“God must have loved stupid people. He made so many of them.” It was a simple blurb from an issue of MAD Magazine that I read so long ago the Nixon jokes were still fresh. Between the Spy vs. Spy comics and the fold-in back cover, that blurb stuck out more than anything else in that issue. Enough so that I remember it as clearly today as the day I first read it.
Over the years, that quote has come to mind many times. Many, many times.
During my first field training exercise as a new second lieutenant, I watched with a morbid sense of curiosity as a much more senior platoon leader ordered a soldier to stand on the elevated tines of a forklift in the midst of a rainstorm to string communication wire in tree branches. It seemed like a pretty stupid idea to me, so I said something, only to be quickly chastised for questioning a more seasoned lieutenant. Of course, the soldier eventually slipped and fell, dropping about ten feet onto a tree stump. In short order, a medevac chopper arrived, the injured soldier was evacuated, and we never saw that platoon leader again.
Not two years later, I watched bewildered as a company commander ordered his troops to bury a shipping container – filled with tools and supplies – in the Saudi Arabian desert. Once again, it seemed like a pretty stupid thing to do, so I said something, only to be told that I lacked the experience to understand the reasoning. Of course, the missing container later became an issue, as did the contents of the container. In short order, an investigation was initiated, the captain was relieved of command, and the bill for those contents – to the tune of about $358,000 – followed him into civilian life.
And so the story goes. Like an episode of Seinfeld, it just keeps playing again and again.
WHY WE DO STUPID THINGS
We all do stupid things. I don’t care how smart you are – or how smart you think you are – we inevitably do something we later regret. Somebody actually paid for that “NO REGERTS” tattoo that lives in meme infamy. Someone really was the first person to say, “Hold my beer,” before doing something epically stupid. #FloridaMan? That’s a real thing. And the Darwin Awards? Well, they speak for themselves.
Stupidity is such a common phenomenon that we now have basic laws of stupidity that help not only to define behaviors but to categorize them in terms of potential danger to others. Because stupidity, if nothing else, is dangerous. Robert Heinlein once pondered, “Never underestimate the power of human stupidity.” It can be a humorous thing to watch play out, but we ignore it at our own risk.
In a 2016 Scientific American article, psychologist Ellen Hendriksen offered an explanation for why we do the stupid things we do. First, humans experience two kinds of pleasure. One is tied to the pleasure derived from satisfaction: enjoying good food, finishing a hard workout, or completing a meaningful task. The other draws from the thrill of the chase: pursuing something, excitement, or anticipation. The second form of pleasure taps into the dopamine system in the brain, causing people to pursue compulsive behavior that often leads to regret.
Second, we live in a society where deprivation and suppression of pleasure is common. We want to drop a few pounds, so we deprive ourselves of sugar and suppress the resulting urges. Or maybe it’s caffeine. Or meat. This works for a while, then those urges turn to obsessions and come back with a vengeance. Depending on what you’re suppressing, that can lead to some very bad – and stupid – decisions.
Finally, we contend with what Hendriksen calls the What the Hell? effect. We do something – even something minor – that cracks the dam of inhibition. You break down and eat a piece of birthday cake at work. You skip arm day at the gym. You forget to scan something at the self-checkout aisle at Walmart. If you’re already teetering on the cliff, the What the Hell? Effect blows the whole dam open and the stupid just comes gushing out.
TAKING ALL THE STUPID WITH YOU
But you’re too smart to make stupid decisions, right? I mean, if half of everyone you meet is below average, you’re clearly not in that bottom half. You won’t make those decisions that come back to haunt you later. You’re immune to stupidity. Right?
People you would normally associate with being quite intelligent and rational are often more susceptible to making stupid decisions. This isn’t because of some underlying, hidden stupidity, ignorance, or even apathy. In fact, the opposite is true. Their own success often seduces them into doing stupid things, making bad choices. It feels good to be the smartest person in the room… and that’s where the problems begin.
Why Stupid Decisions Happen to Smart People
1. The need to be right.
Many otherwise intelligent people make stupid choices because they need to be right. They have to be right. They always are. They identify with always having the right answers and the best solutions. Anything less would be wrong. And they can’t be wrong.
When you’re used to always being right, you don’t tend to have a lot of patience with those around you. They take longer to come to the same conclusions. They are easily distracted. They drag the decision-making process down. The only solution is to just step in and do it yourself.
Focus is a good thing. Being overly focused can lead to problems. You can’t see the forest for the trees is a classic idiom for the hyperfocus many intelligent people suffer from. You get so focused on the minutiae that you lose sight of the big picture. You fail to notice other issues. And you make stupid mistakes.
4. High expectations.
Intelligent people tend to also be high performing individuals. They’re used to operating at a higher level and have corresponding expectations of themselves (and sometimes others). When combined with the previous three, high expectations can turn a healthy work environment toxic in very short order. And bad choices become the easy ones.
Highly intelligent people often come across as aloof or disconnected. Some of this can be attributed to hyperfocus, but just as often it’s an indication of a lack of emotionally intelligence. There are any number of reasons why, but a lack of social development can lead to decisions that negatively impact others.
Ultimately, you can be the smartest person in the room and still make the most stupid mistakes. You’re not immune. There is no vaccination for stupidity. The only cure is a healthy dose of self-awareness and a willingness to accept that fact that no one ever takes all the stupid with them.