The Virtues and Foibles of the Recent Collection Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid


Friday, Jun. 14, 2002

Robert J. Sternberg, ed., Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid (Yale Univ. Press 2002)

Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid - a collection of essays and articles by academic psychologists - provides a sometimes stimulating, but often mind-numbing, scholarly treatment of an interesting subject.

While it perhaps barely needs to be stated, smart people do undertake stupid, sometimes even self-destructive, behavior with monotonous regularity. The ages are strewn with the wreckage of terribly able folks who did awfully dumb things and paid the price to greater or lesser degrees. Contemporary examples are legion: the various indiscretions of the former President, the destructive obsession of the former Chief Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals, the murderous plotting of the former Attorney General of Delaware, right up to the apparent skin-flinted transgressions of the former CEO of Tyco.

With the existence of this phenomenon beyond dispute, the contributors to Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid take a variety of approaches to answering the question of why this behavior occurs. Even more to the point, they make some suggestions about how to guard your own psyche against such lapses.

Some Unsurprising Truths About The Fact of Self-Destructive Behavior

This perception is somewhat unfair, however. A great part of psychology occurs against the backdrop of received folk wisdoms about how the world works that cannot simply be accepted at face value. It ends up that the vast majority of these folk wisdoms (for example, pride cometh before the fall) are correct. Yet as every lawyer knows, proving the obvious is always a confounding challenge.

Accordingly, I have attempted to resist the urge to poke fun at the various formulations of breaking news from the academy that litter this book, but cannot resist at least one. It seems that the latest research reveals that "an ability to do well when presented with academic problems is not always accompanied by an ability to do well when confronted by more practical ones." Holy cow - stop the presses!

The Semantics of Stupidity

When the contributors turn to the important "Why?" question, they do much better, offering insights far more interesting to the law reader. Nevertheless, the first step is to define terms, and unfortunately much of the book is caught up in such semantics.

This book is billed, apparently without irony, as "the first serious study of stupidity" and the excellent opening essay by Professor Ray Hyman acknowledges that a fundamental problem is that neither psychologists nor lay people have settled understanding about what terms like "smart" and "stupid" mean.

The various definitions of "stupid" run the gamut. There is, if you will, the strict scrutiny objective test (any objectively maladaptive act not the product of misinformation is stupid). At the other end of the spectrum, though, there is the far more charitable subjective rational relationship test (only if a maladaptive act cannot be squared with a rational subjective worldview is it stupid). In psychology as in law, these word differences matter, and in fact they drive conclusions.

Using the objective test, it is a given that a President having an affair with an intern is stupid. A contributor applying the subjective test, however, arrives at precisely the opposite conclusion - finding that the behavior in question fit a long-term pattern that erroneously, but justifiably (in intellectual, not moral, terms) led to a rational conclusion that one more dalliance would be just that and nothing more.

Is there any way to transcend the subjective/objective squabble? It turns out that there is, at least, broad agreement that stupidity describes a failure to employ the intellectual capacity available to conform behavior to interests - put more plainly, to do those things that are uncontroversially for your own good, and that you have the brains to do.

By this definition, there is heartbreak ("oh, the lost potential") at the core of stupidity. Looking to the other side of the coin, a dumb person will only rarely do stupid things, since that person began with less potential to waste and misuse.

Whatever the terms used, there are probably three fundamental kinds of stupidity; the stupid, the foolish, and the ingrained. The taxonomy is mine and it cuts across, rather than resolving, the semantic disputes found in the book.

Starting with the just plain stupid, it is clear that many maladaptive decisions come about as the result of familiar defects in reasoning. Several chapters treat the pathology of decision making at length.

These chapters provide a useful refresher on familiar problems such as "acquisition bias" (preconceptions shape the search for data and infect the data acquisition process), "processing bias" (once a preliminary conclusion is reached, the mind will filter out inconsistent data), "response bias" (the probability of happy outcomes is wildly overestimated), "entrenchment" (past results reliable predict future results), and the "availability heuristic" (the prominence of an unusual event - for instance, man bites dog - will distort perception of the frequency, and thus decision-relevance, of such possible outcomes).

