Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid

On the Horizon

ISSN: 1074-8121

Article publication date: 1 September 2002



Abeles, T.P. (2002), "Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid", On the Horizon, Vol. 10 No. 3, pp. 35-36. https://doi.org/10.1108/oth.2002.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2002, MCB UP Limited

Foolishness is the extreme failure of wisdom (Robert Sternberg).

Why do we make decisions when either at the time or at some point in the future we know or come to realize that the choice was inappropriate, sub optimal or just plain stupid? Why do highly intelligent and multi‐degreed individuals commit human atrocities as we saw in Nazi Germany? Why would a president of a multinational corporation “cook the books” or the President of the USA engage in dalliances in the Oval Office? Robert Sternberg has assembled a little over a dozen academics to puzzle through these issues, and to become part of a growing collection of articles and scholarly ruminations on the subject, as the world continues to tremble in the aftershocks of September 11 and the growing concerns about the problems in the international finance markets.

One of the major problems with this volume is that it is not a scholarly monograph delivered to a community of academics but rather a collection aimed at the lay reader who may not be familiar with much of this material or contributors. The slipcover of this volume does indicate that the approach will be from a psychologist’s perspective and most of these articles do look at the issue from the position of the individual. Conspicuous by its absence is any description of the contributors, their backgrounds, and biases that create the perch from which they do view the individual; although the window of observation is clearly western eyes. Ray Hyman’s introductory chapter summarizes many of the key ideas presented by the other contributors.

None of the authors takes the position that acts of stupidity are only such in hindsight. In other words, there is an implicit assumption that, on reflection, had the individuals approached this with a rational perspective, the decisions made could have been different, and perhaps not deemed “stupid”. Sternberg believes that wisdom can be taught and is testing his ideas with grade school students. Stanovich, in his chapter on rationality is not as sanguine. And one wonders what the value of all that “wisdom of the ancients” will be if our emerging cyber natives also come with “wisdom”.

But then if this wisdom did exist, Columbus may never have risked falling off the edge of the earth. In fact, it has been pointed out that much of the character set, defined by Sternberg, is composed of those very elements that encourage stupid decisions: strong ego, sense of invulnerability, feeling of omnipotence and possibly omniscience. It is those very characteristics that lead youth into battle while those with greater wisdom ordered “The charge of the Light Brigade” and other acts of destruction. And it is this attitude that put the earth into orbit around the sun, lead to many of the discoveries in modern medicine and to the founding of ventures from sailing expeditions to insurance companies and the birth of the microcomputer.

Diane Halpern focuses on President Clinton’s peccadillo in the Whitehouse that lead to impeachment proceedings. The ideas of lack of self‐regulation, inappropriate timing and short‐range vision are all cited as the character flaws that lead to the subsequent events that in many ways embarrassed the Congress more in the long run than Clinton. And, in the end, the events may prove to be a minor in the larger scheme. But the world is filled with wrong turns and bad decisions, some of which were ultimate disasters and others that were serendipitous events, much like the invention of 3M’s “Post‐It‐Notes”.

Perhaps the discovery of oil and Henry Ford’s invention of the assembly line gave us the issues of global warming, modern warfare, and the destruction of the family farm, when the fuel of choice for the horsepower shifted from oats to petroleum. Yes, humans have committed irrational atrocities such as those seen in Nazi Germany and Cambodia and we are now faced with problems as the long‐term impact of US waterway management projects are proving to be problematic, the Unicef tube‐well project in Bangladesh is killing the population with arsenic tainted water, and health care projects in Africa cause population explosions that put pressure on scarce water and food resources.

What is interesting about the human species is that it does make mistakes as it probes its future. What is more interesting is that knowledge transmission is Lamarckian in humans and not Darwinian. Knowledge immediately passes to former, present and future generations and is not dependent on the genes of those who survive the mistakes that humans make. The Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska was stupid and a mistake. The interesting point is that the damage caused by humans has few signs left while the land still retains the scars from acts of destruction caused by Mother Nature years prior to the human intervention.

Keith Stanovich’s chapter, a game theory approach, entitled “Rationality, intelligence, and levels of analysis in cognitive science”, raises the discussion into the domain of metaphysics and consciousness by creating a framework bounded on one side by pragmatic or practical rationality and on the other by epistemic rationality and how one balances one’s perception of the world against how one maximizes their satisfaction. The frame positions one’s behavior or decisions within a spectrum of levels. These levels start at the mechanical or biological responses and rise to the rational or intentional level, creating a two dimensional matrix. But, as with the other authors, Stanovich leaves out the time dimension because decision made in the present may sit differently in such a matrix than a hindsight analysis after Khayyam’s hand has written and moved on.

The volume does leave one wondering as to what education, religion, and community play in providing a template by which one might avoid making “stupid” decisions. What went on in the minds of those medical persons in Germany under Hitler or the physicians who carried out the syphilis experiments on prisoners or inoculated persons with radioactive materials, both carried out in the USA?

What makes identical twins different and two scientists with the same training sit on opposite sides of an environmental issue with the same data staring them in the face? What makes a citizen of China stand in front of a tank in Tienamen Square or an Afghan warrior pick sides based on the “flavor‐of‐the‐month”? We seem to know more about what hemline length will sell or what makes someone want to buy a brand of beer than we know why someone will volunteer to give a kidney, or risk their lives on the track at the Indianapolis 500.

This edited volume does raise the questions and, maybe, in the end, that is more important than the answers. For those interested in the psychology, the articles are heavily referenced. As a reader for liberal studies programs, the volume has much to offer provided that a broader and more interdisciplinary set of materials is added to the intellectual mix. Can wisdom be taught? Peter Ward, in his book, Future Evolution suggests that humans as a species are evolved too far to fail, go extinct like so many other species. The point to remember is that humans are not fully evolved and we do not know where this will take us as we approach Kurzweil’s “Age of spiritual machines”. We do know that the irrational, ego driven, quest of the entrepreneur does push us forever forward and that we do have checks that return us to a balance. If Sternberg and his associates do find out how to stop humans from being “so stupid”, they may have found the one lever that could, indeed, destroy us.

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