That’s the question I set out to answer this week for New Scientist. The idea was to look at the science of stupidity, but it took me a good couple of weeks to stop hitting brick walls in my research. Respectable scientists don’t like to talk about stupidity. “Stupidity is an evaluative term,” Alan Baddeley told me, “not a scientific one.” Baddeley is a psychologist at the University of York who studies working memory. “[Stupidity] has not been studied because it is neither sensible nor useful to do so,” he says. So instead, psychologists study intelligence.
I sympathize with Baddeley’s aversion. Attempts to locate stupidity somewhere specific — whether that’s people, cultures or other groups — often seem to leave us in problematic territory.
My next stop was Professor Google. Another bad idea. Depending on your search terms, the first results lead you to the Darwin awards. A funny idea at first blush, but there’s something soul-crushing about the idea that someone has gleefully assembled a compendium of these terrible tragedies. And apart from lending support to some ugly stereotypes, the Darwin awards provide no great insight into the nature of stupidity, merely confirmation of its existence.
This was frustrating. How could something so ubiquitous be so elusive? I mean, there’s no shortage of examples in my own life — both committed against me and by me. Stupidity seems like it should be added to the list that includes death and taxes. Why isn’t anyone studying it?
The problem with my early searches — as with the Darwin awards — was a fixation on IQ. I got wise to that when I found the case of a British man known as X. His case was described in the Bulletin of the British Psychological Society (vol 35, p 329): X was on trial for financial fraud. The problem was, he had an IQ of 80. The psychologists who provided expert testimony in the trial testified that X’s low IQ was proof that he could not have masterminded nearly so sophisticated a scheme. To which the prosecution responded by pointing out that X spoke four languages, had been known to win handsomely at a sophisticated card game in London clubs, and had piled up considerable savings. Low IQ, in other words, doesn’t mean you can’t be smart.
And then there’s the opposite: the mindlessness of self-styled “smart people”. Funny enough, this is a topic that absolutely obsessed Gustave Flaubert: He had spent his whole life analyzing the automatic thoughts and platitudes of the chattering classes. I’m no Flaubert scholar, but from my research it seems like his obsession got started in earnest after he wrote Madame Bovary in the mid-1850s. Eventually that obsession became so great that he devoted himself to a last great work, a compendium of every variation of human idiocy. The novel Bouvard et Pecuchet and its companion volume, Dictionnaire des idées reçues (the Dictionary of Received Ideas) were to be a kind of encyclopedia of stupidity and object lesson. To that end the eponymous protagonists in Bouvard et Pecuchet are a Laurel and Hardy-style duo who make their way through all the spheres of life and in the process experience stupidity in all its guises, from shopkeepers to academics. What unites their stupidity is a lazy over-reliance on received wisdom.
What’s interesting about Flaubert is that he was onto some interesting science. About 125 years later, an economist started to give some serious thought to why humans — presumed to be rational creatures — don’t always avail ourselves of the full horsepower of our cognitive capacity. Instead, it appears we only tax our gray matter when we absolutely have to; the rest of the time, we put it on cruise-control. That’s evolution for you.
Evolutionarily advantageous or not, the shortcuts we use to minimize our mental outlay can have surprisingly detrimental effects. It can leave otherwise highly intellectual people facing bad situations such as debt, unplanned pregnancies or even evictions. For society as a whole, the effects of this form of stupidity can be devastating. So the cushy over-reliance on someone else’s ideas — that’s stupidity, and as I found, there’s both an explanation and (in the works) a cure.
As you might imagine, my self-esteem took a phenomenal hit as I wrote this. I’ve parroted other people’s ideas without critically analysing them. I’ve missed the forest for the trees. I’ve lazily abandoned my creative juices in favour of easily digestible cliches, and that was just one sentence ago. That reaction is exactly what Flaubert wanted: his goal in writing Bouvard et Pecuchet was that anyone who read these volumes should never open their mouths again for fear of running afoul of one of his catalogued variants.
Our reaction to stupidity is an interesting point I didn’t get a chance to explore in writing this. But maybe that reaction — whether it depresses you, enrages you or becomes a lifelong obsession — carries a danger that the Darwin awards miss. Stupidity can kill you, but maybe not in the way you think.
“I should like to see you less indignant at other people’s stupidity,” George Sand told Flaubert in one of the many letters they exchanged, after Flaubert wrote to her concerned that the book would kill him.
Sure enough, soon after that letter he had a fatal stroke. He had nearly finished the book, so it wasn’t much trouble to assemble and publish it. But at the end of the day, Sand’s more measured response to all the stupidity all around us might be a better lesson than Bouvard et Pecuchet. If it really is as inevitable as death and taxes, the best thing might be just to deal with it.
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