How Can Smart People Sometimes Be So Stupid?

"The way of fools seems right to them" - Proverbs 12:15

Posted Nov 10, 2015

Today I address our world crisis of incredibly stupid acts perpetrated by intelligent people.  The example of Volkswagen comes to mind.  I’m pretty sure there are some smart people at that company, but they have been too shy lately to make their presence known.  If the emissions scandal was cynical and reckless, Volkswagen’s ongoing response to the crisis has been tone deaf and clumsy.  But that’s what happens when unrealistic expectations crash head-on into reality.

I live in hope that there may be one or two intelligent people among the presidential candidates.  So far I have been sustained in this belief by faith alone.  However, it is better that I should light a candle than to curse the darkness of their ignorance.  (Ergo, this blog post.)

No doubt you’re familiar with the Darwin Awards, awarded posthumously to people who serve humanity by hurrying their own demise.  I propose a new honorarium – the MacArthur Wheeler Award – to be conferred upon people whose lives serve as a warning to others.  MacArthur Wheeler was a bank robber who rubbed lemon juice on his face, because he read somewhere that it can be used as invisible ink (the writing appears when the paper is heated).  He therefore concluded that lemon juice on his face would render his features invisible.  When apprehended, MacArthur protested, “But I wore the juice!”

So what causes intelligent people to “wear the juice,” metaphorically speaking?  There could be several reasons (beginning with the possibility that we erroneously assume them to be intelligent in the first place), but these rank among the most likely explanations:

Narcissistic Immunity – The narcissist’s ego takes flight and departs the real world.  It dwells in the fantasy realm of invulnerability.  Narcissists are legends in their own minds and expect others to see them the same way.  Possessed of this delusion about self and others, narcissists expect everything and everyone to comply with their expectations (or be banished).  Anyone living day to day in the fog of such delusions is going to be unprepared when reality intrudes.  (I recently saw a sign that said, “Humble yourself or life will do it for you.”  Good advice for us all, but especially for narcissists.)

The Duning-Kruger Effect – As William Butler Yeats wrote, “The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”  Others, from Shakespeare to Bertrand Russell, have similarly observed that know-it-alls are really know-nothings, while the wisest and most knowledgeable shun certainty.  Psychologists David Duning and Justin Kruger have provided the grounded theory to explain this phenomenon.

The Duning-Kruger effect represents a cognitive bias in people who are doubly incompetent – sure of themselves even when they are wrong and unable to recognize their own cluelessness.  This may be due to selective exposure to facts that support their pre-conceived notions while disregarding contrary information.  One might conclude that critical thinking is not their forte.

Cognitive Misers – Psychologists Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor coined the term “cognitive misers” to indicate that people frequently use heuristics (mental shortcuts, such as “jiggle the handle” to stop a toilet from running) and schemas (categorization, such as “all Prius owners are environmentalists”).  We don’t have the time or energy to process all available information or meticulously weigh every possible decision.  When a snap decision produces regrettable results, an intelligent cognitive miser can appear to have acted foolishly. 

Sometimes you “wear the juice” –  sometimes the juice wears you. Try not not to earn the MacArthur Wheeler Award.