The Scientific Study of Idiots

In sum, the idiot embodies a sort of exaggerated version of the various tendencies the researchers observed. An idiot who manages to accumulate all these tendencies will become the “emperor of idiots,” which is to say, the most gigantic asshole the earth has ever seen.

In The Psychology of Stupidity, some of the world’s leading psychologists and thinkers – including a Nobel Prize winner – will show you . . . , Why smart people sometimes believe in utter nonsense,  How our lazy brains cause us to make the wrong decisions, Why trying to debate with fools is a trap,  How media manipulation and Internet overstimulation makes us dumber, Why the stupidest people don’t think they’re stupid. Excerpts 

by Serge Ciccotti 

The ignorant man affirms, the scientist doubts, the wise man reflects. —ARISTOTLE

Is it possible to make a scientific study of idiots? It’s a provocative question! We know of asinine studies (for example: “Farting as a Defense Against Unspeakable Dread”), and studies on pointless jobs that have no social value and bring little personal satisfaction; but studies on idiots themselves? What would that even look like?

Actually, if you look at the scientific literature in the psychological domain, you’ll find that bullshit, in a general way, has been fairly well researched. In this sense, you could say that, yes, it’s possible to conduct a scientific investigation of idiots; but in so doing, it’s important to recognize that the study of idiots is no more or less than the study of all mankind. A portrait of the idiot can be drawn from some of the variables that different studies have explored. This will allow us to gain a relatively precise idea of the idiot (interfering, stupid, rather limited in attention span or intellect), and of some of their variations, such as the conceited, brutal blowhard, whose stupidity contains an element of toxic narcissism, not to mention a total lack of empathy.

Stupidity and the Short Attention Span

Rather than study the idiot as an object, psychological research focuses on understanding why people act like idiots sometimes.

Studies of behavioral scripts show that most of the time people do not analyze their environment deeply before they act. They depend on familiar, habitual routine actions, which they execute automatically in response to internal or environmental factors. That’s why, if you happen to be crying, there’s always some moron standing by who says, “Hey, how are you doing?” That’s as stupid as checking your watch a second time, right after you’ve just looked at it.

When you want to know what time it is, you look at your watch. The script unfolds mechanically. This mechanism allows you to be inattentive, because the effect of the script is to reduce the amount of attention required to complete a task. Consequently, because you’re not paying attention and are thinking of other things, you look at your watch without seeing it. The information is not retained; which is why you have to look again to check the time. It’s stupid, isn’t it?

In the field of research on attentional resources, psychologists have demonstrated that people often are blind to change, and that even an important alteration is not always perceived by the individual. That’s why, if you’ve lost fifteen pounds on a diet, you always run into some asshole who doesn’t see the difference. Research on the illusion of control allows us to understand why, for instance, you’ll always find some jerk pressing the elevator button like a maniac when it’s already been pressed. Studies on social influence show that when a moronic driver goes down a dead-end street, some idiot always follows him; and when you ask a contestant on a quiz show if it’s the sun or the moon that revolves around the Earth, the moron asks to poll the audience.

Human beings tend to cast aside pure reason and expected values. The dumbest among us, as a rule, is the one whose outlook reflects the greatest divergence from the average of studied effects. Generally, his vision of the world is simplistic: he has trouble with large numbers, with square roots, with complexity, and indeed with the bell curve itself, where he is to be found on the fringes. Stalin once said, “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic.” As a rule, people are more receptive to anecdotes than to scientific reports stuffed with figures. But the idiot devours anecdotes. He will know someone who fell forty floors and didn’t get a scratch . . . anyway, “that’s what I heard on the news.”

Stupidity and Faith

Studies of belief show that people have faith in justice (“Belief in a Just World”), which is probably the most common shared belief on earth. The worst assholes illustrate how this belief can be misused when they say things like: “Sure, she was raped, but did you see how she was dressed?” The dumber a person is, the more likely he is to blame the victim. Another sort of asshole will deride the poor as “filthy beggars.”

Idiots excel in their capacity to believe anything and everything, from folktales to conspiracy theories, from the moon’s influence on behavior to the effectiveness of homeopathy (it works on the dog, there’s proof!). On May 28, 2017, a motorcycle was filmed driving several miles on the highway without its driver, who had fallen off. Some confirmed idiots attributed this phenomenon to the supernatural specter known as the “woman in white”; brainier types put it down to gyroscopic effect. There seems to be a negative correlation between holding mystical beliefs and winning a Nobel Prize. 

