An inquiry into Stupidity, Part 1

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The Lens, a program on the CBC, recently aired a program on stupidity. It prompted me to better understand the nature of stupidity. This journey into understanding comes about because many of those interviewed on the program seemed to have a great deal of difficulty answering the question what is stupidity. includes the following definition for stupidity:


  1. lacking or marked by lack of intellectual acuity [ant: smart]
  2. in a state of mental numbness especially as resulting from shock; “he had a dazed expression on his face”; “lay semiconscious, stunned (or stupefied) by the blow”; “was stupid from fatigue” [syn: dazed, stunned, stupefied, stupid(p)]
  3. without much intelligence; “a dull job with lazy and unintelligent co-workers” [syn: unintelligent] [ant: intelligent] n : a person who is not very bright; “The economy, stupid!” [syn: stupid person, dullard, dolt, pudding head, pudden-head, poor fish, pillock] [ref]

While helpful in describing the manifestations of stupidity, it does not provide any means to unbiasedly assess stupidity beyond personal judgement. Furthermore, while we may assume in some cases that stupidity is the result of mental limitations of an individual, the definition does not help us understand stupidity that is exhibited by that majority that do not suffer any abnormal mental constraints.

Carlo M. Cipolla describes five laws of stupidity, with the third law stating:

A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses [ref].

This law provides an unbiased means to identify stupidity in terms of the nature of the outcome.

However, it highlights a contradiction. Stupidity is attributed to the person as a whole: do a stupid thing and you are a stupid person. The reality is intelligent people are quite capable of making stupid decisions. Does that mean they are not intelligent? Or is there some threshold to be crossed: if some percentage of ones decisions are stupid, then is the individual stupid only then?

Sternberg’s premise is that stupidity and intelligence aren’t like cold and heat, where the former is simply the absence of the latter. Stupidity might be a quality in itself, perhaps measurable, and it may exist in dynamic fluxion with intelligence, such that smart people can do really dumb things sometimes and vice versa. [ref]

Cipolla’s second law, although still attributing the person, does support this notion of the independence of stupidity and intelligence:

The probability that a certain person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.

Giancarlo Livraghi adds three corollaries to Cipolla’s laws, where the first is:

In each of us there is a factor of stupidity, which is always larger than we suppose [ref]

Thus we can summarize the observations: stupidity is independent from intelligence–meaning one can exhibit both behaviours; it relates to the decisions or actions we take–not the individual; and specifically to those actions which offer no benefit to the person executing the decision and causes some harm to those impacted by the decision or action.

So why would someone make such a decision? Perkins lists eight deadly sins:

impulsiveness (doing something rash), neglect (ignoring something important), procrastination (actively avoiding something important), vacillation (dithering), backsliding (capitulating to habit), indulgence (allowing oneself to fall into excess), overdoing (like indulgence, but with positive things) and walking the edge (tempting fate) [ref].

James F Welles argues:

stupidity is the failure to gather and use information efficiently. Traditionally, self-deception has been considered only in terms of the use or abuse of information present within a cognitive system โ€” that is, a person would have to “Know” something in order to deceive himself about it….However, we must acknowledge it is also self-deceptive (i.e., misleading) and usually stupid for one to refuse to gather new, relevant information about matters of importance [ref].

Why not use the intelligence we have to get all the answers? Why not use it to over come the eight deadly sins Perkin describes?

Welles offers the argument that stupidity is an ability to ignore certain information that in the short term enable us as human beings to enhance social cohesion. Stupidity is a mechanism to rationalize, or more aptly accept, obvious contradictions between reality and the “ideal.” It is the means for us to accept an otherwise negative impact that is believed to enhance the cohesion of our organization or some other group that we belong to:

In terms of intellectual development, stupidity may justly be viewed as both adaptive and maladaptive. In the short run, it is adaptive in that it helps an individual adjust to his cultural group’s values by permitting him to accept any obvious contradictions between the real and ideal. As a means to short-term adaptation, stupidity is a classic example of the “Neurotic Paradox” in action. The neurotic paradox promotes behavioral patterns which are subject to immediate short-term reinforcement although the long-term results will be clearly negative.

If stupidity is adaptive, in that it helps one fit into his immediate surroundings, it is maladaptive over the long run, as it inhibits innovations and constructive criticism of the social environment. Individuals adjust to the group, but the group loses its capacity to adjust to its surroundings as members sacrifice their individual integrity, insight and ideas and conform for the reward of social acceptance.

Of course, the bottom line, net effect of stupidity is negative, but its universal presence cannot be understood without recognition of its role in helping people adapt to their immediate situation. Thus, it becomes clear how there can be so much stupidity around although it is, in the long run, maladaptive. Survival within the system is promoted if one is so stupid as to accept the system’s stupidities. Also, short-term survival of the system (institution, group, whatever) is promoted through enhanced social cohesion and cooperation [ref].

Welles elaborates that social cohesion is maintained by conformance with the social norms, and it is these norms–schemata–that define the benchmark:

Within the formal context of written laws and rules, daily routine of most social life, institutional and otherwise, is regulated by norms โ€” social standards for acceptable behavior, dress, manners, modes of speech, etc. These norms encourage stupidity by providing a systematic pattern of reinforcement conducive to conformity for its own sake. It is the acceptance and approval of members which first induces and then sustains a common schema and its system of values that form individuals into a group [ref].

Thus, as social beings driven to maintain the cohesion of the group in which we belong, we are willing to be compliant with the norms of the group. These norms define what information we accept and thus the data upon which we will use to formulate decisions. When the norms of an organization fail to adapt to the environment, decisions will become increasingly out of sync, potentially impacting the survival of the group.

Arbitrariness notwithstanding, there are basically only two types of stupidity. By far the most common is that of principle โ€” a system too committed to itself to adjust: its reward system becomes so internalized that it ceases to respond effectively to external change. The other type is, as one might expect, the exact opposite: this is the hypersensitive stupidity of overreacting not only to incidentals in the environment but perhaps to fantasies as well. This type usually leads to chaos, with opportunism of the moment substituting for development by a guiding schema. Both types have their places in the dynamic disorder of the human experience [ref].

So in some sense, stupidity is necessary for us as social being to survive. The issue then is finding the right balance such that there is sufficient stupidity to maintain the cohesion of the group, but not to much that it gets out of sync with its environment that it puts its very survival at risk.


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