Why some of the smartest people can be so very stupid


A few years before he died in exile from Nazism, the Austrian novelist Robert Musil delivered a lecture in Vienna, ‘On Stupidity’ (1937). At its heart was the idea that stupidity was not mere ‘dumbness’, not a brute lack of processing power. Dumbness, for Musil, was ‘straightforward’, indeed almost ‘honourable’. Stupidity was something very different and much more dangerous: dangerous precisely because some of the smartest people, the least dumb, were often the most stupid.

Musil’s lecture bequeaths us an important set of questions. What exactly is stupidity? How does it relate to morality: can you be morally good and stupid, for example? How does it relate to vice: is stupidity a kind of prejudice, perhaps? And why is it so domain-specific: why are people often stupid in one area and insightful in another? Musil’s own answer, which centred around pretentiousness, is too focused on the dilettantism of interwar Vienna to serve us now. But his questions, and his intuition about stupidity’s danger, are as relevant as ever.

Stupidity is a very specific cognitive failing. Crudely put, it occurs when you don’t have the right conceptual tools for the job. The result is an inability to make sense of what is happening and a resulting tendency to force phenomena into crude, distorting pigeonholes.

This is easiest to introduce with a tragic case. British high command during the First World War frequently understood trench warfare using concepts and strategies from the cavalry battles of their youth. As one of Field Marshal Douglas Haig’s subordinates later remarked, they thought of the trenches as ‘mobile operations at the halt’: ie, as fluid battle lines with the simple caveat that nothing in fact budged for years. Unsurprisingly, this did not serve them well in formulating a strategy: they were hampered, beyond the shortage of material resources, by a kind of ‘conceptual obsolescence’, a failure to update their cognitive tools to fit the task in hand.

In at least some cases, intelligence actively abets stupidity by allowing pernicious rationalisation

Stupidity will often arise in cases like this, when an outdated conceptual framework is forced into service, mangling the user’s grip on some new phenomenon. It is important to distinguish this from mere error. We make mistakes for all kinds of reasons. Stupidity is rather one specific and stubborn cause of error. Historically, philosophers have worried a great deal about the irrationality of not taking the available means to my goals: Tom wants to get fit, yet his running shoes are quietly gathering dust. The stock solution to Tom’s quandary is simple willpower. Stupidity is very different from this. It is rather a lack of the necessary means, a lack of the necessary intellectual equipment. Combatting it will typically require not brute willpower but the construction of a new way of seeing our self and our world.

Such stupidity is perfectly compatible with intelligence: Haig was by any standard a smart man. Indeed, in at least some cases, intelligence actively abets stupidity by allowing pernicious rationalisation: when Harry Houdini, the great illusionist, took Arthur Conan Doyle, the inventor of Sherlock Holmes, through the tricks underlying the seances in which Conan Doyle devoutly believed, the author’s reaction was to concoct a ludicrously elaborate counter-explanation as to why it was precisely the true mediums who would appear to be frauds.

While I have introduced it via ‘conceptual obsolescence’, stupidity is also compatible with a kind of misguided innovation. Consider a country that excitedly imports new conceptual tools not from a past time but from a very different place. Global debates over social justice, for example, are now dominated by a set of ideas and terms taken from the United States, a nation marked by an incredibly specific historical and cultural trajectory. Simply transferring that framework to other countries, such as those in which class is less starkly racialised (for example, states reliant on exploiting white migrant labour from eastern Europe), or in which it is racialised in much more complex ways (for example, states such as South Africa) is conceptually and socially risky.

Stupidity has two features that make it particularly dangerous when compared with other vices. First, unlike character flaws, stupidity is primarily a property of groups or traditions, not individuals: after all, we get most of our concepts, our mental tools, from the society we are raised in. Suppose the problem with Haig had been laziness: there was no shortage of energetic generals to replace him. But if Haig worked himself to the bone within the intellectual prison of the 19th-century military tradition, then solving the difficulty becomes harder: you will need to introduce a new conceptual framework and establish a sense of identity and military pride for it. Once stupidity has taken hold of a group or society, it is thus particularly hard to eradicate – inventing, distributing and normalising new concepts is tough work.

Dumbness alone is rarely the driving threat: at the head of almost every dumb movement, you will find the stupid in charge

Second, stupidity begets more stupidity due to a profound ambiguity in its nature. If stupidity is a matter of the wrong tools for the job, whether an action is stupid will depend on what the job is; just as a hammer is perfect for some tasks and wrong for others. Take politics, where stupidity is particularly catching: a stupid slogan chimes with a stupid voter, it mirrors the way they see the world. The result is that stupidity can, ironically, be extremely effective in the right environment: a kind of incapacity is in effect being selected for. It is vital to separate this point from familiar and condescending claims about how dumb or uneducated the ‘other side’ are: stupidity is compatible with high educational achievement, and it is more the property of a political culture than of the individuals in it, needing to be tackled at that level.

Musil’s indulgent, almost patrician, attitude to ‘honourable’ dumbness was certainly dangerously complacent: consider its role in the anti-vax phenomenon. But dumbness alone is rarely the driving threat: at the head of almost every dumb movement, you will find the stupid in charge.

We can now explain why stupidity is so domain-specific, why someone can be so smart in one area, and such an idiot in another: the relevant concepts are often domain-specific. Furthermore, we can see that there will be many cases that aren’t fully fledged stupidity but that mimic its effects. Imagine someone who had been blind to all evidence that they were being cheated on finally asking themselves ‘How could you be so stupid?’ Here the problem is not pure stupidity: the concept of a cheat is common enough. What we have here is rather someone ‘acting as if they were stupid’. It’s not just that they failed to apply the concept of betrayal, but that they literally didn’t think of it: it was effectively ‘offline’, due to emotional and other pressures. In this kind of case, agents possess the necessary intellectual tools but unwittingly lock them away. This marks an important contrast with dumbness – we can make ourselves stupid, but we don’t make ourselves dumb.

So stupidity is tough to fix. This is exacerbated by the way it dovetails with other vices: stubbornness stops me from revisiting my concepts even as they fail me. But once we understand stupidity’s nature, things are a little brighter than they might seem. To view political opponents as primarily cynical transforms them into Machiavellian monsters, leaving no space for anything but a zero-sum battle for domination. To view political opponents as primarily dumb is to suggest an irreparable flaw – one that, in our deeply hierarchical society, we often project on to those without the ‘right’ educational credentials. Both moves also offer a certain false reassurance: with a bit of reflection, we can be fairly sure that we are not cynical and, with the right credentials, we can prove that we are not dumb. But we might well, nevertheless, be caught in the net of stupidity. If history is anything to go by, a few hundred years from now, our ancestors will find at least one part of contemporary morality almost unintelligible – ‘How could decent people ever have believed that?’ If they are not to condemn us as evil, they mig