Studies in the realm of belief always distinguish between the naïve credulity of greenhorns and the entrenched stupidity of old fools. It’s been proven that negative memories fade with time, whereas positive memories endure. This is why the older a person gets, the greater his tendency to regard the past in a positive light, which is why old fools like to complain wistfully, “Everything was better in the good old days.”

A large swath of irrational human behavior has been scrutinized by psychologists, who have determined that it springs from the individual’s need to control his environment. Every living organism expresses this need (think of how your dog races to the door every time the bell rings, even though it’s never for him). This compulsion can result in absurd actions by members of the human species, like, for instance, going to see a psychic. There are about a hundred thousand people in France who declare themselves to be “psychics”; they earn more than $3 billion a year. Researchers have never identified any genuine gift in self-styled psychics, but that doesn’t keep these so-called seers from benefiting their clients. It’s estimated that 20 percent of women and 10 percent of men have consulted a psychic at least once in their lives. Generally, psychics report that they don’t regret having chosen this fraudulent line of work to earn their crust; apparently, idiots making other idiots the basis of their livelihood works perfectly well as a business model. The need for control is often accompanied by the illusion of control; and idiots probably delude themselves that they are in control more than others. One proof of the power of this illusion can be shown through the everyday example of driving or riding in a car. When you’re a passenger, you fear accidents much more than you do when you are the driver. There are some fools who find it impossible to sleep when they are passengers; apparently they can sleep only when they’re the driver!

The idiot will throw the dice as hard as he can to get sixes; he will choose his own numbers in the lottery. He will stoop to pick up a penny for luck and make sure to avoid walking under ladders. The fool has everything under control: if he wins the lottery, it’s because he dreamed of the number 6 for six nights in a row, and because 6 × 6 = 36, he played the 36 and won. By the same token, it must be accepted that the idiot is in good mental health overall; because the illusion of control is much weaker among depressed people. 

Studies About Idiots That Help Explain Your Job

In another area studied widely by scientists, idiots have been found to employ an exceptionally wide range of strategies to shore up their self-esteem. Studies on bias and false consensus demonstrate that people tend to exaggerate the number of other people who share their faults. This is why, when you point out to some jerk that he has blown past a stop sign, he will retort, “But nobody stops at this sign!”

The typical asshole often indulges in retrospective bias. At the maternity hospital, he’ll say, “I was sure it was going to be a boy.” As he stands in front of the television on election night, he’ll declare, “I was sure Trump was going to be president,” and sometimes when you’re talking with him he’ll tell you, “I knew you were going to say that!” Is the idiot showing bad faith? Is the idiot a fortune-teller? Not at all: the idiot deploys “I knew it” to strategic ends, to demonstrate that he’s better informed than he really is. “I know, I know. . . .” Of course, you must never mention these studies to idiots, as they will deny that they do such things.

To protect their self-esteem, many people overestimate their abilities. This bias has been proved by psychological experiments that demonstrate that, in multiple arenas, a large number of participants rate themselves higher than average in such categories as, for instance, intelligence and everything connected with it. On one side of the axis, you have those humble souls whose human qualities of simplicity, humility, and discretion lead others to perceive them as simpleminded or naïve, and to criticize them for lack of confidence and treat them like dummies who can be easily manipulated. On the other side of the axis, you find the high achievers, which is to say, overconfident idiots. One of these smug morons can exact a high price on society when he (for example) gets lost at sea, or gets stranded in the mountains after off-piste skiing—even if he mostly contents himself with exaggerating his prowess at maintaining speed on the highway.

Another form of bias, egocentric bias, permits us to distinguish minor-league imbeciles from the gigantic assholes who don’t acknowledge their own role in stupidity. The jerk who’s been divorced three times because all three of the women he married were bitches, the blowhard whose business failed because he was working with a bunch of losers. Even when he was a teenager, he claimed that it wasn’t his feet that stank, it was his socks. One day he was stopped in his car for speeding; that was just bad luck. He can’t understand that luck is the spin that assholes put on probability.

