Joanna Neborsky ’03 needs several minutes per word to tell the story of how conscientious security personnel stopped her from bringing a dirty cake knife into Salman Rushdie’s talk. She also can’t get through relating how she accidentally yelled about George Harrison’s death in front of a funeral vigil for a deceased student, and made the comment, “Stories are the houses we live in,” in English class without laughing periodically at her pain.
If you’ve ever locked yourself out of your room in a towel, given your key card to the cashier at Urban Outfitters, or thought Just Add Water was Yale’s Christian a cappella group, you may be able to relate to these tales of woe. Even Yale students can be incredibly stupid.
But a new book edited by Robert Sternberg, a professor of psychology and education at Yale, “Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid,” examines stupidity from a perspective that is wide and experienced enough to accommodate more troubling kinds of cognitive lapses than mere absentmindedness or confusion.
“The roots of the book were in my wondering — ‘What’s up with people who have very high intelligence, in the traditional sense, but seem to be out to lunch in another sense?,'” Sternberg wrote for an electronic interview with the Washington Post.
Specifically, the essays in Sternberg’s book focus on the kind of personal mistakes he calls “foolishness,” mistakes that embody the opposite of wisdom.
To demonstrate what he means by foolishness, Sternberg brings up Bill Clinton LAW ’73 in the book’s preface — “Beyond any hormonally motivated behavior on his part — how [could] a trained lawyer have allowed himself to become entangled in such a legal nightmare?”
He also mentions brilliant geologist turned criminal former Saybrook College Master Antonio Lasaga.
“Why do people think and behave in such stupid ways that they end up destroying their livelihood or even their lives,” Sternberg wrote. “Clearly, this is not a book about stupidity in the conventional, IQ-based sense. The focus here is on those who demonstrate the kind of stupidity that can take one’s breath away.”
No wonder, then, that our modern word for “stupid” is borrowed from the Latin “stupidus,” closely related to “stupere,” to be stunned. But Sternberg writes that until we get ourselves into real trouble, “most of us are not stunned by our stupidity, which is our problem.”
To get a better sense of his meaning, I visited Sternberg, now president-elect of the American Psychiatric Association, in his Edwards Street office. On the way, I got lost, thinking I could find the place easily because, well, I’m responsible. Little did I know I was just a walking bundle of fallacies.
Sternberg explained to me that there are four fallacious assumptions that impede wisdom and lead smart people into self-destructive mistakes — the kind that will get you kicked out of school, fired, sued, attacked in the press, and even impeached. These are the fallacies of egocentrism (“When we start to think the world revolves around us”), omniscience (“We know more than everyone else — the others are just big idiots”), omnipotence (“We, unlike others, can do what we want and get away with it”), and invulnerability (“We are so smart that we can cover our tracks”).
Sternberg’s theory of foolishness emphasizes the tendency of these fallacies to befall the traditionally stupid and the traditionally very smart. He explained that while the smart act stupidly because they think they can get away with it, the stupid simply “lack the cognitive capacity to realize how foolish these fallacies are.”
Therefore, the emphasis of the book’s title should fall on the “so stupid” rather than on the “can be,” because smart people are the ones who often get themselves into the worst kinds of trouble when the fruits of their stupidity are revealed.
Some of this year’s crime reports in the Yale Daily News confirm this theory: an English professor, Traugott Lawler, breaks into a closed golf course and begins to tee off; And in the most startling lapse of judgment of the year, even in the midst of the Enron debacle, Brian Tippy ’02 brings a bag of heroin to the police with a request that they test its purity.
Of course, these are all extreme cases. When asked for the examples foolishness he sees most in Yale students, Sternberg was quick to cite three examples: cheating, shoplifting and heavy drinking. In all three cases, there is some perceived short-term gain to be had, with a heavy possible long-term loss if the perpetrator is caught off guard.
“Smart people turn into self-saboteurs when they do stupid things,” he said. “Yale students are more likely than others to think things like ‘I can get drunk and take a test tomorrow’ or ‘Other people have to study, but I don’t.’ They may be setting themselves up for a really big fall.”
Still, the majority of Yale students meet Sternberg’s criteria for smart stupidity on a near-daily basis. Indeed, his definition of dangerous foolishness could be easily expanded to encompass such common Yale activities as random hookups (nothing bad or unexpected will befall me tomorrow morning), spending too much money (I know I can afford it), or just taking on more work and extracurricular commitments than we can handle (I’m smart enough to handle this).
And even as we try to cover such mistakes, they don’t always go unnoticed. York Square Cinemas Assistant Manager Chris Schuck says he observes unwise actions in Yale students all the time.
“A lot of their stupidity is lack of perspective rather than specific blunders,” he said. “I’m very sympathetic to the kind of stupidity that leads people to get confused about things. A lot of students read a sign announcing movie times as 1, 3 and 5, and think the movie starts at 1:35.”
But Schuck said there is another kind of stupidity that he witnesses routinely among Yale students, to which he is not so sympathetic. It involves an arrogance that is not merely annoying, but also fits Sternberg’s criteria for the kind of stupidity that can lead to self harm.
“Yale students consistently step over the rope, flash their ID card, and give us a hard time with a long line behind them,” Schuck said. “The feeling of entitlement is arrogance, but more it’s also more automatic than typical arrogance. It comes from not stopping to think; it’s a logical disconnect.”
Sternberg warned that perpetuating exploitation in relationships is a mistake that smart people are especially prone to commit.
“Different kinds of situations elicit different behavior from people. For example, Clinton was very smart in most domains of his like, but in some kinds of interpersonal situations with women, he appears not to have been,” he wrote.
Schuck said that he observes this kind of temporary exploitative stupidity in the actions of Yale students in the movie theater.
“What I sense most is their sense of disengagement from the theater. They have no idea how much New Haven needs them, and they are completely oblivious to the larger context of the theater. Non-Yalies are more invested in the actual movie experience, they care about movie theaters in general. With a lot of Yale students, you get the feeling that they don’t think of the theater as a special kind of place. They are there and gone,” he said.
Sternberg added that, as smart people, avoiding the four fallacies is a good way to curb our natural tendency towards foolishness. He cited Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Theresa a examples of people who were both smart and wise, but said that one does indeed need to be smart to become wise.
“The opposite of being foolish is being wise,” Sternberg said. “One of the things I’m concerned about at Yale is that it emphasizes the smart rather than the wise.”