Why do people become stupid?

This is a question I wish I would have spent more time examining. I devoted an awful lot of time to figuring out how people should think — and almost no time at all into considering how they actually do, which bears very little resemblance to the former. In fact, I’ve found the latter so distasteful that I actually went to great lengths to avoid it.

Earlier today, I came across a post depicting a semi-redacted Facebook wall post in which the poster effectively said “Now call me racist, but I really hate people from country X” — which, as an example, is probably over-generalizing a bit much to be considered an example of true stupidity so much as general ignorance. But I started thinking about the factors likely behind the mistake.

This person is probably just thinking “normally” for where they live — their contacts, i.e. the people responding to the post, are most likely either people from their own real-world community or people very much like them.

Most likely they ARE at least peripherally aware of the correct definition of ‘racist’, but see no reason to trouble themselves over the distinction when the definition is used in such a sweeping fashion in so many other instances.

Their circle probably DOESN’T include anyone who WOULD make note of such a distinction, or at least no one who wasn’t marginalized to some degree, leading the result to be filtered out again.

There are probably at least 20 kinds of cognitive dissonance between the poster’s distaste for country X and the fact that they don’t personally know anyone from country X (although might, in a pinch, offer the ‘but my best friend is from country X’ as a defense).

None of these are ‘root causes’, in and of themselves, however. For that, we simply go directly to the source — culturally, we denigrate intelligence. Worse still, there’s no longer any real relationship between education and intelligence — there are legions of people who have accumulated massive debt who manage to remain poorly informed under the best of circumstances, so even the designation becomes somewhat arbitrary, depending on whom one asks. Then we have think tanks funding economics departments at various universities, BYU offering undergrads classes in debate and rhetoric to promote intelligent design, Huffpo pushing homeopathic ‘remedies’ and anti-vax bullshit…

In other words? I don’t think we have a very good grasp of the problem at all; we’re very good at manipulating one another to our own advantage, but very poor at doing much about it when we find an insoluble problem like persistent adult illiteracy. Our schools are obsessed with memorizing the answers to test questions (which is meaningless, because this doesn’t help anyone to synthesize information any more efficiently).

The important thing, going forward, is to recognize that we don’t have the luxury of fallacious arguments like envy or laziness — the evidence thus far is that socialization, cognitive bias and community all play strong, determining roles. Which is not to suggest that there is no personal accountability involved, but like most problems, merely assigning blame won’t necessarily result in a solution.

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  • Comments (3)
    • jane
    • June 3rd, 2011

    most people don’t think because they don’t need to ….. or they don’t perceive a need to …

    • Max Bell
    • June 4th, 2011

    Technically, though, people never stop thinking — it actually requires a conscious effort to stop (meditation, something I never mastered). It’s just that a great deal of it occurs on a subconscious level — which would be fine, except that much of the time, the result comes out pretty flawed.

    • Laroquod
    • June 4th, 2011

    People think what they need to think to get what they want, and don’t think what they’re afraid of thinking because it might prevent them from getting what they want.

    Add maintaining social ties and avoiding being blacklisted among their local peer group to ‘getting what you want’ and this to me explains most of the massive, willful blind spots in people’s consciousness. If they suspect it will only decrease their social value to know something, why put the work in to not be ignorant? That way lies dragons. So they just learn about things their friends think are cool instead, like I dunno, Lady Gaga or WoW.

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