Hardly a day goes by without me reading a story about some conspiracy theory or other and asking myself whether we might finally have reached ‘peak stupid’.
Of course stupidity is nothing new in human society, history (I would contend) essentially being a succession of stupid decisions punctuated by moments of getting things right. But today stupidity is amplified by social media and cultivated by the malign. All of this presents a massive opportunity cost to the running of a decent society. I’d go as far as to say that stupidity is the great unaddressed issue of our time.
We see it around us all the time – in the street, on the roads, at the shops, in the news. It’s the wellspring of both comedy and tragedy. And it’s always other people who are stupid, never us. That in itself is telling, because stupidity, I’m afraid to have to say, begins at home.
Yes, we are all stupid, at least some of the time. It doesn’t matter what a person’s background is, or where they popped out of the education system. We will all of us do something stupid from time to time, no matter how clever we think we are or are regarded as being.
But what is stupidity? The OED says it’s ‘dullness or slowness of apprehension; gross want of intelligence’. The metric for stupidity is surely something about bad outcomes, but that can’t be the be-all and end-all, as sometimes the stupid get lucky or things go wrong for other reasons. Stupidity can even, sadly, be the product of good intentions. And much stupidity is benign and unlikely to feed through into significant issues. After all, if it weren’t for idiocy, we wouldn’t have the entire sitcom genre.
I’m not a psychologist or even whatever a student of stupidity is called – an idiotologist? – but there are probably several factors in play.
First, stupidity seems to be something to do with processing information.
Let me give you a personal example. A long while ago, I moved into a new flat and noticed that the gas cooker had a little metal sign in the centre of the hob with ‘HOT’ written on it. I touched it with my finger, and yes, it was very, very hot. Youthful naivety? I don’t think so, just the same cognitive short-circuit I still seem capable of even in my mature years.
We’re organisms whose mental faculties ebb and flow with distractions, tiredness and – yes, let’s face it – laziness. Idiocy is as much about how we’re feeling as who we are.
The second element is knowledge. We each occupy a bubble of knowledge, the facts and analysis that we’ve accrued throughout our lives. Beyond that bubble lies the land of ignorance. We’re more likely to do stupid things there, because we don’t have a map for the problems we encounter.
It’s a matter of proportion – my basic piano-playing skills don’t entitle me to take the concert platform – and absolutes – my pretty good knowledge of the laws of association football doesn’t entitle me to fly an aircraft. The shape and extent of my knowledge bubble is a reasonable indicator of where I might veer into stupidity.
Third is the unquestioning way we believe many narratives. The world is awash with them, some making sense and attached to an evidential underpinning, many not. Often they’re just stories someone’s told us, reinforced by some societal imperative, like the culture we’re born into or the power structures in which we’re embedded. People looking into another’s narrative can see the flaws, while often oblivious to those in their own.
These three factors seem to me to come together in the Dunning/Kruger hypothesis, which famously concluded that it’s possible to lack the competence to know how incompetent we are. The shorthand (and slightly harsh) version, probably over-reaching the science, is ‘too stupid to know how stupid we are’ or, more courteously phrased, ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’. As Darwin would have it, ‘ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge’.
If I’m right about all this, how then do we, as individuals, begin to address endemic stupidity?
For starters, there’s self-awareness – metacognition – because knowing our limitations is a pretty sound basis for not overstepping them. Add in a bit of critical thinking – the ability to ask constant and penetrating questions about the things we think we know, and about what other people are telling us – and we’ve half a chance of not making idiotic choices.
But I also think we sometimes look at stupidity the wrong way round.
We talk a lot about ‘intelligence’, but I think the journey through life is less a matter of developing intellect and more about trying to become less stupid.
You might think this is a negative outlook, but I can’t agree: it’s simply a realistic one. Embracing our inner idiot can awaken new perspectives, and even be rewarding. No matter where we sit in society, the self-image we believe and promote, the pressures to think in certain ways, we do ourselves a great disservice if we don’t repeatedly ask the question: ‘Is this thing I’m about to do stupid or not?’
I asked myself that question before writing this blog, and it’s entirely possible I got it wrong. You tell me. In any event, it was probably a stupid decision to try to write a short piece on such a sprawling, controversial subject. And then I fleetingly published an earlier draft without really thinking. Stupidity in action – d’oh! – and my apologies to anyone who read it.
But then crucially this mistake taught me something: how to withdraw a blog published in error. Stupidity, then, as a means to learning and – who knows? – the tiniest step on the path to wisdom…