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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Lack of Diversity in Social Science Research

In college, friends majoring in biology told me I should switch majors because social science isn’t real science. It’s too subjective. Your personal biases will cloud the data.

They had a point. But researchers from a wide array of backgrounds can question each other’s assumptions, which can mitigate personal bias somewhat. Over the past 50 years universities have done a laudable job of trying to encourage more women and minorities to enter white male dominated fields. And while fields such as physics still lack diversity, 60% of biology degrees go to women, and psychology has an even larger number of women.

But contrarians say we’ve overlooked something. What about political diversity? Yet, academia has spent the past half century trying to purge conservatives, or even those who are not die hard liberals.

Does social psychology really prove that conservatives are unethical dullards? Can we trust the objectivity of a field that has almost no non-liberals? (Non-liberal because not every alternative viewpoint is conservative, or even libertarian.) Imagine for a moment that almost all social scientists were evangelical Christians, and their research found that atheists really are nasty people. Would you think something is amiss?

Jonathan Haidt writes that a century ago, the social sciences were almost evenly split between liberals and conservatives. But the gap started to widen, slowly at first, but then rapidly after 1990. Today, the ratio of liberals to conservatives is almost 14 to 1.

Unchecked biases degrade the quality and validity of research. Chief among these biases are negative presuppositions and confirmation bias (failing to critically examine or search for contradictory evidence for something you already believe). This can lead to “mischaracteriz[ing] liberals and conservatives alike.”

This doesn’t affect most aspects of social science research, such as personality theory or the psychology of decision making. But these biases are notable with areas of liberal concern, such as sex and gender, race, inequality, and moral and political psychology. And it can leave unexamined areas outside of liberalism’s concerns.

In the social sciences, the narrative of liberal progress is like water to a fish – it’s everywhere but often goes unnoticed. But this can lead to misinterpretation of non-liberal value statements. For example, social scientists might label someone unethical for not siding with a coworker who has filed a sexual harassment claim. But without someone to question the assumption of misogyny, the judgment of moral inferiority is unexamined.

In a previous post I wrote about a friend who received a sexual harassment complaint for using the phrase “OMG.” I think her claim was frivolous. My reasons are that I think a person is innocent until proven guilty (and the burden of proof is on her), and her failure to present any evidence other than her personal opinion is not sufficient evidence. But my perspective contradicts the liberal notion that an alleged victim must always be believed. This is not misogyny, however. Due process is a human right.

Too often people present statistics from dubious sources or which lack context, often arguing that numbers don’t lie. But numbers do lie. Ever made a math error? And too often someone will cite one study as if that seals the case, failing to question the researcher’s methodology, possible biases, and (most of all) failing to understand that studies must be replicated numerous times before being accepted as true.

Social science has a significant blind spot, and any research findings with political implications should be approached with a healthy dose of skepticism.