The researchers David Dunning and Justin Kruger could not have published an article with a title like “Studies About Idiots That Help Explain Your Job.” If they had presented their work that way it never would have made it through peer review at a scientific journal. Yet in their research, this is what they abundantly demonstrated. These two specialists discovered that incompetent people tend to overestimate their own level of competence. That is why a fool who’s never had a dog will tell you how to train yours. Dunning and Kruger attribute this tendency to the difficulty that unqualified people have, in certain contexts, with assessing their true abilities. But that’s not all: according to these psychologists, not only does the incompetent person overestimate his own level of competence, he also fails to recognize competence in those who possess it.

Thanks to their research, we can understand why a stupid client will tell a professional how to do his job, and why when you lose something some moron is bound to say to you, “Wait, where was it the last time you saw it?” It also explains why a fool will feel compelled to say, “It’s easy to be a lawyer, law is top-of-the-head stuff”; “Quitting smoking? It’s just a question of willpower”; “Flying an airplane? It’s like driving a bus”; and so on. This is why when an idiot strolls out of a lecture on quantum physics of which he has not understood a single word, he will feel free to look the expert straight in the eyes and say: “Could be, could be . . .”

Dunning and Kruger suggest that if we were prudent we would be tempted not to vote in elections. Given how useless we are at economy, geopolitics, and running major institutions, we are incapable of evaluating electoral platforms or of having any idea how to improve the country’s direction. All the same, any idiot at a bar will say, “I know how to solve the crisis!” A number of studies conducted with Asian participants display an inverse Dunning-Kruger effect; in other words, they underestimate their abilities. It appears that in the culture of the Far East, where the prevailing norm is to avoid standing out, the desire to prove that you’ve mastered every subject does not exist.

Bullshit Detector

Even though many more mechanisms could be included here to help us define stupidity, let’s wrap up this short synthesis with a discussion of cynical mistrust, a quality in which the idiot and the asshole are more deeply steeped than other people. Cynicism is defined as a collection of negative beliefs about human nature and its motivations. The asshole is often prey to sociopolitical cynicism—just ask him. A few phrases punctuate his running commentary: “They’re all corrupt”; “A bunch of crooks and losers”; “Psychologists? Charlatans, every last one of them”; “Journalists? Bootlickers.” They think that people who act honestly do so only out of fear of being caught.

The asshole lives in a world of incompetence and deceit. Studies show that cynical idiots are so uncooperative and mistrustful that they miss out on professional opportunities, and therefore earn less than others do.

In sum, the idiot embodies a sort of exaggerated version of the various tendencies the researchers observed. An idiot who manages to accumulate all these tendencies will become the “emperor of idiots,” which is to say, the most gigantic asshole the earth has ever seen.

But the key question, tied to our starting point—“Is it possible to make a scientific study of idiots?”—is probably: “Why are there so many idiots?” Because it is undeniably true that there are. If you shout “poor bastard” in the street, every head will turn around. Once again, the scientific literature provides the answer; indeed, many answers.

First of all, we’re all equipped with a bullshit detector called negativity bias. This is a tendency that leads us to give more weight, attention, and interest to negative things than to positive ones. Negativity bias has significant consequences on people’s opinions, on their prejudices and stereotypes, on discrimination and superstition. As with housework, we notice the little things only when they haven’t been done. It’s because of our negativity bias that we find it easier to deal with an idiot than with a genius in a complex social setting. In addition, this bias leads us to read more meaning into a negative event than a positive one. If you’re looking for something that you’ve lost at home, your reflex is to think that you didn’t lose it, someone else must have put it somewhere. “Who took my . . .?” Ultimately, when anything fails, there’s a tendency to think that there’s a reason for it, that some idiot must have wrecked everything.

And finally, let’s note that researchers have discovered a fundamental distortion in the attribution process. When you observe someone, you attribute their behavior to deep-dyed character, as opposed to any external factors that may be relevant. In many cases, you come to the natural conclusion: the guy’s an idiot. As a result, when a car zooms past us, it must be because the driver is a brute, and not because one of his kids got hurt at school; when a friend doesn’t answer an email for two hours it’s because he’s angry, not because he had an internet outage. If a colleague hasn’t handed in a file yet, it’s because he’s lazy, not because he’s overworked; if a professor responds to me curtly it’s because he’s a jerk, not because my question was stupid. This mechanism increases our tendency to spot idiots everywhere. Those are at least two of the reasons why we are so sensitive to stupidity.

Psychologist and researcher at the University of Southern Brittany

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