Wednesday, August 3, 2016

New President Interview -- Part 37 What is stupidity? Part 2

New President Interview -- Part 37
What is stupidity?  Part 2

Preliminary remarks

Breaking up this interview into two parts has the advantage of learning from some of the comments.  I will paraphrase some of them and react to the ideas.  One person, a school principal, said that she liked my article so much that she will hand out copies of both parts to her students and faculty.  That means I have to complete this part as soon as possible.  Another asked if I wrote any articles about common sense.  It is more fun to write about silliness and foolishness.  Any article that reports positive results is about common sense or at least some wisdom.  A third comment concerned why stupidity can never be eradicated – stupidity is random and people don’t make a correlation between the stupid act and the knowledge that should have prevented it. 

Someone thought the article was about the presidential campaign.  That connection is an intended coincidence. 

Q>  How does one measure stupidity?  Is there any scientific or measure that can be applied to stupidity?  

A: Calling someone “stupid” is as bad as using a curse word.  “Stupid” implies a kind of mental deficiency that is both innate and acquired.  To the logical mind this is an impossibility.  To prevent being called “stupid” people may start a question with something such as, “This may be a stupid question” to deflect a label of “stupid.”  This leads to the replies such as, “there is no such thing as a stupid question” or “the only stupid question is the one not asked.”  People don’t want to be labeled as “stupid” but are willing to self-demean or label their own behaviors as “stupid.” In their perception “stupid” questions are acceptable but being labeled “stupid” is not. A momentary act of stupid behavior does not make a person stupid. [Note: A better way to phrase the question is: "This may be a naive or elementary question."]

Because human behavior has so many variables, it is much easier to analyze stupidity in fictional characters than in real people. Fictional characters are limited to their creator’s scripts.  The character, Murdock, in the TV show A-Team was always behaving with silliness and foolishness.  However, he was able to fly a plane or helicopter expertly.  He had illogical behavioral quirks, but he got the job done before being sent back to the mental hospital.  Even though other characters described his behavior as “stupid” he was basing his actions on his version of knowledge. 

After checking the Internet Movie Database ( , I found many movies with “stupid” in the title.  They are more about silliness or comic behavior than lapses in the application of knowledge. Since this article is about behavior rather than movie reviews, there is nothing more to say in this article about movies or TV shows.

Balazs Aczel[1] and his co-investigators investigated the conception of unintelligent behavior.  They claim that human behavior, feelings, and thoughts are influenced by how they interpret the actions of people around them.  Evaluations of these behaviors includes trying to put the behaviors into the context of experience and expectations. They claim people who call a behavior “stupid” is a reflection of the rational expectations of the observer.  These observers alter their behaviors and expect others to alter theirs.  The study seeks to study the attribution of stupidity to behaviors and potential actions.

The observers in Aczel’s experiment were undergraduate students. Observers were presented with stories and had to answer 10 questions about the “stupidity” in the story.  The observers’ answers showed a 90% correlation to each other.  The investigators concluded that “stupid” is used as a label in three types of situations – 1) A violation of keeping a balance between confidence and abilities; 2) Lack of control; and 3) Failures of attention to detail or previous knowledge.

Measurements are based on tests or observations.   One can create a checklist of behaviors and try match them to labels. If there is a high correlation among the observations, the primary investigators will conclude the behavior is stupid or not.

Q> How do organizations encourage stupidity?

A> Thinking and creativity should be highly valued skills in the organization.  But both require time.  This is time that to the outside observer looks like a waste of time. Some managers want the place to look good so that the next level of management is convinced all is working well.   A good manager makes sure the workers have the tools to get the job done.  People with tunnel vision see a well-run organization and think workers are redundant and the organization is too “fat.”  This is the working of a stupid mind.  “Just do it” is the catch phrase of a creative and chance taking organization.  In a stagnant organization “Just do it” is the marching order from the corporation nincompoop.

