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Faculty & Research


Understanding Human Stupidity in a Post-truth Area

Working Paper
Most people, at one time or another, act stupidly. There are any number of terms used to describe stupid behavior: stupidity, dumbness, silliness, obtuseness, imbecility, foolishness, folly, and idiocy, to name just a few. This article starts by describing some of the characteristics of stupidity and then posits the idea that people who behave stupidly seem to be—temporarily or otherwise—unable to properly navigate the domains of reasoning, planning, problem solving, abstract thinking, complex ideas, and learning from experience. Aside from stupidity being, at times, downright dangerous, it can come with the additional difficulty of being somewhat contagious. That these people often appear to be stubborn and self-possessed also suggests a narcissistic aspect to some instances of stupid behavior, and this article later raises the question as to whether some individuals are really stupid or whether some of them adopt a pseudo-stupidly for their own ends. Adopting an evolutionary perspective, the article suggests that, in people’s attempts to make sense of the world, irrationality often overrules rationality. For example, in their pursuit of sense making, people may feel compelled to hold onto stupid beliefs or subscribe to bizarre ideas in a bid to ward off feelings of anxiety about the unknown. In this context, it is suggested that human beings, fearful as they can be, are easily manipulated by people in leadership positions. In fact, the world is full of Pied Pipers trying to lead them astray. In the context of stupidity, the conundrum of limited rationality is also explored. It is noted and illustrated through various examples that people’s cognitive biases often enhance stupid decisions. The propositions of cognitive psychologists and findings derived from neuroscience are touched upon as highly relevant here. This article observes that the present age resembles a post-truth era, one in which, thanks to the machinations of social media, stupidity appears to be celebrated. Elaborating on this observation, it considers the influence that supposedly stupid people exert over large groups, all too easily setting the stage for collective stupidity. As will be shown, people who are able to harness the power of other people’s stupidity can have an enormous impact. Here the pseudo-stupidity first discussed, must be taken seriously, asking how far these supposedly stupid leaders deliberately incite their followers towards stupidity. In its conclusion, this article suggests a number of means by which to manage stupidity, even when it appears to be an insurmountable task. It cautions that no amount of persuasion is able to change the minds of some stupid people, particularly when they are unaware of their idiocy. Despite the challenge this poses, the article emphasizes that efforts do still need to be made to counteract stupidity. Education measures can help stupid people to question their logic with the hope that self-knowledge may be a useful antidote. In addition, the article points out that, from a societal perspective, a major countervailing power against stupidity is the presence of institutional safeguards. Here satire is proposed as just one form of intervention, as well as the use of paradoxical psychology. We can all be stupid, but can we be so safely?

Distinguished Clinical Professor of Leadership Development and Organizational Change