At first glance, The New Yorker headline reading “Why Smart People Are Stupid” seems ludicrous. It’s a not-so-subtle insult to its prime readership, right?. But that’s exactly what the magazine did.
It’s like Playboy running an article on the benefits of conservative values, ain’t it?
Well, yes. But maybe even worse. There’s really nothing (nothing!) that sticks in the craw of a self-declared “smart” person than being told he or she is stupid.
So what’s the New Yorker article (written by Jonah Lehrer) all about? Well, the idea that smart people often do stupid things. And these things don’t necessary mean boneheaded life decisions — bad business moves, bad personal relationship advances, etc. They can be as small as a simple arithmetic problem (one of which Lehrer uses in his article for example).
There’s plenty of research to back this phenomenon up. The research is founded upon years of careful analysis of smart and not-so-smart people addressing trick questions, riddles, and deceptive problems.
The findings show that smart people often get some of the easiest questions wrong. The not-so-smart people are able to answer these, but struggle when the questioning gets supremely difficult (as you’d expect).
The reasons for this are still a bit hypothetical but it comes down to two trends and are usually consistent in smart thinkers. For one, smart people are stubborn. If a mind can surmise an answer, smart people have convinced themselves, from years and years of getting the right answer, that their specific brain can do no wrong. Stubbornness, also, is the key to the reckoning that a simple question has a simple answer – one that can be found without exerting too much effort.
The second is shortcuts. Smart people take them. A lot. Well, everyone takes them. It’s sort of like your evolutionary ability to fast track. And with the world taking more shortcuts (read, see, do) our brains have necessarily adjusted.
But smart people sometimes forget to double-check their shortcuts. What, with all those other thoughts streaming around? Shortcuts just kind of make the mundane just skip past on by — automated.
Lehrer goes further in his article. Further actually into an almost third reason why smart people do stupid things. That reason is that no one really knows why they do stupid things. And while this problem may not be a big deal for many, the so-called “intelligensia” labors on their mistakes more than others.
As Lehrer points out, “introspection can actually compound the error, blinding us to those primal processes responsible for many of our everyday failings. We spin eloquent stories, but these stories miss the point. The more we attempt to know ourselves, the less we actually understand.” And so the intelligent are left more baffled than ever. Of course, there are other definitions of intelligence that make the whole idea of this silly. A good reader may do poorly on easy math questions. Likewise the other way around for reading comprehension. There are those that are savvy with business, but with nothing else — and yet it’s our society that labels him/her a genius or a lucky soul.
Okay. So here’s where I answer the “so what”. Well, for one, even the smartest of folks sometimes could use a little oversight. Those easy questions, the ones that the intelligent can sometimes miss, can often be as important as the stumper you’ve spent your morning on.For one, there’s assistants. Us Zirtual-ites can really help. But you know that. If you don’t know, get with it!
What else can help is a clearer understanding of your limits. You know that job interview question about your biggest weakness? Well if you can recognize your biggest weakness, or any weakness for that matter, you can work on a clearer understanding of how to work on it. Just because you can make a quick million or understand quantum leap, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t proofread your emails. Check up on yourself and your small doings. That’s being smart.