of Human Stupidity (1932)
What is there to be learned from a book on human stupidity published in 1932? Well, for one, that the history of stupidity never ends. Walter B. Pitkin gives plentiful examples of human stupidity, and one would have hoped that such examples would have ended in 1932. But there followed World War II; the Vietnam War (for those who have not noticed, the Communists won); genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia and Sudan (Darfur); Enron, Tyco and Arthur Andersen; and a current involvement in Iraq with rapidly shifting ex post facto rationales, billions of dollars spent, and no endgame apparent to anyone, least of all those highly educated men of state who got us into it. These messes are not examples of stupidity alone, of course. Venality, greed, opportunism, irresponsibility and other less charming human traits played roles as well. But stupidity has surely been a prince among these causes.
Pitkin defines intelligence in a reasonable way, as “the ability of the individual to adjust successfully to new situations.” He defines stupidity as the opposite. I would prefer to call it foolishness to distinguish it from low IQ, which is clearly not what Pitkin means given that many of his examples of stupid people, such as Walt Whitman, almost certainly had high IQs. But whatever we call it, Pitkin believes that stupidity is omnipresent in the world. The reason is that the very attributes that led to success over evolutionary history lead to failure in more modern times. In particular, he insists that our distant ancestors had to be insensitive and indifferent to multitudinous stimuli in the environment, but that today—1932, anyway—we need to pay attention to those many stimuli. This evolutionary thesis is probably wrong. Pitkin’s examples, like drinking muddy water and eating rotten flesh, could sicken or kill a person in ancient times as well as they can today—an oversight that perhaps makes his book an example of its own subject. Indeed, Pitkin believed that stupidity is the result of Mendelian recessive traits coming out, but there is no evidence that recessives are any more of a problem today than at any other time in history. Probably the primary difference is that people with maladaptive recessive traits live longer and better lives today than in the past.
A second thing we learn from Pitkin is that stupidity is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. For example, Pitkin’s solution to the problem of undesirable recessives is—can you guess?—eugenics. He believed that many of the problems of the world of 1932, and presumably of today, have been caused by the breeding of undesirables, and that the solution is to forbid such undesirables to breed. The Holocaust showed us just how loose some peoples’ definition of an undesirable can be. Unfortunately, such ethnic cleansing still goes on today, so it is not clear that we learn much from our history, in general, or from the history of stupidity, in particular.
Pitkin criticizes people for many things, such as alcohol and drug use, which is probably fair. He was also prescient in recognizing the dangers of tobacco. But he did have a rather marked tendency to over-generalize, as revealed, for example, in his quoting a notorious comment that “all Africa is drunk after every sunset.” His prejudices in favor of some peoples (for example, the Germans and the English) and against others (the Russians and the French) are revealed throughout the book. At one point, he states that “it is the white blood in [Southern Blacks] that breeds that discontent which is divine.” One cannot help but wonder whether writing a history of stupidity is in itself any protection against the quality in oneself. Perhaps Pitkin was smarter academically than he was practically, but a little research soon puts paid to that hope.
Pitkin was unusual if he was anything. Early in his career he seemed to fancy himself a philosopher. In 1910, when he was 32 years old, he joined with five other authors to produce a book entitled The Progress and Platform of Six Realists. The book is practically unreadable, though it seems to be a brief for a form of radical positivism. Pitkin’s chapter is about evolution, and what is intelligible about it seems to be mainly wrong. A few years earlier he tracked down Edmund Husserl in Germany, trying to persuade him to let him translate one of Husserl’s books into English. He seems to have abandoned his philosophical pretensions, becoming a journalism professor at Columbia University and writing a series of mostly self-help books. Life Begins at 40 was his most famous, but he also wrote books giving advice on speed-reading and commented on just about every subject under the sun, gaining him a reputation as a kind of polymath.
Pitkin was always a pessimist: Just before A Short Introduction to the History of Human Stupidity appeared in 1932, he published The Twilight of the American Mind (1928), an early entry in the genre of American declinism in which he warned against too much immigration and too much education for less-than-keen minds. Despite (or perhaps because of) his reputation for such views, Pitkin was a household name. A Short Introduction to the History of Human Stupidity sold like hotcakes for Simon & Schuster, and it was translated into 15 languages. Perhaps there is something Pitkin got right after all?
