stupidity.
The chapters are not highly integrated, nor do they necessarily present
views consistent or contradictory with other chapters. As the introduction explains, the authors
were presented with a list of six issues to address, and this list forms
whatever degree of coherence is actually achieved among the chapters.
One idea with which I believe all
the authors would agree is that intelligence, however defined, is only one
aspect of human nature. The degree to
which it is genetically influenced is unclear, but in any case most of us do
not reach the upper bounds of our potentials.
Therefore there is always room to increase our smartness and decrease
© 2003 Keith Harris
Harris, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and supervises the research
section of the Department of Behavioral Health, San Bernardino County,
California. His interests include the empirical basis for psychotherapy
research (and its design), human decision-making processes, and the shaping of
human nature by evolutionary forces.