Sally Adee went on a foolhardy mission—to understand stupidity. She returned with some clarifying insights that could help make us all a little smarter.
Adee, who's a features editor at the New Scientist, spent time going through 19th-century literature and contemporary psychology to define stupidity—which she boils down to "the cushy over-reliance on someone else’s ideas"—and where it comes from.
Along the way, she reflected on Gustave Flaubert, the famous French author who immersed himself in the "automatic thoughts and platitudes of the chattering classes," giving him insight into the kind of aristocratic idiocy that pollinates Madame Bovary, the Dictionary of Received Ideas, and an unfinished social satire, Bouvard et Pecuchet. In Bouvard et Pecuchet, the lead characters "experience stupidity in all its guises" as they attempt to become farmers, chemists, shopkeepers, and academics. And fail.
"What unites their stupidity," Adee says, "is a lazy over-reliance on received wisdom."
But why are we, just like Flaubert's characters, so quick to lean on clichés, easy answers, and received wisdom? As with many things, it's evolution's fault.
As economic psychologist Daniel Kahneman details in Thinking, Fast and Slow, we all want to conserve energy, meaning that we don't use the full processing potential of our brains unless we have to. Otherwise, Adee says, we're on cruise control.
This lazy-survivalist evolutionary adaptation gets us into trouble: Adee notes that stupidity can get smart people into bad situations like debt, eviction, and unplanned pregnancy. And if we define innovation as doing something new, stupidity is its natural enemy.
So how to we overcome our reliance on received wisdom?
Critical thinking—that is, a reflective reasoning about your beliefs and actions—is a good start. This can get tricky, as our experience sometimes leads us astray: as Kahneman notes in Thinking, ease of thinking is often confused with rightness of thinking. If you've ever taken a test that you thought was a breeze that you subsequently bombed, you are familiar with this particular strain of stupid.
Do less. As a recent University of Utah study has shown, people who think they're good at multitasking actually aren't. There's only so much cognitive bandwidth available at a given moment, so if you're juggling six tasks at once, you won't have the brain space available to be aware of what it is you're doing. If you've ever texted your way through a red light—we won't tell anyone—and didn't realize until afterward, you know this one, too.
Schedule thinking time. If we take stupidity to be an unquestioning of the motivations for your actions, sculpting some inquiry time into your schedule could help. (Like Eric Ries says, slogan can't change culture.) It worked for Einstein, so it might work for you.
[Image: Flickr user Evan]