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Call Me Stupid

A provocative set of essays argues that acting stupid may be smarter than you think.

By James Crawford, Crimson Staff Writer

You know what? I just can’t write this review. I’m not “smart” enough. Or, possibly I’m too “dumb.” Perhaps I don’t have the “intelligence” required; or, I am intelligent enough, but in my “foolishness” as I labor over a keyboard, I temporarily don’t have the ability to understand what this book was all about. Otherwise, it could be a lack of “cognitive ability” or a dearth of “rationality”—or maybe it is an overwhelming barrage of excessive jargon that prevents me from understanding exactly what the authors mean.

Therein lies the fault with Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid, a collection of essays edited by Yale IBM Professor of Psychology and Education Robert J. Sternberg, concerning how and why ostensibly intelligent people can do incredibly stupid things. Former president Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky and Richard Nixon’s claims of innocence during the Watergate scandal are two landmark instances in which two men, blessed with all the trappings of intelligence, were incapable of sound judgement.

Did Clinton honestly expect to get away with his affair with Lewinsky given his constant scrutiny by secret service agents? In short, yes, but in longer responses, a number of scholars—appropriately all very smart—propose psychological theories to explain smart people doing dumb things.

The book’s contents, however, are not nearly as fun as its provocative title. The majority of the essays bear names with an Ivy League pedigree, and taken individually, are lucid and forthright. However, the collection lacks the sparkle of the overarching theme. Sternberg perhaps promises too much by trying to coax life from authors who suffer from a terminal excess of terminology. Though their explanations are educated, each essay that actually tackles the prescribed question proposes new working definitions to frame an answer.

So, was a smart-stupid individual guilty of folly, or being foolish, or lacking critical self-organization, or not appropriately delaying gratification? Each intellectual vignette engages a different perspective on stupidity, and in most cases, quibbles over language instead of getting to the matter’s core.

When an author breaches that core, as Carol S. Dweck does in her contribution “Beliefs that Make Smart People Dumb,” the insights can be weighty and provocative. She posits that smart people behave stupidly precisely because they possess great intelligence. Arthur Conan Doyle, of Sherlock Holmes fame, is a prime example. The author’s creation was famous for debunking supernatural phenomenon by giving them rational explanations. Doyle himself, however was a disciple of the supernatural and a great believer in the fantastical apparitions revealed during seances. Though Holmes would argue that these visions were fraudulent, Doyle was able, by virtue of his staggering creative mind, to construct alternate versions of reality to debunk his own debunker. Precisely because he possessed great intelligence was he able to adhere to a dumb belief.

Alternately, intelligent people may appear stupid because they have problems adapting to their current circumstances. Bill Clinton was never caught for infidelity when he was the governor of Arkansas, writes Diane F. Halpern in “Sex, Lies and Audiotape,” so his later behaviour seemed appropriate given his prior learning. But Clinton’s greater responsibility and more intense scrutiny as President rendered his actions even more stupid than before because this time he was more liable to get caught. Stupidity is about frame of reference. A day laborer with an IQ of 80 may lack sophisticated mental faculties and therefore engage in imprudent activity, but to be truly stupid, you have to be smart first.

But among the well-considered arguments that pepper the book’s first half, the remainder is a puzzling assortment of essays only vaguely related to why smart people can be so stupid.

In Elena L. Grigorenko and Donna Lockery’s contribution, the smart-stupid relevance is haphazardly tacked on to the introduction and conclusion, but remains entirely absent from the interceding paragraphs. Similarly, Elizabeth J. Austin and Ian J. Dreary’s “Personality Dispositions” is an approachable survey of personality types, but the relevance of those categories to intelligence is a poorly rendered afterthought.

Despite the flaws in execution, this book’s intent is something that academia needs. Intelligence may be something of a cult, but stupidity only receives cursory treatment. IQ tests, Mensa societies and SAT scores all measure intelligence, but stupidity remains the butt of crude humour and careless thought. Precisely because the state of being dumb has no analogue to being smart, Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid provides valuable insight into a subject that eludes, but intrigues us all.

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