"Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid," by Robert J. Sternberg

Scholars finally tackle the question that has plagued humanity since time immemorial.

Published June 19, 2002 4:46PM (EDT)

Only a few questions can be called basic to the human condition -- such as "What can we eat?" or "Who created us?" -- and lots of very smart people have been working on them for millennia. The "eating" thing, for instance, has been minutely parsed by agriculture, economics and the culinary arts (among other fields), while the question of origins has given us religion and several branches of the hard sciences. But there's at least one question -- as basic as any other in its topical relevance and its grounding in the ancient -- that human inquiry has only recently begun seriously to address. It was asked in caves, by people clad in mastodon-hide shifts, and chances are it crossed your mind this very day. "How," it goes, "can people be so stupid?" And who knows the answer, really? I don't -- do you?

The academy is finally catching up with that one. There's long been a rich vernacular literature on stupidity, including such titles as Michael Shermer's "Why People Believe Weird Things," and Charles McKay's 1841 classic, "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds." But recently, a couple of academic works on the topic have appeared, so that stupidity studies would seem to be something of an emerging field -- an academic trendlet. Avital Ronell, the post-structuralist theorist perhaps best known for the naked photos of herself in the Re:Search "Angry Women" collection, had a book out last year called, simply, "Stupidity." (It wasn't clear whether she was for or against it.) Psychologist Gene F. Ostrom's "Why Smart People Do Stupid Things" came out last year as well (he's against it).

Now Robert J. Sternberg, IBM professor of psychology and education at Yale and the hyperprolific editor or author of more than 60 other books, has compiled and edited "Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid," a volume of scholarly papers on the subject.

Sternberg's premise is that stupidity and intelligence aren't like cold and heat, where the former is simply the absence of the latter. Stupidity might be a quality in itself, perhaps measurable, and it may exist in dynamic fluxion with intelligence, such that smart people can do really dumb things sometimes and vice versa. Each of the 10 contributors (or teams of contributors) examines the nature and theory of stupidity from a different angle, coming up with different notions of what it is and how it works -- and making the book, on the whole, a rather compelling treatment of what could be humankind's oldest and most persistent problem. That said, there also seems to be something rather odd about the book and about the way it frames its subject.

But more on that anon. The appearance of the smart and canny Ronell amid the fray gives a hot tip as to where this small explosion of stupidity literature might be coming from. These days, when complex academic works such as Ronell's and Sternberg's cross over to a readership outside academia, all slicked-up and flashy of cover, it's often less because of what's inside than because of the immediate hook of the title -- and the lower the hook is aimed, the better.

Ronell's titles include "Crack Wars" and "The Telephone Book" (both post-structuralist treatises unreadable by civilians), while the grand exemplar of the trend is the late Dominique Laporte's "The History of Shit," issued in translation (in a deluxe black-velvet-bound edition) by MIT Press a couple of years back. Why this might be, nobody knows. Like many stupid things, it's mysterious. But one tries in vain to avoid picturing the editorial meeting behind Sternberg's book:

The editor at Yale University Press leans back in his chair, puts his arms behind his head.

"OK, Bob," he says. "I need crossover titles like you wouldn't believe, but everything's been done. 'History of Shit' is taken; there are books out on piss, armpits, you name it. University of Illinois Press just did a collection of papers by a classics professor on the pugilistic tradition of a certain Greek island, called 'Lesbian Double Fisting.' Your last thing on the psychology of love was good. What else have you got?"

The professor leans forward intently, hands in a professorial clasp. "Well, I'm also working on the psychology of hatred, and on a theory of what you'd call negative intelligence ..."

"Hey, great!" the editor says. "Title: 'You're Stupid and I Hate You: Why Everyone Hates Stupid People!'"

"Well," Sternberg says, "actually, they're separate research topics ..."

"OK, 'You're Stupid' and 'I Hate You.' Two books. Let's hear about the first one."

