Well, That Was Stupid

We’ve all done stupid things. I’ve taken risks I’ve on a bicycle that didn’t turn out so well, made comments that made other people go “Huh?”, and missed things that should have been blindingly obvious.

But I’m not an idiot. I swear. No, really.

The Washington Post recently summarized the stupid research of Balazs Aczel.  Even highly intelligent people do incredibly stupid things, and he wanted to figure out why.

Aczel claims that stupidity comes in three basic flavors. Any more than three and I’d just forget them anyway.

The basic point is that emotions are a bigger factor that IQ. Typically we react based on how we feel, and reason kicks in (literally) as an afterthought.

The three kinds of stupid are:

1. Overestimating our ability to do something. This is the king of stupid. Youtube has tons of videos where people attempt things they’re clearly incapable of. The technical term for this is confidence ignorance. It’s kind of thing that leads others to ask, “Whadjya think was gonna happen?” But maybe we didn’t think. Maybe we just felt like doing it.

2. Then there’s impulsiveness. Acting without thinking because we’re unable to delay gratification; we’re being compulsive; or because of an intense emotional state, whether excitement, fear, or something else.

Impulsiveness can be induced, of course. Being manipulated with an artificial time pressure (a favorite of used car salesmen) is a good example. Don’t take the the weekend to think it over! Act now! It might be gone tomorrow!

There are some circumstances that overlap overconfidence and impulsiveness. Having an agenda or ideological blinders can lead us to ignore practical considerations or contrary evidence. It all comes down to a desire to prove the truth of our ideology by acting without taking the time to fully evaluate the situation. George W. Bush’s rush to war in Iraq is an example.

And there’s the desire to cover up a mistake. Too often people aren’t as good at lying as they think. And too often we panic, fearing immediate consequences without thinking through the longterm consequences of a cover up.

3. Finally, there’s absentmindedness. We’re just not paying attention. Our mind is somewhere else, and we don’t see it coming. Or it could be lack of information or lack of experience with a particular situation.

I think a common subset of this is anxiety or panic short circuiting our ability to think things through. This overlaps impulsiveness to a degree, in the sense that anxiety can not only cause us to freeze like a deer in the headlights, but it also can cause us to react without thinking like a squirrel that runs left then right then left (then gets run over).

We’re all stupid. It’s happened before, and it’s going to happen again. But we can minimize it:

  1. If I haven’t been in a situation before, I need to tell myself that I don’t know the limits. Be careful. Do some research.
  2. If someone’s pressuring me, they’re manipulating me. I have a right to slow things down and say, “I really need to think this over.”
  3. Plan ahead, and find an ally. If I’m buying a car I should bring someone with me who knows a thing or two about it.
  4. Be respectful but skeptical of all ideologies. And mine most of all. I think of myself as a skeptic (“Certainty is proportional to the evidence,” to paraphrase David Hume; “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” to almost verbatim quote Carl Sagan). But confirmation bias is a huge downfall for me – believing something without question because it aligns with what I already believe. This leads to overconfidence, however.
  5. Learn to delay gratification. If I really want something, wait a week and then see if I still want it. Tell someone about it so they can help me stay honest.
  6. Pay attention. Buddhist techniques to learn mindfulness are helpful.
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Author: Dave DuBay

Dave is a social worker from Phoenix, Arizona. He blogs at thepaintedporch.net. He's also at twitter.com/Dave_DuBay.

2 thoughts on “Well, That Was Stupid”

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