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We Can Get Pretty Stupid, Research Says

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We have smart genes–the rest is up to us

intelligence, economics, Stanford University, University of Lund A lot of people study intelligence, or at least take it for granted. We speak, listen (sometimes—more on that in a bit), form social groups that other animals don’t. Pretty smart, eh? But humans also do some colossally dumb things—engage in unnecessary stereotyping, stick our tongues to a frozen pole, or trigger a worldwide financial crisis.

So, while it’s valuable to study human intelligence, it might be just as valuable to study human stupidity. There may be more value than meets the eye.

Gerald Crabtree, a neurobiologist at Stanford University, states that intelligent human behavior requires between 2,000 and 5,000 genes to work together. A mutation or other fault in any of these genes, and some kind of intellectual deficiency results. Before the creation of complex societies, humans suffering from these mutations would have died. But modern societies may have allowed the more intelligent to care for the less intelligent. While anyone who had participated in a group project understands this phenomena, it doesn’t explain why IQ and other tests have consistently risen, and why people with high scores on those tests still do stupid things.

The answer might not lie with what genes are in our brains, but how we choose to use them (both genes and brains). Daniel Kahneman, a Princeton University scientist and Nobel Laureate for his work on economic and human behavior, discovered that the human brain works one of two ways (and never both): deliberatively and analytically, or irrationally, using intuition. Christof Koch of CalTech calls this irrational behavior our “zombie” response. Whatever name you use, it refers to reacting quickly to a situation without truly thinking about it. This is a useful reaction when a saber-tooth tiger (or an enemy soldier) is attacking you. It is not as useful when creating a retirement plan.

Our intuition, and all the problems that come with it—stereotyping, bias, abhorrence of ambiguity—prods us to make snap judgements, which can look pretty dumb.

But surely, complex societies are intelligently run. They’re large, operate with a great deal of human care and feeding, and overall seem successful. That’s what Andre Spicer of the Cass Business School in London and Mats Alvesson of the University of Lund, Sweden, thought. They began their studies looking at how highly prestigious businesses hire and manage their “best and brightest.”

The problem with Spicer’s and Alvesson’s hypothesis was; these organizations behave stupidly, in fact, more stupidly than less prestigious organizations. Hence the 2007 financial crisis, in which thousands of highly educated, financially astute experts in investment banks, ministries of finance, central banks, and commercial lending organizations apparently were completely blindsided by a financial bubble and subsequent meltdown that really appeared pretty obvious. In fact, Spicer and Alvesson found that the organizations that acted the most stupidly were investment banks, public relations agencies, and consultancies.

At these firms, the researcher found patterns: after hiring very intelligent people, they incorporated them into organizations that valued intuition over analysis, and trained them to avoid any risks. There resulted a distinct disconnect between an individual’s actions and the consequences of those actions.

So what’s the answer to stupidity? Stupidity, suggests Martin Schwartz, a microbiologist at the University of Virginia, but of a different sort. Echoing Desiderius Erasmus’ classic The Praise of Folly, Schwartz says that approaching a problem with the assumption that you know nothing, and need to build up a knowledge base, would sweep aside the intuitions that apparently, dumb down us all.

Photo: Tumblr/John Cleese
Sources: New Scientist

Crabtree, G. (2013). Our fragile intellect. Part I Trends in Genetics, 29 (1), 1-3 DOI: 10.1016/j.tig.2012.10.002

Alvesson, M., & Spicer, A. (2012). A Stupidity-Based Theory of Organizations Journal of Management Studies, 49 (7), 1194-1220 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-6486.2012.01072.x

Schwartz, M. (2008). The importance of stupidity in scientific research Journal of Cell Science, 121 (11), 1771-1771 DOI: 10.1242/jcs.033340

evolution in complex society, stupidity genes, research on human stupidity

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  • Jim Miles

    “…approaching a problem with the assumption that you know nothing, and need to build up a knowledge base, would sweep aside the intuitions that apparently, dumb down us all.” I gotta remember this one…