On Stupidity

Being stupid is one of the main characteristics that distinguish humans from animals. Animals have an instinct for their own best interests. Humans, by contrast, occasionally act in a way that is contrary to rational behaviour – and contrary to their own best interests.

I recently came across an article that explains ‘stupidity’.  It was based on a lecture provided by Austrian novelist Robert Musli in Vienna in 1937.

Stupidity has very little to do with dumbness, it is often intelligent people that are stupid. You can’t make yourself dumb, but you can make yourself stupid. Stupidity, however, does lead to dumb decisions. Stupidity seems to be more prevalent in political culture than for example in business culture.  Furthermore, people are rarely stupid across the board. They can be smart is some areas and stupid in others.

So why are some of the smartest people so very stupid.

There are three key points here:

  • Stupidity arises from intelligent people using entrenched outdated frameworks and force them into service.
  • It can also result from manipulations from people to obtain power over others (political, religious and otherwise). Requesting unconditional loyalty and conformance .
  • Stupidity can also be based on misguided innovation that might work in a different place – e.g., another country, or in a different cultural setting.

To overcome stupidity, people will need to be able to look at the problems they want to address from a different position, they need to operate from a different framework, they need to change their way of thinking. Once stupidity is entrenched in a political culture or ideology it is very hard for the people involved to change. Stubbornness and the political fear of backflips are often keeping stupidity on course.

Even more damaging is that it is often intelligent people that are being stupid. They can easily influence larger group in society, as we are witnessing with political populism. Once this takes hold it becomes hard to eradicate stupidity.  It is not often that individual people are stupid, stupidity among individuals appears when it reaches herd mentality or when they adhere to unconditional loyalty. It is clear that stupidity is a powerful political weapon in these situations..

Sadly, our societies are facing a significant amount of stupidity. We see high levels of it on display with populist political leaders of which Donald Trump is often used as a classic example.

We also see this with climate deniers, antivaxxers and conspiracists and some other ‘movements’. Here we also see that high level of unconditional loyalty to the group.

On the other side we see stupidity on display if we try to impose values and ideas that might work in one country onto another country. We unfortunately still have many examples that are still haunting us from colonialism and other ideologies.

Well documented cases of stupidity include the trench warfare decisions made by British generals during WWI. The dogmatic position within some religions is another example.

Paul Budde

Here is the article: Why some of the smartest people can be so very stupid