top of page

Stopping Our Own Stupidity

“And not only the pride of intellect, but the stupidity of intellect. And, above all, the dishonesty, yes, the dishonesty of intellect. Yes, indeed, the dishonesty and trickery of intellect.”  ― Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Okay consider this…uplifting new research strongly indicates that human beings, both as individuals and as groups, show profound wisdom in decision-making. We are largely free of bias and cognitive errors.

Moreover, researchers point out that we humans repeatedly show objectivity and use solid data to ascertain facts. We readily and easily find the flaws in our own reasoning. Our emotions work together with our intelligence to help us respond ethically and flexibly even under stress.

Do I need to say it? Surely you realize this must be some sort of joke. Mark Twain said that on April 1st people are reminded of what we are on the other three hundred and sixty-four.

Really, it’s stupidity we are talking about here, not fun and foolish joking around. We humans have some issues. Fortunately, researchers are coming to the rescue. Many books in the last 16 years or so have been showing us examples of how we humans repeatedly fall into thinking traps (and what we can do about it if we dare).

For example, look at this short snippet of a court proceeding:

Lawyer: Now, Mrs. Johnson, how was your first marriage terminated?

Witness: By death.

Lawyer: And by whose death was it terminated?

Scratching your head? Read it again. Then try this one.


How many animals of each species did Moses take on the ark?

Hint: The answer is not 2. The answer is 0. It was Noah, not Moses who built the ark. Yes, I fell for that one (my brilliant husband confessed that he did too when he read this article.)

Dr. Ellen Langer, a researcher I met years ago while attending a workshop at Harvard spoke about the mindless things we do. For example, she has students go up to people who are standing in line to make copies. The students tap the people on the shoulder and say, "Excuse me, could I go in front of you? I need to make some copies." Well, duh. Everyone is standing in line to make copies, but nearly all step aside and let the student, who wants to make copies just as they do, go first.

Why do we make these sorts of stupid errors? The technical term for our affliction is “cognitive miserliness.” We find ways to conserve our effort. We take shortcuts. Our stupidity can be funny in a way if we can be accepting toward ourselves while guarding against tragedy.

How all this started for me was a video clip I watched. Evidently it was devised as an April 1st, 1957, prank. It’s called The Spaghetti-tree Hoax. You can watch it on YouTube. You will see a Swiss family in early Spring harvesting, drying, cooking, and serving their own delectable, home-grown (harvested from their spaghetti tree) spaghetti. Many viewers were irate to find out this segment was joke because they had been earnestly calling in to find out where they could buy their own spaghetti trees!

Yes, it can be funny that we are such nitwits. It’s also a big problem beyond just looking silly. Here’s the biggest problem I see. Our thinking short-cuts include things like stereotyping, jumping to conclusions, looking only at data which support our beliefs. Then we top off our lazy thinking with a heavy dose of arrogance! Uh oh. Even scientists do this.  


I recently took some training to become a facilitator for a group called Braver Angels.  The group tries to build bridges between conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats - the red and the blue. Part of the training is becoming aware of the unexamined stereotypes we carry around. We are helped to see our own thinking errors like failing to look for nuance - being black and white in our thinking. We are urged to get out of our usual silos, to step out, search around, look for wider perspectives, see what evidence we can find to disconfirm our truths. The training was humbling.

For several months, I tried to check out how many of my opinions actually turned out to be true. I tried it with my husband. John and I often have a different opinion about something. It can be fairly inconsequential like: Are there stairs down from the main floor in some building or must a person in a wheelchair find another access? Once I bet him 500 dollars that I was right. I did it just to punish myself if I was being arrogant. Yes, I was wrong, wrong, wrong. He was right. Ouch. Well he was right that one time (I make zee little joke).


My favorite story is the one about the blind men and the elephant. That story has not stuck around for hundreds of years and been translated into every language for nothing.  Each of those blind men is so very sure of his reality…in some accounts willing to kill others who insist that their view, no their solid TRUTH, is totally different… and RIGHT (some examine only the tail, some only the side, some only the trunk, some only the leg, etc.)!


To add to our cognitive miserliness and arrogance issues, we are notoriously bad at dealing with our emotions. When we are angry, sad, frightened, we become disconnected from our full brain apparatus. We think in contorted ways and often do dumb things.

What are the implications? We can accept that we are ALL quite capable of being foolish - actually stupid, of making mistakes, of seeing things from our own viewpoints – based on our own unique experiences. We can use some tools to protect ourselves from tragic consequences. Here are two simple, highly successful practices.

Use self-distancing. Self-distancing is a way to get a wider, more objective, less emotional perspective on whatever problem we are trying to understand. In your mind step back from your situation and imagine yourself as a third person observing and factually describing the problem. Consider how it might be approached and solved. It’s a type of self-distancing technique to ask yourself what advice you would give to another in your situation. It’s also a type of self-distancing to pretend you are someone else looking for flaws in your thinking. If you are really brave, you can dare to step into the mind of someone who sees the world totally differently.

Manage emotions. We make better decisions if we are in a relaxed, alert state. We can refrain from interacting and making decisions when we are not emotionally stable (read that again while I hammer it into my own head). If you are emotionally out-of-whack stop – don’t type that email. Get yourself together first. Try things like taking a breath, going for a walk or run, taking a nap, listening to music, petting the dog, talking to a wise friend, and especially labelling your emotions. Experts have found that if we name our emotions – e.g., anger, sadness, jealousy, we can more quickly and effectively increase our emotional awareness, decrease biases, and improve cognitive processing.


And let me throw this in. Let’s be compassionate toward ourselves. This foolish stupidity thing, this thinking-short-cuts thing, is part of being human. The smarter you are, the harder this is to accept. Ease into this awareness. It can be a tough thing to accept. Jolting. Along with your self-compassion, if you can, muster up some courage to truly look for the truth from several different angles.

April is the perfect time to accept our foolishness. You may want to track down that BBC clip of the spaghetti-tree hoax (if I find it, I’ll make a link). If you, like me, want to guard against tragic consequences of true foolishness - stupidity, you can experiment with those two simple techniques - self-distancing and managing emotions. I use the managing emotions approach a lot. It helps not only with doing fewer stupid things, but also has saved some relationships.  (Or you can bet money and take the consequences.)


If you are motivated to become more educated, to experiment and gain a touch of humility, to go deeper into understanding thinking pitfalls, and to get more tools; read The Intelligence Trap, Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions by Zachary Shore; Blackbox Thinking, Matthew Syed; Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, How We Decide, Johah Lehrer, Biased, Henry Priest, Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely, and Influence, Robert Cialdini. And…hunt down that old story of The Blind Men and The Elephant.

How might we accept and be compassionate toward ourselves while also guarding against our tendency to make mental short-cuts, protect ourselves against tragic consequences, and Journey together to The Good Life?



bottom of page