There is something. We can learn from A Short Introduction to the History of Human Stupidity that there is a difference between the more academic, analytical side of intelligence and its more practical side. Very academically brilliant people, such as Manuel Jones, a physicist cited by Pitkin, can be practically incompetent. Pitkin may have had some of these same tendencies, as do many of us. I write these words while I am traveling in Peru, during the trial of Alberto Fujimori, who, like Manuel Jones, was a physicist and later became rector of a university. Fujimori today is on trial for corruption, and it is generally believed that he caused an untold number of deaths of innocent persons.
In my research with colleagues around the world, I have found that there truly appears to be an empirical distinction between the academic and practical sides of intelligence. We have studied the practical intelligence of people in a variety of occupations and generally found modest to moderate correlations between practical and academic intelligence. In one case in rural Kenya we found a negative correlation. It is ironic that a society like that of the United States that invests so much in various kinds of standardized testing is measuring such a narrow bandwidth of skills. The skills that lead to success in school are by no means the only ones people need to function effectively in teams, communicate in a clear and convincing fashion, and understand other people’s belief systems and emotions. Nevertheless societies continue to harbor rather narrow beliefs about intelligence, even in their quiz shows.
Many countries have television quiz shows that test people’s knowledge of obscure facts. The United States once had a program, College Bowl, that pitted undergraduate students from various universities against each other to determine which university had the smartest students, in much the same way that the universities competed in football. There were other programs, such as The Sixty-four Thousand Dollar Question, for which the stakes were so high that the producers decided to rig the games, causing a nationwide scandal when the fraud was discovered. Today, in the United States as in other countries, there are spelling bees, and there even was a recent documentary, Spellbound, that chronicles the lives of youngsters memorizing the spellings of thousands of words in order to compete nationally to be the spelling champion. Is memorizing thousands of obscure spellings, or for that matter pi to thousands of digits, the road to smartness, or to foolishness? More importantly, can a person be smart, in the sense of knowing all the facts he or she needs to know and then some, and at the same time be foolish in some other sense?
Examples of foolish behavior in smart people abound. Bill Clinton, a graduate of Yale Law School and a Rhodes Scholar, compromised his presidency by his poor handling of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and other scandals with women from his past. The antics of Silvio Berlusconi, one of the richest men in the world and the Prime Minister of Italy, at times seem to defy belief (at least, my own belief), such as his claim that Mussolini wasn’t responsible for any of the deaths of his countrymen; he only sent them “on vacation.” And lest all this seem recent, we only need to go back to Neville Chamberlain and his slogan of “peace in our time” as a means to appease Hitler to realize that smart people can act very foolishly.
Such behavior is not limited to politicians. Some of the world’s smarter and better-educated businessmen brought us the scandals and fiascoes that led to the bankruptcies of or debacles in major U.S. corporations such as Adelphia, Arthur Andersen, Enron, Tyco, WorldCom and others. Such scandals are not, of course, limited to the United States.
If there is one conclusion that seems clear, it is that smart people can act foolishly. If foolishness is in some sense the opposite of wisdom, it means that intelligence is no protection against it. No one would question whether Clinton, once the most powerful man in the United States, or Berlusconi, currently the most powerful man in Italy, is smart.
We learn also from Pitkin, correctly I believe, that stupidity is more a state than a trait. That is, intelligent people can behave stupidly much of the time. Indeed, he concludes that every normal person actually needs many moments of stupidity. This warns us that conventional intelligence erects no barrier to foolishness. Kenneth Lay, formerly CEO of Enron, was an economics professor. Another CEO, Jeffrey Skilling, was a Harvard MBA. And Andrew Fastow, the CFO, was a graduate of the university where I work, Tufts. They were, as a recent documentary reminded us, “the smartest guys in the room”, but academic credentials proved no bar to vast displays of foolishness.
What is it that leads smart people to do foolish things? Pitkin doesn’t delve very deeply here, but I would suggest that smart people are especially susceptible to foolishness precisely because they think they are immune to it. In particular, they behave foolishly when they commit one or more of six fallacies.