You have to watch out for these flashy crossover titles, basically. But "Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid" is a serious book. We're having lots of fun with it, but it's a serious book.

Contributor Carol S. Dweck believes that stupidity is located in the beliefs of certain smart people about the nature of intelligence -- false beliefs, including that "intelligence is a fixed trait rather than a potential that can be developed," that "learning is risky," and that "effort is only for the incompetent." Which is unconvincing: I'm a smart person who does a lot of stupid things, and I've never believed that intelligence is a fixed trait, et cetera.

Richard K. Wagner gets into managerial theory in his chapter, "Smart People Doing Dumb Things," treading on territory claimed by Mortimer R. Feinberg and John J. Tarrant in their 1995 treatment of Wall Street incompetence, "Why Smart People Do Dumb Things." (Note to prospective authors: Despite the combined efforts of Ostrom, Feinberg/Tarrant, Wagner and Sternberg, the title "Why Smart People Can Be So Dumb" remains unclaimed.)

Then we start to really get rolling with David N. Perkins' fleetly written, deftly argued chapter. Stupidity, for Perkins, is best thought of as a failure of adaptiveness -- as "folly." And folly "in a strong sense involves recurrent foolishness that seems, in principle, within the intellectual reach of the person to discern" -- a matter of faulty switching in one's mental processes. Basically, Perkins says, you can be really smart but not know when to engage your smartness, and the extent to which this happens is "stupidity."

Perkins lists eight deadly sins of the stupid smart person, which seem to sum it all up rather elegantly: impulsiveness (doing something rash), neglect (ignoring something important), procrastination (actively avoiding something important), vacillation (dithering), backsliding (capitulating to habit), indulgence (allowing oneself to fall into excess), overdoing (like indulgence, but with positive things) and walking the edge (tempting fate). That sounds like my entire life, actually. Yes, that explains a lot.

Diane Halpern contributes a study of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, which has (apparently) preoccupied stupidity researchers since the writing of Ostrom's book, and Keith Stanovich gets into a whole game-theory thing that is fascinating if jargonesque. Game theory has long recognized that people habitually make suboptimal decisions when confronted with choices that work out cleanly on paper. But, says Stanovich:

"A substantial research literature -- one comprising literally hundreds of empirical studies conducted over nearly four decades -- has firmly established that [...] people assess probabilities incorrectly, they display confirmation bias, they test hypotheses inefficiently, they violate the axioms of utility theory, they do not properly calibrate degrees of belief," and so on for another several lines.

After reading Stanovich, the proper utility of game theory seems to be, not the study of human interactions, but the study of why game theory doesn't work in real life -- to wit: the study of human stupidity, including the stupidity of those who keep trying to apply game theory to real human behavior. Stanovich also contributes the excellent term "dysrationalia." A word to keep and to use.

Elena Grigorenko and Donna Lockery's chapter, called "Smart Is as Stupid Does," spins the whole thing into a discussion of historical attitudes toward the learning-disabled, including attitudes toward their sexuality, as expressed in popular films. The sort of thing second-string academics are always doing. The first chapter note reads: "1. Cockney refers to lower-level working class in Great Britain." Oh. Wait, in certain parts of London, you mean? A combination of "overdoing" and "neglect," it looks like (pace Perkins). But whatever.

Are you getting tired now, too? It's not supposed to be fun: This is a serious book.

But it's difficult not to train the lens on Sternberg himself. Sternberg downplays the notion of "stupidity," equating smart people's unsmart behavior with "foolishness" (as opposed to "wisdom") -- which torpedoes the whole premise from the get-go (suggesting that the Yale University Press book editor really did have his thumb in the pie the whole time). (Next Sternberg book: "Why Assholes Think They Can Shit All Over You: The Psychology of Evil Motherfuckers.")

