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Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid

Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid

by Robert J. Sternberg

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One need not look far to find breathtaking acts of stupidity committed by people who are smart, or even brilliant. The behavior of smart individuals—from presidents to prosecutors to professors—is at times so amazingly stupid as to seem inexplicable. Why do otherwise intelligent people think and behave in ways so stupid that they sometimes destroy their


One need not look far to find breathtaking acts of stupidity committed by people who are smart, or even brilliant. The behavior of smart individuals—from presidents to prosecutors to professors—is at times so amazingly stupid as to seem inexplicable. Why do otherwise intelligent people think and behave in ways so stupid that they sometimes destroy their livelihoods or even their lives?
This book is the first devoted to investigating what the most current psychological research can tell us about stupidity in everyday life. The contributors to the volume, renowned scholars in various areas of human intelligence, present fascinating examples of people messing up their lives, and they offer insights into the reasons for such behavior. From a variety of perspectives, the contributors discuss:
• The nature and theory of stupidity
• How stupidity contributes to stupid behavior
• Whether stupidity is measurable
While many millions of dollars are spent each year on intelligence research and testing to determine who has the ability to succeed, next to nothing is spent to determine who will make use of their intelligence and not squander it by behaving stupidly. Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid focuses on the neglected side of this discussion, reviewing the full range of theory and research on stupid behavior and analyzing what it tells us about how people can avoid stupidity and its devastating consequences.

Editorial Reviews

The Harvard Crimson
[P]rovides valuable insight into a subject that eludes, but that intrigues as well.

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Yale University Press
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Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2002 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-09033-1

Chapter One

Why and When Are Smart People Stupid?

The Issue

The title of this book, Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid, assumes that smart people at least sometimes do stupid things. In addition, the title implies that such stupid behavior needs explaining. The first challenge to anyone who tries to provide an explanation is that the title is phrased in terms from the common vernacular. The key words smart and stupid belong to folk psychology. As such, their meanings are vague, ambiguous, and shift with person and context.

The term smart can be equated with the psychological concept of intelligence. This, in fact, is what the contributors to this volume seem to have done. Indeed, this may be the one matter upon which all these authors are in agreement. Unfortunately, the term stupid seems to have no obvious technical counterpart in psychological theory. One consequence is that the authors differ greatly on how they treat this concept.

The title makes it clear that smartness is a property of people. It is an enduring property of a person. A person who is "smart" today is expected to be smart tomorrow and into the foreseeable future. Of course, at least some of the authors make it clear that they do not consider intelligence to be fixed. People can, with effort and proper instruction, improve their intelligence. However, quick changes and major fluctuations in intelligence are rare.

Stupidity, on the other hand, can be a property of an act, behavior, state, or person. We might believe that the act of smoking is stupid regardless of the intent, motivations, and construals of the people doing the smoking. Although I believe that many people apply the label of "stupid" to acts in this way, I suspect that none of the contributors to this book consider this usage. The hint of a paradox in this book's title resides in the possibility that "stupid" is being used as a property of a person. Because, with one exception, all the authors treat stupid as the opposite of smart; handling both these terms as properties of the person implies that the same person is both smart and stupid at the same time. So, at first blush, the title seems to pose a paradox. This, in turn, suggests a puzzle to be solved.

One way to resolve this paradox is implicit in the chapters by Wagner, Sternberg, and possibly a few others. This resolution is to treat intelligence and stupidity as domain-dependent. Thus, the same person could be smart in her professional life and stupid in her personal affairs. A more interesting way to dissolve the apparent paradox is to treat stupidity as a state or a property of behavior. This would allow for a person who is generally smart in her professional life to occasionally behave stupidly in that same professional life. Indeed, it is this latter scenario that most of the contributors to this book seem to have in mind.

All the authors focus on the behavior of smart people. This leaves open the question of whether dumb (unintelligent) people can be stupid. This is both tricky and nontrivial. I think it is fair to say that most of the contributors treat stupidity as a failure of the actor to optimally use her abilities or cognitive capacity. Although this makes sense, it also seems to be at variance with the common assumption that stupidity is a manifestation of low intelligence. If stupidity is treated as a discrepancy between actual and potential behavior, then it cannot be the case that a person who behaves in a maladaptive fashion and who is using the full potential of her low intellectual abilities is acting stupidly.

