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Why Do Smart People Do Dumb Things?

Part 1: Understanding why people act against their own interests.

In the midst of all the turmoil in the world, I am often asked why normally intelligent, rational people make the decisions they make.

When smart people make dumb mistakes, it usually isn’t because of stupidity, ignorance, or apathy. They make dumb mistakes because they’ve been seduced by their own success, and the rewards of success help them develop expectations about how things are supposed to be.

Maintaining a "smart" self-image

Smart people are supposed to be competent, confident, and in control with important contributions to make. They are valued and respected, optimistic about the future, and proud of their achievements. And as much as they are seduced by their own success, they can also be attracted to others with that same show of confidence.

It feels good to be smart. So good, in fact, that smart people will make critical mistakes in an effort to maintain that self-image. They may become success junkies who cannot fail and will never admit to failure. There are always extenuating circumstances, unknown factors, misinformation, or just bad luck that contributed to failure. Or, as spin doctors would have us believe, failure didn’t occur at all. They simply reassessed their objectives. Someone or something else caused the failure. The original goal wasn’t worth the effort. They’ve actually succeeded, although their enemies would have us believe otherwise.

The concept of failure is difficult for some people because they never expect to fail. They have no doubt that they’re on the right track, that they’ve got the situation under control, and they know exactly what to do. That’s the way it’s always been. Well, almost always. There may be times, some rare occasions when doubt might sneak in. Usually, it’s when they’re tired or under a lot of stress. But the doubt doesn’t last long. After a good night’s sleep or a vacation break, their heads are cleared. Once again they’re feeling smart and successful, and they know how to do things right.

Ironically, the compulsion to “do things right” causes smart people to make dumb mistakes. Not big mistakes—little ones that accumulate over time. Like a pebble rolling down a snowy slope, the initial mistake may seem insignificant, but, over time, all the small mistakes snowball into a sizable force capable of causing a great deal of damage. We need only look at the news to see examples.

It’s been said that hindsight is 20/20. Viewing the world around us, we wonder why facts are ignored or portrayed as something other than facts and how people can ignore or miss what seems so obvious to the rest of us. The answer is that they were so focused on winning by doing things right that they fail to “do the right thing.”

Understanding simple vs. complex problems

Stepping away from our current circumstances with their inherent political and moral consequences, we can look at the question of why smart people do dumb things by delving into how decisions are made and problems solved.

Studies in problem-solving indicate that when leaders make poor decisions, it’s because they fail to appreciate an issue's complexity. Real-world problems, those that involve other people, are inevitably complex. But our brains evolved to solve simple problems, ones that give us immediate feedback and have no long-term repercussions.

Simple problems may not be easy to solve, but they are easy to understand. If we’re hungry, we know we have to find food. If we’re tired, we know we have to find a safe place to sleep. We may have to fight off a bear or go to the supermarket for food, but the result we want is clear, as is the measure of success. We can bring closure to simple problems.

Complex problems don’t always have closure. The result we want may seem clear until we set about solving the problem or something unexpected happens that complicates the issue. Complex problems are dynamic systems with interdependent variables that may or may not be knowable and can change over time.

Pandemics, nuclear disarmament, overpopulation, and terrorism are examples of extremely complex global problems. Most of us face complex problems that are more personal such as raising families, running businesses, and planning for retirement.

Whether a problem is complex or simple is subjective. To a medical student, a patient’s long list of symptoms, some that seem contradictory, is a complex problem. To a doctor who is an expert in the patient’s condition, the problem may seem elementary. The specialist’s training has taught her what to look for, which symptoms are relevant. But the specialist may err if she too readily discounts the unexpected as an anomaly. If the patient doesn’t respond to the prescribed treatment the “right” way, the doctor’s simple problem has suddenly turned complex.

Complex issues require flexible thinking skills. The good news is that our brains are quite capable of dealing with complex issues, provided we understand how organizing information in different ways produces various results.

Usually, success compels us to try again, and failure makes us want to give up. As emotionally satisfying as it is, success teaches us very little. Mistakes can make us stop to think, at least they would if we knew what to think about. Before we can answer the question “What went wrong?” we have to know precisely what result we wanted to produce. Knowing the result we want helps determine how we set about solving the problem and what elements are relevant to achieving success.

When people first confront complex problems, they tend to identify their goals in comparative terms. They want to make things better or safer. They want to be happier or richer. People want things to be different but are not clear on how or to what extent they’ll be different. In other words, they don't have a clear vision of the result they want. Studies in decision-making processes demonstrate that when we have precise goals, the visual cortex of our brains has been activated.

Goals that we can easily visualize and articulate serve us best when we’re dealing with simple problems. Complex problems have elements or can produce results that are hard, if not impossible, to visualize. We just don’t know what to expect. Therefore, when we deal with complex issues, we want to have specific goals in mind while recognizing that, as events unfold and information becomes available, we may need to modify those goals.

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