The Art of Being Stupid

Sometimes being dumb can pay off.

Posted Jan 01, 2016

We are continually encouraged to become smarter — to gain IQ points, to work smarter, to raise more intelligent children. Various mental workout regimens and medications are advertised to improve our memory and ward off the cognitive decline of old age. We are promised a future in which genetic engineering will make us brilliant.

But there is a place for the opposite — for making ourselves stupid.

I discovered the advantage of stupidity a few months ago while my colleagues and I were conducting cognitive interviews at a petrochemical plant. Our sponsor wanted us to investigate the cognitive skills of panel operators who controlled complex chemical processes at high temperatures and pressures in specially built reactors. If the panel operators made poor decisions, a portion of the plant might have to be shut down, at great expense. Worst case is an explosion, with the potential loss of lives.  

During an interview with a highly experienced panel operator, one of my colleagues, Joey Borders, who was leading the interview, explored a challenging incident that had occurred a few years earlier. A valve had gotten clogged, leading to high pressure in the reactor. The panel operator noticed the problem and correctly diagnosed it, and then he took actions to clear the plug that was blocking the valve.   

Towards the end of the interview Joey asked one of our standard questions, “How might a novice have mishandled this event?” The panel operator was puzzled. It seemed obvious what to do. We pressed him, and got nowhere.

However, before we moved on to another question, I tried a different tack. I pretended to be a novice. “So, in this situation I see that the reactor pressure is getting too high. That’s the only indication I have — there aren’t any sensors telling me the valve is plugged. My temptation would be to close off the feed line to the reactor in order to bring the pressure down. I’m not even thinking about the valve.”

He looked at me with some condescension.  He admitted that junior operators might do just that, but it was a bad idea. He explained why it was the wrong action to take; his explanation provided useful information about the plant dynamics and the consequences of mistakes. Joey then used the same strategy to imagine other errors an inexperienced panel operator might make. The expert admitted that these were also possibilities and seemed to warm up to this notion of imagining how a novice might think. He said, with some enthusiasm, that he would explore the issues we had raised with a group of new operators he’d be training the next week.

Afterward, as I reflected on this interview, I was struck by the expert’s inability to imagine how a novice might get confused. Admittedly, Joey and I had an advantage because we were novices. (Actually, we were less than novices because we hadn’t received any training at all.) So it was pretty easy for us to take a novice’s perspective. Still, the expert was responsible for training novices. How effective could he be if he couldn’t take a trainee’s perspective?

And that’s when I began to think about the advantages of being stupid — being able to strip away experience and knowledge and see the world through the eyes of a beginner or of anyone making stupid mistakes.

It takes special skill to dial back expertise and intelligence. Experts notoriously have trouble taking a novice’s perspective. Experts often assume everyone knows what they do, that everyone sees what they can see.

I think trainers can benefit from making themselves stupid — taking on the perspective of someone who is struggling and confused. Teachers can benefit too. So can designers, wondering about how customers can misinterpret directions and misuse products. We can all benefit from dialing back on experience when we give someone driving directions and anticipate mistakes the person might be tempted to make.

Parents might benefit as well. I see lots of parents getting angry and impatient with young children without considering the child’s perspective.  But I also see positive examples, parents able to see the world through their child’s eyes.  One mother used to have a problem with her three-year old daughter who would melt down when told it was time to leave a playground. It was so frustrating that the mother cut down on playground excursions. Then she imagined how aggravating it must feel to be told, “OK, it’s time to leave. Now!” So she switched her strategy and gave her daughter an advance notice, “We need to leave in two minutes, so let’s go to your favorite toys for a last slide or climb.” This new ritual did the trick. No more playground tantrums.

I recently heard about a case of a 7-year-old girl who was struggling in school. The teacher told the parents that their daughter seemed to be learning disabled regarding arithmetic and needed to be tested. Before scheduling the test, the mother decided to watch her daughter try to add up a column of numbers. The girl failed, but her mother noticed that her daughter’s handwriting was poor and the columns she wrote were uneven. The mother tried adding up the numbers her daughter had written down and kept making mistakes. So the mother had her daughter perform the addition task again, this time using a grid to keep the numbers organized. Now her daughter had no trouble getting the correct answer. The following year, the mother got another note that her daughter was now showing signs of a reading learning disability, and needed to be tested. Again, the mother observed her daughter and saw that when she wrote something down she often failed to leave spaces between the words. The girl had trouble reading her own writing, and so did the mother. The mother had her daughter write a passage on a computer, and now the girl had no trouble reading what she had written. The learning disability had disappeared. Shortly after this second incident, the mother transferred her daughter to a different school.

A very experienced petrochemical trainer once told me that when he first started working with novices, he would wait for them to make a mistake and then slam them. That was how he had been taught. But after a few years, he switched his strategy. Now when he sees a mistake he becomes curious. He wonders why the trainee made the error and how he can use this information to help him/her out. He has learned the advantage of making himself stupid.