Unfortunately, No One is Immune from Stupidity
Why am I so stupid? Lately I have been asking this question far too
often. Am I getting senile? Why is it so hard to follow the path of
reason, common sense, tact, and caution?
Stupidity is a tempting
trickster and elusive enemy. It lurks in the shadowy area where impulse,
instinct, and error reign. Stupidity spurs a wide range of behaviors,
from simple blunders or occasional absentmindedness to scandalous or
even illegal acts.
As a professor, for example, I once taught a
class with my zipper down; on another occasion I walked into the women's
restroom; and, I often arrived at the office with mismatched socks.
Those embarrassing episodes, however, were acts of innocent
distractedness, a blissful state that academics often inhabit. Stupidity
is different. It leads us to do things that in the cold light of reason
we know are mistaken or wrong or foolish, and everyone, to one degree
or another, has felt its clammy embrace. Only two things are infinite,
Albert Einstein declared, the universe and human stupidity.
recent years, I had assumed that stupidity is the opposite of wisdom
and prudence, and that my acts of stupidity would ebb with age and
experience. Not so. Our capacity for self-delusion resists agingand
intellect. No one is smart enough to rid themselves of their own
stupidity; history is strewn with brilliant bunglers. As the Yale
psychologist Ronald Sternberg demonstrates in Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid , stupidity is not something we grow out of, nor are people of high intelligence immune to its appeal. Stupidity is always lurking within us. As the actor Warren Beatty confessed, I'm intelligent. I'm stupid. My tide goes in and out.
emerged with the first humans, forcing our primeval ancestors to
develop intelligence to combat their self-destructive propensities.
Humans differ from animals in our tendency to act against our own best
interests. We're like the scorpion in the Aesop fable that stings the
frog ferrying him across the river, killing them both. We just can't
help ourselves from acting stupidly on occasion. Sternberg argues that
stupidity is not simply dumbness or ignorance: those qualities involve a
fundamental lack of awareness. Truly dumb people, like the feckless
stars of the 1994 movie Dumb and Dumber, are not stupid because they
don't know any better. Instead, they are fun-loving imbeciles.
on the other hand, is not moronic; it is more akin to folly. It thrives
on self-deluding lapses in judgment, such as occurred when an Arizona
man decided to kiss a rattlesnake. Stupidity is everywhere in evidence.
We see it when people drive recklessly or under the influence. We engage
in it when we seize the opportunity to Super Size our order at the
fast-food restaurant or invest in speculative ventures whose rate of
return sounds too good to be true. We know better but indulge in stupid
behavior anyway. It is our stupidity, after all, that helps define our
humanity. We are not gods. But do we need to be dopes?
delightfully dumb Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels, or their dull-witted
counterparts Forrest Gump (Stupid is as stupid does") and Ernest P.
Worrell, we know when we have done something stupid, whether or not we
admit it to others. The rub is this: how can we replace the clarity of
hindsight with the wisdom of foresight? As beings of fruitful talents
and frustrating flaws, suspended between hope and disaster, how can we
quit doing stupid things? Or at least reduce the frequency and severity
of our stupid actions.
In the end, managing stupidity depends on
our exercising good judgment. That sounds trite, but to ignore our
responsibility for promoting more enlightened and commonsensical
behavior would be really stupidand dumb.