Wisdom is acquired from examination of the facts.  For example, if once the medical profession recommended treatment A for disease AA and today experimental evidence shows treatment A was wrong and never really worked, the wise people would stop treatment A.  The preponderance of evidence should be enough to show the wise person to stop the wrong course of action.  This however, does not work in the real world.  For years[2] medical people said to limit fat and cholesterol from the diet to prevent heart attacks[3].  People thought there was a direct correlation between one aspect of diet and heart health.  The problem centered on an incorrect understanding of the cause and effect.  More recent studies showed the flaw in both the experiment and its interpretation.  While the initial researchers thought they were doing a careful study, they failed to make all the connections.  If I define stupidity as a failure to apply knowledge, their conclusions are “stupid.”  But if I define stupidity as a failure to understand the information and data, then their conclusions are merely flawed because new knowledge of data and information was discovered. The new information led to new interpretations of the medical condition.  If the researchers change their minds based on new data, they are on the way to wisdom.  If they continue to believe their original conclusions, that action is “stupid.”

The Framingham studies are very complex and required many hours of gathering data and interpreting it.  In most organizations, we don’t perform complex experiments before acting.  The challenge to removing stupidity is to have the correct data and the knowledge and then use it. Organizations encourage stupidity by stifling creativity, innovation, and chance taking. They reward someone for keeping clean a house, but the one who figures out creative ways to prevent the mess in the first place is ignored.

Following a tried and true recipe, rather than thinking of new solutions may help you avoid negatives or punishment, but that organization is not going to improve easily. When people are obsessed with following the success recipes of others, they are relieved of the burden of actually thinking and analysis.  They act without considering the implications of their actions.

I am not against rules, regulations and policies when they are agents for keeping order and helping people to know what to do. They create a way to communicate in a consistent way. They help with creating a team effort.  No one needs to re-invent every procedure. By understanding how things are done currently and in the past, the innovators can spread the new knowledge. Hiding behind the rules is a tactic for dealing with the public in a consistent way.  However, hiding behind a rule is not always best for business.  The empowered people in the organization learn how to use the rules and bend them for the greater good.  Branding is a way of establishing a consistent message throughout the organization.  The worthless rules I am talking about rules are those established without a knowledge base and without consulting the people affected. They can have unintended consequences that cause more harm than the intended rule or policy.

For example, if the policy is to encourage a type a behavior, the rules should enable the behavior to be carried out.  The College encourages learning.  That is the main reason we exist.  The faculty should not only be teaching and encouraging life-long learning, but should set the example for the students.  The College has policies to enable and encourage faculty learning such as attendance at professional conferences and doing research.  While our research is not the kind of basic research done in a research university, we still need to seek new knowledge and ideas to meet new challenges.  Stupidity would be to have conflicting policies such as “we encourage professional development” but don’t give the faculty a budget, time or encouragement to participate.

Q: How does one avoid stupidity?

A:  If we totally avoided stupidity, there would be no comedy left in the world.  That’s just a flip answer because much of our amusement is based on foolishness and stupidity.  Some of our best comedy is based on observations and comments on everyday life. Silliness is not always wrong.  People do need comic relief.  However, when there is a job to be done, we need to base behavior on knowledge.

In 1998 Steve Allen, a brilliant comedian, wrote a book called “Dumpth[4]  He gives an example of interviews with people on the street who have no idea of a keyword in the question.[5]  Steve asked, “If a person running for President was an acknowledged heterosexual would that matter to you?”  Man #1 “I wouldn’t vote for him or her.”  Steve: “Just because they’re a heterosexual” Man #1 “Yes.”  Everyone whom Steven asked on camera had no idea of the meaning of the word “heterosexual.”  No one asked what the word meant.  While I’m sure the editors selected only those people who proved the comedic point, those people on camera were completely serious with their answers.  This is an example of stupidity because they didn’t understand the question and refused to seek the knowledge needed to give a proper answer.

Most of “Dumpth” has “rules” for better ways of thinking. Most of the rules are connected to getting the right knowledge and learning how to think critically.  Some of the ideas are concerned with being aware of the world.  Some of his ideas are read books, go to museums, learn how to learn. Learn that truth is relative – truth can change based on new evidence and truth can be in the eyes of the beholders.

The advice in Perke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 4:1 is the best way to avoid stupidity.  “Who is wise?  He who learns from everyone. … Who is strong?  One who subdues his emotions (i.e. avoids his evil inclinations).”  Someone who recognizes what he knows and does not know, someone who uses knowledge to make wise choices, someone who make decisions based on truthful facts will not be considered “stupid.”

Here are some sample stories of stupidity.  (They are based on fact, but edited by me for increased learning or entertainment value.)   