While these are familiar concepts, they are still worth reading about, in part because these mechanisms are ubiquitous. These are useful lenses to use when thinking about decisions we make in our own life, decisions our clients make, and the decisions of our opponents, whether they sit in court or across the negotiating table. (Was it subjectively or objectively stupid for your opponent to reject that settlement offer? Is it a classic case of response bias in the wildly over-optimistic party or lawyer?)

What I call the foolish is the most dramatic and familiar variant of stupid behavior, and generally falls under the heading of pride cometh before (and behests) the fall. The phenomenon is particularly apparent to the practitioner of white collar criminal defense.

Personally I have had the luxury of only representing the falsely accused, but I understand from my colleagues that there is a certain pattern to this thing called fraud. Here's the rumored pattern:

Step One: devise or (just as often) stumble upon a method to game a system. Step Two: succeed in getting away with your malfeasance at a modest scale. Step Three: decide that you must be the biggest genius in the world to have pulled off such a -as the English say - scheme. Step Four: expand the size of your gaming to such obese proportions that you couldn't help get caught. (As day follows night, there is a Step 4½ that is not directly relevant here: implement overseas trust and banking structures craftily devised to defy detection, then wire money from your account at the Cook Islands Community Savings Bank (just once!) to your U.S. checking account.) Step Five: Get caught.

In short, as this pattern shows, success breeds wild overestimates of both competence and invulnerability. It leads, that is, to foolishness, as any old salt could tell you.

The exploration of the third kind of stupidity - what I call ingrained stupidity was to me the most interesting part of this book. The idea of ingrained stupidity is basically this: Sure, there are lots of prominent episodes of smart people doing dumb things, but are we overly focused on these salacious events and missing a broader problem?

Professor Dweck's provocative thesis is that we make people stupid by calling them smart. She makes a convincing case that our society creates and reinforces a view that intellectual ability is fixed. This view is transmitted through mythology -for instance, the myth of the prodigal genius. It is also transmitted through language - for instance, the term "gifted," as used in schools. Some children perform better because they are simply gifted; the nongifted, in contrast, have little hope to improve.

Under this view, current performance measures long-term performance and thus personal worth. Inherent ability, not effort, is the hallmark of true genius.

Dweck describes the people (and we all know them) who fall into this trap as those who "look to their performance outcomes to tell them [how smart they are]--but they must try to ensure that every outcome they look at will be an unqualified success." This leads to stupid, life-deadening behavior.

Both society and the individual lose out if capable people decide that the risk of short-term failure inherent in expanding oneself outweighs the potential returns on long-term investments of effort and skill building. The college student takes only courses in which she knows she will excel; rather than starting an ingenious but risky business, the business school student takes a corporate job instead.

How Lawyers Can Avoid the Patterns of Stupid, Foolish and Ingrained Thinking

A mentor of mine often remarks that, at then end of the day, all lawyers have to offer is their judgment. Often a person transforms himself into a client because of stupid decisions in the past. The tough job of the lawyer is to take these missteps out of the closet, put them on the table, examine and understand them, and guide the client out of the thicket.

You don't have a shot at accomplishing that lofty and elusive goal if your own thinking is infected by the same patterns of stupidity that bring people in your door. For this reason, the questions raised by Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid are of direct relevance to what lawyers do every day. Frankly, though, this review is probably all you need of this book, which is encumbered by its academic provenance.

That may not always be the case, however. The contributors to this volume are conscious that they are opening a new line of inquiry. Surely a synthesizing and valuable popular book (a la The Tipping Point) will appear on this topic one day. And one thing is for sure, it won't have a title as stupid as Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid.

Matthew Herrington practices law in Washington, D.C. His email address is mherrington@wc.com.

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