And yet ... Well, this is what they call "going deep" in one of those sports like football or hockey, but "Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid" seems to be something of a magnum opus for Sternberg, whose interest in intelligence research began in grade school, when he was found to score low on IQ tests and was shunted into the slow classes. His faculty bio tells the story of a child, and then a young man, subsequently obsessed with aptitude testing: He designed his first, which he called the Sternberg Test of Mental Aptitude, in seventh grade, and got in trouble at school the same year for surreptitiously testing his classmates with the Stanford-Binet. Sternberg's summer jobs were with entities such as ETS, the company behind the SAT. But his troubles continued. In college, he majored in psychology and nearly flunked, then switched majors to math and did even worse. Somehow he got back into psychology and graduated with honors. And, as he relates in the third person, "The summer after the first year, he got his ideas for componential analysis, and so began his career as a serious psychologist!"

This book seems something like a magnum opus because you have to wonder about Sternberg a bit in terms of the smart/stupid question. Despite several honorary doctorates and a C.V. stuffed with prestigious positions and awards (he is, among other things, a Guggenheim fellow and the president-elect of the American Psychological Association), he seems unduly excited, as a middle-aged Yale professor, to be a "serious psychologist!" Despite an outstanding body of work on theories of intelligence and aptitude testing, his career has consisted in large part of collaborations and the editing of other people's stuff. He seems like what you'd call a hard worker. For example, his chapter in the present book begins like this:

"According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (1992), a person who is stupid is '1. Slow to learn or understand; obtuse; 2. Lacking or marked by lack of intelligence' (pp. 1784-1785). A person who is foolish is '1. Lacking or exhibiting a lack of good sense or judgment; silly. 2. Resulting from stupidity or misinformation; unwise.' (p. 707). The two definitions refer to quite different kinds of entities."

Yes, it's the old "according to the American Heritage Dictionary" opener, known and dreaded for its ubiquity and universal inappropriateness by graders of undergraduate papers throughout the English-speaking world. "Hmm," your basic college sophomore will think, "I'm supposed to write a paper -- but where do I start?" And 75 times out of 100, the solution will be found by looking up a key term (such as "psychology," "narrative" or "Machiavelli") in the wise old dictionary and saying what it says, thus committing a crime against sensibility and reason equalled only by the scream-inducing "since the dawn of time" opener, which ... well, not to go off on a tangent here or anything.

What this is, besides a cardinal stylistic sin, is reasoning from usage -- a logical fallacy of sorts. Ostrom, the author of "Why Smart People Do Stupid Things," does the dictionary thing too, on the first page of his book (oddly enough), except he uses Webster's. But if Ostrom were to jump off the Empire State Building, wouldn't it be "stupid" to ... Well, never mind; it's just tangents everywhere. Anyway, this is simply not the sort of thing you'd expect from an acclaimed professor of psychology and education with more than 60 books under his belt. By the time one graduates from college, one learns to at least swipe from Bartlett's.

But essentially, I believe Marcus Aurelius summed up the point in, as I recall, "Meditations," Chapter 6, Verse 5: "The controlling intelligence understands its own nature, and what it does, and whereon it works." "Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid" suggests a man at the verge of that great and humane understanding: Imagine that the young Sternberg had instead gotten run over by a school bus and had found himself one day, decades later, manning his perch at Yale's Department of School Bus Studies, at the very pinnacle of the school bus academy, surveying the achievements and the awards strewn about him (as a star bus driver, an ace bus mechanic, an acclaimed designer of buses, with his first bus designed in seventh grade). "But ... it is all as bitter ashes," he thought. And he set to work, at long last, on a book called "Why Kids Can Be So Careless Crossing the Street."

Perhaps that bit of humor was "impulsive." In any case, it would be a case of "neglect" not to say that "Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid" is a valuable addition to a valuable new field of inquiry, and Sternberg is to be commended for initiating its ... But I'm "vacillating." It's an interesting book, and it's not "overdoing" it to say that it "walks the edge" between  ...

... Um, since the beginning of time (backsliding)  ...

By Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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