The IRS makes an appointment with an accountant to explain the tax returns of his client.  The IRS tells the accountant to bring two forms of ID in order to prove who he is.  The accountant brings an Illinois Drivers License and a US Passport. The IRS refuses to accept the drivers license.   What is acceptable?  A copy of a utility bill presented on a cell phone screen.

This is the same government that says IDs can’t be required to vote.  I know that Illinois is one of the states have not complied with the Federal standard for state IDs, but this situation for entrance to a meeting that was scheduled by the agency. 

When the accountant in the story gets to the 9:00 am meeting he is told to wait.  Finally, the meeting starts at 11:30. When he asked why, he was told that 8 of 11 people in the department didn’t show up for work because it was a Monday morning.  Is this stupidity or lack of common courtesy?  This is stupid because the people in charge haven’t figured out what their mission is.  The upper management lets workers get away with wasting the time of members of the public and the person setting the appointment didn’t learn that previous Mondays had many members in the department absent.

Another example:

Two persons need to visit a government office for a license.  After waiting 45 minutes, they are told they need an eye doctor to check their vision.  They get a vision test.  They return to the office.  Now they are asked about all their prescription medicines.  One is on an anti-depressant.  Now she needs a psychiatrist signature.  To meet with a psychiatrist who didn’t prescribe the medicine and never saw them before costs time and money. They get the signature and return to the government office, who now needs a letter from a doctor, not just a signature.  Luckily they are able to “sweet” talk around this time waster.

Of course I am just telling a small part of the story.  To the outsider, this would be labeled as “stupid,” because the agency couldn’t figure out how to issue the license without alienating those they are mandated to serve.  The “stupidity” came from the management, not the clerks dealing with the public.

It is almost impossible to avoid stupidity in agencies that we are required to deal with.  We can only learn from them and try to make our organization better.  Getting rid of stupid time wasters is better for our people and the public we are trying to serve. It helps us to better serve our students, faculty, staff, and stakeholders.

“Stupid” is easier to describe in words concerning what it is not, because our language is limited.  Emotionally charged words react with the mind differently than logic, fact and wisdom.  Several people have suggested that the definition of “stupidity is continuing on the same course of action and expecting different results.”  This is a description of not learning from experience or experimentation.  However, one person can hit his head against the wall and get a headache while another, who has learned the wall’s weakness can make the wall fall down.  The first person will continue to get stupid headaches, while the second will find a new challenge to conquer.

Q> We are out of time for this interview. This is obviously an emotionally charged issue.  Calling someone a derogatory label is easy.  Curing stupidity is much harder. Thank you very much.


Allen, Steve.  “Dumbth” : the lost art of thinking. Revised edition.  Amherst, NY : Prometheus Books, 1998.  Steve Allen (1921-2000) was a talk show host and comedian, who wrote 50 books and more than 8500 songs.  This book was written because of his daily frustration dealing with dumb behaviors.  He coined the word “dumbth” for these situations which show a lack of thinking.

Alvesson, Mats and Andre Spicer.  “Why smart people buy into stupid ideas: The Stupidity Paradox”   in Financial Review, Jun 17 2016.  Retrieved from:    on July 26, 2016.   This article is an extract from The Stupidity Paradox: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work by Mats Alvesson and André Spicer.  London : Profile Books, 2016.

Read more:

Balazs Aczel, Bence Palfi, Zoltan Kekecs. "What is stupid? : People's conception of unintelligent behavior." Intelligence  Volume 53, November–December 2015, Pages 51–58.

Huzar, Tim.  “Neoliberalism, Democracy and the Library as a Radically Inclusive Space” 2014. Retrieved July 17 2016 from:

[1] See resources for full reference.

[2] In 1971 the Framingham Report ( )  suggested that elevated levels of serum cholesterol increased the risk of heart disease. The researchers William B. Kannel, William P. Castelli, Tavia Gordon, and Patricia M. McNamara wrote:  Serum Cholesterol, Lipoproteins, and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease published in Annals Internal Medicine 1971 Jan;74(1):1-12.

See also: Swan HC. The Framingham offspring study: A commentary. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 2000;35(5s2):13B-17B. Retrieved July 29, 2016 from:

[3] This is an article about using evidence to avoid stupidity, not a treatise to explain the relationship of diet and risk of heart disease.  

[4] See resources for full reference.

[5] Page 15-19 of “Dumpth”.  Video clip on YouTube: .

No comments: