Understanding human stupidity in a post-truth era
I have to say when I came across a new paper by Manfred Kets de Vries from Insead Business School I thought I needed to borrow the title for this post. In it, he examines the nature of human stupidity and why even the smartest people sometimes do stupid things. But more importantly for our time, he also investigates why people abandon rationality altogether and hold on to stupid and bizarre ideas like conspiracy theories and why this phenomenon has spread so much that we are now talking about a post-truth world.
To start with, I think it is important to define what Kets de Vries means with the term ‘stupidity’. In his definition, it is the act of being temporarily or otherwise “unable to properly navigate the domains of reasoning, planning, problem-solving, abstract thinking, complex ideas, and learning from experience”.
I couldn’t agree more. This pretty neatly sums it up and from now on I will always think of people as persons who are unable to properly navigate the domain of reasoning. So much more eloquent than just thinking “What a stupid moron”.
I have always been a fan of the basic law of human stupidity but what Kets de Vries adds are explanations for why people seem to stubbornly hold on to stupid beliefs even when these ideas have been disproven many times over. It is incredible, how often stupidity seems to be matched with stubbornness. So often, indeed, that Cicero once said, “Any man can make mistakes, but only an idiot persists in his error”.
The most common place where I encounter this is in the steadfast refusal of people to learn or grow. They complain about their co-workers all the time but never change jobs. They envy the person who trained for a new skill and got promoted but refuse to enter the same training programme to get ahead. In the area of economics, I meet people who claim that cutting taxes is good for growth, despite the evidence showing that no such link exists. If anything, the people who benefit from lower taxes are the CEOs of companies and similar people.
Human stupidity has been commonplace ever since hominids walked the planet. After all, we are programmed by evolution to be of limited rationality. Our ancestors would often not have survived if they had rationally evaluated the significance of the moving shadow in the bush. By the time they figured that out, the significance would have probably stared them in the eye and ate them for breakfast. Better safe than sorry then and resort to fight or flight shortcuts, even if that is an emotional reaction that temporarily abandons the ability to properly navigate the domain of reason.
The difference between the past and today, however, is social media. Or rather the ability of stupid people to transmit their opinions to the whole world. In the past, people who believed in conspiracy theories or misinformation would sit in a bar and rant at other patrons. Today, they are on X, TikTok, or other platforms and can reach millions of people worldwide. And as Elon Musk proves almost daily, just because you are rich or have millions of followers doesn’t mean you can properly navigate the domain of reason.
Musk himself once described Twitter (now X) as the town square where people come together. I would add that it is the town square where the village idiots gather. Because people all over the world can come together in a virtual group, it is much easier for manipulators to spread their lies and misinformation.
Politicians have known for ages that groups of people are easier to manipulate than individuals. The first politicians to exploit this on an industrial scale were probably the Nazis with their mass gatherings, but already the ancient Greeks and Romans knew that when people come together in large groups herd instinct takes over and it becomes much harder for the individual to point out the flaws in an argument a politician or group leader makes.
Populist leaders and manipulators of people need to have a large platform to take control of societies. In the 1930s the Nazis used the spread of radio to indoctrinate the German people with their ideas, today, social media does the same for populist politicians all over the globe (or the disc if you believe in the Flat Earth Theory which has gained a lot of new supporters thanks to YouTube).
If the temporary or permanent inability to navigate the domain of reasoning is becoming more widespread, what can we do to reverse this trend? I belong to the group of people that trying to convert these people is a hopeless task. I salute Mark Twain as quoted in Kets de Vries's paper with the words: “Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.” But Kets de Vries is more optimistic and suggests several measures:
Strong institutions. Often, institutional checks and balances like an independent judiciary or laws against slander and libel and limitations on unlimited free speech are the last safeguards against stupidity taking control of entire societies. There is a reason why Germany has some of the strictest laws about free speech. That country has seen what unchecked and unlimited free speech can do to a nation. As a result, some 13% of all content moderators employed at Meta (Facebook) speak German, though only about 1-2% of all Facebook posts are in German. And it’s not because Germans post more offensive content than other people.
Satire. Satire has always been one of the most potent weapons against tyrants. Kets de Vries argues that it is also a potent weapon to disarm misinformation. You’re laughing, so you’re learning as they say. Laughing about yourself and the beliefs you hold may make you reconsider them. At the very least, it puts a dent into the armour of stubbornness and dogmatic belief.
Education. The inability to navigate the domain of reasoning is often the result of a lack of education. This is why I write a blog for public consumption. To help educate people about economic matters. It doesn’t work all the time because most people refuse to educate themselves and open their minds to facts that contradict prior beliefs. But it does work sometimes. And with everyone who changes their opinion about how the economy works to something that is founded on facts and data, the world gets a little bit better. I change my opinions about how the economy works from time to time. There is no shame in admitting you were wrong. But a lot of shame in holding on to beliefs in the face of evidence to the contrary.
Paradoxical intervention. If all else fails, go and encourage the stupid people in their belief. Let them act on their beliefs and run into a wall. Of course, one shouldn’t go as far as to let someone who believes in unfunded tax cuts like Liz Truss run the country into the ground, but if there is anything positive to say about her it is that for the vast majority of British people, these ideas are now dead. And politicians on the left and right of the political spectrum keep emphasising all the time that fiscal discipline is key to their economic plans. No more excessive deficit spending. Well, if nothing else, I think that’s a good thing.