Points of Agreement and Disagreement

Most of the authors accept the challenge of answering the question of why smart people can be stupid. Both Perkins and Ayduk and Mischel deal with the matter as a failure of self-regulation. Stupid behavior, in their treatments, comes about when activity is triggered at an inappropriate time in an inappropriate situation or when the actor fails to suppress an immediate gratification in the pursuit of a more important, but longer-range, objective. For Dweck, stupidity follows from failure to fully use one's capabilities and failure to exploit opportunities for learning. These failures, in turn, seem to follow from a belief in fixed intelligence and a defensive avoidance of tackling tasks that could lead to poor performance. Both Stanovich and Austin and Deary look for causes of stupidity in personality and other dispositional aspects of the individual, independent of intelligence. Both Wagner and Grigorenko and Lockery also find stupidity at the level of social systems. Halpern attributes the stupidity of Bill Clinton's handling of the revelation of his affair with Monica Lewinsky to his failure to recognize changes in the environment and his reliance on old habits (mindlessness).

Three strikingly different ways of resolving the apparent paradox are evident in the chapters by Stanovich, Moldoveanu and Langer, and Sternberg, respectively. While most of the authors treat "stupid" as the opposite of "smart" (intelligent), Stanovich argues for the advantages of treating stupid as the opposite of rational. Following the lead of some other cognitive scientists, Stanovich considers mental functioning at three levels. The first, or biological level, deals with the "hardware" or implementation of activity. The second level, algorithmic, corresponds to the cognitive capabilities of the system. Stanovich locates smartness or intelligence at this level. The third level, the intentional one, is where thinking dispositions, goal setting, coping styles, and the like are found. Here is where it makes sense to speak of rational or stupid behaviors. Stupidity, in this analysis, follows from a failure to use the cognitive abilities at level two in the pursuit of goals (pragmatic or epistemic).

Moldoveanu and Langer focus on the inappropriate use of the label "stupid." They argue that many apparent cases of stupidity result from the mindless labeling of actors by observers. They also discuss apparent stupidity stemming from mindless interactive pursuits of scripts (such as teacher-pupil scripts), and from the mindless assimilation by the actor of social biases. They argue that most, if not all, the research in which subjects fail to act according to normative standards does not justify the implication that the subjects' behavior is "irrational" or that humans are "cognitive cripples." Such implications merely reflect the failure of mindless experimenters to recognize that their subjects might be processing the given information differently from the way they do. Moldoveanu and Langer believe that when proper consideration of the way subjects have construed the problem is taken into account, their rationality will be vindicated. They propose that if we substitute the mindful/mindless continuum for the intelligent/nonintelligent one, the temptation to label people and behaviors as stupid will vanish.

Sternberg dissolves the paradox by simply denying that smart people can be stupid. Instead, in contrast to Stanovich, Sternberg seems to accept that stupid is the opposite of smart. However, he changes the issue from why smart people can be so stupid to why smart people can be so foolish. In this context, foolish is the opposite of wise. This enables him to bring to bear his balance theory of wisdom and his imbalance theory of foolishness. In this light, Clinton's behavior in the Lewinsky aftermath might not have been stupid, but it certainly was foolish. Sternberg agrees with Halpern, that Clinton's inappropriate behavior ("stupid" in Halpern's story and "foolish" in Sternberg's account) resulted from defects in reading situational cues.

Moldoveanu and Langer stand out as the only authors to reject the ecological validity of the heuristics and biases research. They imply that this research has no bearing upon real-world behavior. Stanovich, on the other hand, lists several examples of how these same laboratory-discovered biases operate in the real world-physicians' diagnoses, risk assessment, legal issues, and so on. Wagner, Halpern, and Grigorenko and Lockery explicitly acknowledge the reality of these biases in real life, while the other contributors seem to implicitly accept this extension.

The apparent disagreements among the authors can be traced, in part, to the ambiguities in the terms smart and stupid. The authors differ in just how they define and map these terms onto psychological constructs. The major source of apparent disagreement, however, results from the different exemplars, contexts, and examples that the authors use as their referents for stupidity. Most of them dismiss examples of "stupidity" resulting from lack of information, momentary lapses, fatigue, and simple "performance" executions as uninteresting. Some impulsive actions, such as a truck driver who tries to beat a train at a railroad crossing, and the failure of children to postpone gratification, are the focus of at least two chapters. The Clinton-Lewinsky affair receives prominent attention in two other chapters. Managerial incompetence, the Iran-Contra affair, smoking, Chechnya, teacher-student perceptions, stereotyping of learning disabilities, and social follies such as Vietnam and the Rodney King affair are other examples used by different authors in their explorations of stupidity.