The unrealistic optimism fallacy. This fallacy occurs when one believes one is so smart or powerful that it is pointless to worry about the outcomes, especially the long-term ones, of what one does because everything will come out all right in the end—as in “I’m too brainy and powerful to have to worry about anything.” If one simply acts boldly, one’s intelligence will turn things around in time. What were Richard Nixon’s cronies thinking when they planned the break-in at the Watergate? What were George W. Bush and his handlers thinking when the “mission accomplished” banner was waved to signal the end of the war in Iraq?
The egocentrism fallacy. This fallacy arises when one comes to think that one’s own interests are the only ones that are important. One starts to ignore one’s responsibilities to other people or to institutions. Sometimes people in positions of responsibility may start off with good intentions but then become corrupted by the power they yield and their seeming unaccountability to others. A prime minister, for example, might use his office to escape prosecution, as has appeared to happen in some European and South American countries in recent years. Berlusconi saw to the passing of laws that specifically protected his economic and legal interests.
The omniscience fallacy. This fallacy results from having at one’s disposal essentially any knowledge one might want that is, in fact, knowable. With a phone call, a powerful leader can have almost any kind of knowledge made available to him or her. At the same time, people look up to the powerful leader as all-knowing. The powerful leader may then come to believe that he or she really is all-knowing. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a bright man, was more or less immune to listening and learning, a fault of which his distant successor, Donald Rumsfeld, has also been accused (although whether fairly or not remains to be seen).
The omnipotence fallacy. This fallacy results from the extreme power one wields, or believes oneself to wield. The result is overextension and, often, abuse of power. Sometimes leaders create internal or external enemies in order to demand more power for themselves to deal with the supposed enemies. In the United States today, the Federal government has arrogated more power to itself than any government since World War II on the grounds of terrorist threats. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe has turned one group against another, with the similar goal of maintaining his own power.
The invulnerability fallacy. This fallacy derives from the illusion of complete protection, such as might be provided by a large staff. Leaders especially seem to have many friends ready to protect them at a moment’s notice, but they may be shielding themselves from individuals who are anything less than sycophantic. Eliot Spitzer engaged in behavior that he himself had investigated and prosecuted in the past.
The ethical disengagement fallacy. This fallacy occurs when one starts to believe that ethics are important for other people but not for oneself. Many leaders of countries, corporations and even churches have seemed to think themselves exempt from the ethical standards to which they hold others. Ted Haggard, Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker come to mind.
Pitkin has some very good insights on “six stupid tendencies” in our judging of other people. To mention just a few, we can slip up when we judge people only by the ephemera of their personal mannerisms or on-screen presence (unfortunately, the way many politicians come to be judged); by looking only at externals, such as how good-looking or tall they are, rather than by what they are like inside; and by judging them by our own habits and standards rather than by who they are. But in the end, for all the book’s many flaws, Pitkin’s main achievement is to remind us that there is a difference between book knowledge and academic intelligence, on the one hand, and broader skills, on the other. I mentioned one such broader skill above: practical intelligence. But there is an even more important one, perhaps: wisdom.
Wisdom can be defined as using one’s academic and practical intelligence, as well as one’s knowledge base, for a common good over the long and short terms by balancing competing interests through the infusion of positive ethical values. Schools need to place more emphasis on teaching wisdom and less on the learning of facts, many of which will be out-of-date or irrelevant shortly after they are learned. We test for many unimportant things that crowd the important lessons out of the curriculum.
The nation will not be saved by the No Child Left Behind Act. Indeed, the crumbling, unpopular Administration that has pushed it so hard seems to be full of people whom everyone else in the country has left way behind, or so one might conclude from a Gallup Poll which found George W. Bush to have the lowest popularity rating of any president since the poll was started. Nor will America be saved by aptitude tests, achievement tests, and schools that employ drill-and-kill regimes to maximize scores on standardized tests. If anything will save the world, it will be infusing wisdom in our children. If there is one thing the world needs today, it is young people with the ability to understand and act upon diverse points of view and not be shy about distinguishing between morally better and worse ones. With any luck at all, we will raise progeny who are better at it than Walter Pitkin was.