A Journey Toward A Theory Of Stupidity 7 | The Stupidity Scientist Part 1

Moving back in time a bit from Livraghi, but still several years past Cipolla, we find the next philosopher of stupidity: James F. Welles. In 1986, Welles wrote a book entitled Understanding Stupidity: An Analysis of the Premaladaptive Beliefs and Behavior of Institutions and Organizations and in 1988 followed up with another called The Story of Stupidity: A History of Western Idiocy from the Days of Greece to the Moment You Saw this Book which were both combined into one book that you can find on the web titled Understanding Stupidity. I do have to say that these two works together might just be the most comprehensive piece of literature on the subject ever written. There are so many astute observations littered throughout them that listing them all is impossible in my short posts here. However, what really stands out Welles’ work to me is that, unlike Livraghi or Cipolla, he takes a huge theoretical dive — a scientific one involving both psychology and sociology. This was a much needed injection of scientific perspective into the philosophy of stupidity that had been grossly neglected by the others.

And boy is the result a doozy. But let’s get right into it, shall we?

To make it as simple as possible, the theory can be boiled down to this: stupid people sacrifice being correct in the long-term (and thus enjoying the benefits of heightened successes that come with it) to avoid short-term emotional stress from acknowledging their wrongness and taking measures to correct their beliefs. The reason this happens is explained through what Welles calls “the schema” or “the basic belief structure of that person” which is the result of a linguistic abstraction from reality. As we grow older we take experience and social uses of language and evolve a schema that we unconsciously rely on for guiding behaviors (rather than conscious observation). It’s sort of like a computer program that is constantly running in the background to account for information and adjust behavior. The problem is that Welles claims that our emotions routinely hijack the program and become heavily intertwined in the system. Stupidity appears from a broken schema when the environment changes to where values and/or linguistic conventions that are deeply held in the schema no longer serve a purpose or hamper other extremely pressing goals. The appropriate reaction would be to adapt and move on, but instead people cling to these things because they have an invested psychological interest in them: it makes them feel good by living up to their schema.

In order to preserve their values and linguistic conventions in the face of reality that necessitates those things to change, Welles identifies three possible stupid outcomes (as the only intelligent one is to radically alter the schema, i.e. change one’s mind):

  • Adhere to an obsolete verbal value system while adopting new behaviors.
  • Adhere to obsolete behavioral norms while professing new values.
  • Devise a compromise conflict between necessary behavior and converted values.

The first two are obvious signs of hypocrisy — doing things that are completely different from what they profess. Either or causes problems in loss of self-perception and those can cause stupid behavior: the first feels good about being in line with their morals when they’re really not; the second feels good about being a newly adjusted person when truly nothing has changed. However, Welles claims that the third option is what most people take and is thus the most common form of stupidity. In this the schema falls into disarray; old moral language is applied normally and are consistent with some behaviors but are also applied to new behaviors in ways that contradict the language itself; values are extended into old behaviors that follow logically and also to new behaviors that completely contradict them. And all of this goes unnoticed. Welles describes this state in a way that I simply can’t do better justice, so I’ll give his direct quote:

“When stupidity is in full glory, the most discrepant cognitions are somehow matched up in the most implausible ways. Further, obvious relevancies are ignored, so the behavioral world takes on the bizarre, chaotic quality of a Wonderland gone berserk. Cause/effect and means/ends relationships are coined at random. The monumental is trivialized and the crucial disdained as an afflicted mind locks in on and pursues its own worst interest with unrestrained abandon.”

A related but ultimately different problem arises when people are put into groups with similar schema. Group dynamics, according to Welles, exacerbate the previous problem because they often reinforce the common schema through social conditioning. For one thing, any criticism levied at those around them, schemas being similar, would be a criticism of oneself, and so we find an inherent problem in divergence from the norm: people within groups of similar people are immediately incentivized to not think about the group’s behavioral problems or else they’d have to look at their own (which, again, is emotionally unsettling). However if a person finally does manage to get over their own emotional hurdles and realize they are operating under a malfunctioning schema, attempts to communicate changes to their own schema are met with backlash by their peers — criticizing one’s self inevitably leads to criticizing others because their schema are identical. Now they must deal with the emotional hurdles of others. And as people emotionally invested in their own schema are resistant to any kind of challenge to it (as that would compromise their current emotional state), they will necessarily do whatever it takes to ignore or delegitimize the contrary information being presented to them.

The rejection of alternate perspectives can be so extreme that it becomes a sort of “with us or against us” cult mentality; a social value of never challenging the norm becomes a norm. This puts any potential dissenter in a precarious position: as they themselves have an emotional desire to belong to a group (according to Welles anyway), should they express their discontent with behaviors in that group they are liable to be called a heretic or a crackpot by the people of their community. Not only does this ruin their public image but if this were to happen in a group of extremely stupid people they may even be disowned (or worse — killed). On the other hand, should they not express that discontent then they must either stay with the group and continue behaviors they aren’t thrilled with doing or abandon their kin and find a new one due to the immanent rejection through not abiding by common practices. It is a lose-lose situation. This prospect is frightening and can dissuade otherwise adaptable people from pursuing social conflict toward the end of changing a group. In sum strong social cohesion is gained at the price of each individual group member’s ability to adapt to reality.

Thus regular communication actually encourages people to stay conformed to a common schema as any outburst against the social norm would be squashed swiftly and with impunity. And staying within the defined behaviors and linguistic conventions of the group is rewarded by an emotional sense of togetherness. Welles notes that this positive and negative reinforcement establishes an “infinite feedback loop” that could keep a whole community working within a malfunctioning schema despite it (at least from a third perspective) clearly being in their best interests to escape. In that case a battle between those who are critical and those who want to belong is the result. People who want to belong forgo critical thinking and are accepted with open arms and those who are critical of the schema governing a group are kicked to the curb. And this continues until the strained relationship between behavior and environment gives way and external factors make everything crumble to the ground for the whole group.

These two separate but mutual emotional drives — those of social belonging and consistent internal positivity — combine to make the perfect cocktail for grand scale systemic failure in any population or subset thereof. When problems do arise from the schema itself all of the social checks and possible contingencies of diverting a disaster are completely incapacitated by the feedback mechanism. And the self-preserving nature of the schema warps self-perception as well as perception of the world; the group will be absolutely delighted with themselves and their accomplishments toward bringing about their own impending doom and all the warning signs that hell is about to unfold (or is currently unfolding) are considered boons instead of busts. Even worse still is that this whole process is completely arbitrary — none of it is necessary and all of it is subjectively based. But the most problematic factor in play is that this could happen to anyone and they’d never even know it because it all follows from their subconscious, maladaptive schema. Literally, I could be stupid and I am simply unable to know so because of myself.

In summary (and to put it bluntly) stupid people are slaves to socially-defined perception of reality (which is often delusional) and their own, instant emotional gratification — and it’s for the most mundane reason possible: because they want to be. But while this a very interesting theory, taking it at face value is certainly something we shouldn’t do. There’s plenty that needs to be addressed and I am so looking forward to every minute doing so. But that will have to wait for the next one.

To Be Continued


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