Adaptive and maladaptive behaviors occur in an enormous variety of contexts and situations. Each of these contexts can raise a variety of different issues. In all of them, some behaviors seem to be so irresponsible, heedless, thoughtless, negligent, or outrageous that they invite the label "stupid." Perhaps, as Moldoveanu and Langer imply, it would be better if we avoided using this pejorative label. However, if we abandon it, I suspect we will find that we will need some equivalent way to identify those acts that go beyond mere mindlessness. Not all goofs are created equal.

In his classic The Mentality of Apes, Wolfgang Kohler (1959) identified three kinds of errors in his extensive observations of chimpanzees solving problems:

1. "Good errors." "In these, the animal does not make a stupid, but rather an almost favourable impression, if only the observer can get right away from preoccupation with human achievements, and concentrate only on the nature of the behaviour observed."

2. "Errors caused by complete lack of comprehension of the conditions of the task." "This can be seen when the animals, in putting a box higher up, will take it from a statically good position and put it into a bad one. The impression one gets in such cases is that of a certain innocent limitation."

3. "Crude stupidities arising from habit." "In situations which the animal ought to be able to survey.... Such behaviour is extremely annoying-it almost makes one angry, ... This kind of behaviour never arises unless a similar procedure often took place beforehand as a real and genuine solution. The stupidities are not accidental 'natural' fractions, from which primarily apparent solutions can arise ... they are the after-effects of former genuine solutions, which were often repeated, and so developed a tendency to appear secondarily in later experiments, without much consideration for the special situation. The preceding conditions for such mistakes seem to be drowsiness, exhaustion, colds, or even excitement" (pp. 173-174).

Kohler was a staunch defender of animal intelligence. His book is a spirited rebuttal to Thorndike's attempt to account for all animal "reasoning" in terms of blind trial and error. Yet, we see that Kohler feels compelled to label some chimpanzee behaviors as "stupid." Indeed, he needs this label precisely because he recognizes that other chimpanzee behavior can be insightful and intelligent in the context of the chimpanzee's world. Likewise, we do not defame human cognition by recognizing some cognitive actions as stupid. It is only because we acknowledge that human cognition is usually rational and adaptive that we can identify some departures from this rational and adaptive behavior as stupid.

I previously mentioned how the apparent differences in the approaches to stupidity by the various contributor to this book are due to their use of different referents. So it might be helpful to briefly discuss a few more examples of goofs or maladaptive behavior to strengthen our grasp of the many issues arising from this consideration of why smart people can be so stupid.

Some Additional Candidates for Stupid Behavior

At times a patently smart person can blunder or go badly astray. Every field of human activity provides a multitude of examples of such behavior. Each example, in turn, suggests a number of possible reasons for departures from rational or sensible behavior. Here, I look at some examples beyond those discussed by the contributors to this volume in order to see how their discussions might help us understand these additional cases.


On September 23, 1846, astronomers Galle and d'Arrest, both from Berlin, announced the discovery of a new planet, which was later named Neptune. The remarkable thing about this discovery was that the astronomers made their discovery by aiming their telescope at a location in the sky based on the mathematical calculations of the French astronomer Urbain Jean Joseph Leverrier. Leverrier had become interested in the problem of the orbit of the recently discovered planet Uranus. The perceived sightings of Uranus seemed to deviate somewhat from the orbit calculated from Newtonian mechanics. Some contemporary astronomers proposed various possibilities to account for this discrepancy such as unseen satellites or other planets. Some even suggested that Newton's inverse square law might not hold for the farther reaches of space. As a strict Newtonian, Leverrier began his attack on the problem with the firm belief that Newton's laws were inviolate (Grosser 1979; Hanson 1962).

The problem became one of squaring the reported locations of Uranus with the orbit predicted by Newtonian theory. Leverrier reexamined both the old and later sightings of Uranus. He recalculated the orbits from the data and discovered that previous astronomers had made several errors. Nevertheless, after correcting for these errors, he still found a small but real discrepancy between the observed and predicted locations for the planet.


Excerpted from Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid Copyright © 2002 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Robert J. Sternberg is IBM Professor of Psychology and Education and director of PACE, the Center for the Psychology of Abilities, Competencies, and Expertise, at Yale University. He is a widely known expert on intelligence testing and the author or editor of some sixty books, including The Psychology of Love and Competence Considered, both published by Yale University Press.

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