Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Well, we all know that stupid people exist. I guess what I really mean to ask is, how many stupid people are there? What percentage of the population? 5%? 10%? 50? 80? My own guess is that there aren't as many as most people think.

I came to this realization a few years ago when I was on the road, and it occurred to me that if a large number of people were really stupid, then there would be a lot more traffic accidents. On the whole, most people drive pretty well. 

A lot of people we consider stupid are simply out of their element in the area that we're focused on. Or maybe they just had a bad day, or a bad hour. Who hasn't had that? The guy who holds up traffic while he thinks about which way to go, isn't necessarily a bad welder or a bad lawyer. He may have just had a lapse. Maybe we stumbled on him at the only time he did something dumb like that all year.

It's tempting to think people are stupid because they vote differently than we do. That's silly. Half the time they're just starting from a different premise, which is not so irrational, once you know what it is. 

It's hard to judge people. The modern, urban, bureaucratic state is hardly what biology equips us for.  A lot of people just aren't suited for this stuff. Their intellect and instincts are sound, but modern life punishes people who operate on instinct. You could go to jail for that. An awful lot of what we're expected to do every day is counter-intuitive. Some people don't mind that.  Others feel disoriented and out of sync, like there's no place for them, and in some cases they're right.

It's amazing how many normally intelligent people are mistakenly considered stupid. That's because they have no challenging job or activity to discipline their minds. Lots of teenagers are like that. They're restless and energetic and not really ready to settle down to school work, so they do bad in school. Most don't know any crafsmen who would teach them a trade. What are they supposed to do? You can call people like that stupid when you see them unemployed and clowning around the mall, but are they?

It's a fact that every era favors one kind of personality type and penalizes another. Sometimes more than half the population can be on the outs. It's scary! 

I used to think a lot of old people were stupid. Well, actually I still do, but I feel guilty about it. I'm getting older myself and I'm becoming more aware of the obstacles those people face. Recently the elderly father of a friend told me how many different pills he takes every day: fourteen!  Fourteen, and I'll bet every one of the bottles has a dizziness warning on it. The amount of medication the average old person takes is staggering, and who knows what effect all those pills have on each other? I wonder how alert some of those old people would be if they could safely chuck the pills? 

Teenagers also seem stupid, but they're influenced by drugs too.  In their case it's hormones. 

My own view of other people is least it is when nobody's cutting me off in traffic. I don't think most people are stupid. I rely on other people. I can't even understand most things without the help of other people.

 I'll go farther and admit that when I choose my beliefs, I choose between the common ideas that are in the air in my time. Everybody does. I feel guilty about that, and once in a while I take the time to really think things out, but even then I sometimes have to borrow. It's frightening to think how much we all rely on other people's ideas. Our brains don't seem to work right unless we connect to other brains. We need other people to function as information gatherers for us. Stay-at-homes aren't just socially impaired...they can't even think.


kurdt said...

Interesting thoughts but lets say you were stranded on a deserted island and had to learn for yourself how to get food and generally survive. You'd have to be smart to figure out how to catch fish and make fire without anyone telling you how right?
I tend to be a not very socially orientated person, a loner if you will, but does only having a few people I connect with make me stupid?
I do like your thoughts on people who can't function well in the modern world. I've known some very smart people that just can't seem to get themselves together or can't seem to do anything right. I don't feel much in line with the world at present myself and I've often wondered why. Maybe because stupid people run everything? Because most modern entertainment is made to be sold to the lowest common denominator? Or am I just turning into a snob?
Oh well, at least I can connect with some smart people on the Internet. Despite the fact that there's a lot of morons that use it, theres a lot of intelligent people too. Thanks for putting up such smart and thoughtful articles!

M. R Darbyshire said...

Very interesting. I actually think about this exact thing every time I call someone stupid. I've also come to the conclusion that maybe 5% of the population is universally stupid. But I am usually correct when I say someone's stupid. I'm not saying they're forever doomed to the World of Helmets and Drool, but they certainly are having a temporary lapse in intelligence or problem solving. Obviously, I'm not excluded from this.

Here's my theory about stupidity:

I would say the average person properly operates with functional, normal human thinking skills about 50% of their time in existence. (This is the intelligence that just sets us above wild beasts. Not really basic things like the ability to swallow without choking.)

We don't notice that 50% in other people. We don't praise it, and we don't knock it. Anytime you find yourself NOT thinking about someone's intelligence, they're doing something right. No more, no less.

Stupidity takes up about 30%. We do stupid things a lot, and we learn from them.

20% of the time, we operate with above-normal brain power. Remember the time you beat everyone in class on a math test, even the chess club nerd?

Those smart phases are brought on similarly to our stupid moments. Maybe you have nothing stressing you, so you can focus all of your brain on one thing. Maybe you ate two bowls of wheaties this morning.

Basically, about calling people 'stupid,' it's the same way we call people smart. They did something beyond well one time, but who knows how often they actually do something like that.

EZG said...

Nice post. I think I agree on pretty much every point.

There's a tendency for people to only notice the outstanding behaviors of people. My brother, a Psychology grad student, once told me that something like 85% of people believe that they are better than the average driver. This is because all they remember are the couple of odd accidents and erratic behavior of people that might otherwise be good drivers.

It's easy to be judgmental of people you don't know. It's easy to make assumptions or invent behaviors in your mind and attribute them to people you only know a very little bit about. I like what you said about "people starting from a different premise." It makes sense. We all judge people based on how we perceive them from our own vantage point, when from their own, they may be alright.

I was reading an enraging post on John K's blog about how he hates rap and it's the worst thing in the history of the human race. He also went on to add in the comments that every generation is getting dumber than the last.

My thinking is he only says these things to be incendiary. And it worked, many commenters went apeshit, and plenty went on to pat him on the back.

I refuse to believe that people are getting dumber just because our modern pop culture is pushing dumb things at us. (I do not think that rap or hip-hop is a dumb thing, I actually am a fan of some of it) Sure, DaVinci, Shakespeare, and Beethoven were great, but we live in the time of CERN, Explorations of Mars, Saturn and Jupiter, the Human Genome Project--hell even the personal computer! I bet even Charles Babbage would go crosseyed if he got caught up in a Computer Science argument of Microkernels versus Macrokernels.

This was a good read. Sorry if I sort of went off on a tangent and did a big brain dump on you, here.

Adam T said...

I agree with you mostly. I don't think most people are stupid but I do think that most people aren't very self aware. They have social stupidity.

Even people with high IQs are guilty of this and it's just as harmful as good old fashioned slow-witted stupidity.

Sometimes it's effects on the rest of us are mundane, like a boring one-sided conversation.

But sometimes it's more harmful like people commuting to work in a Hummer, or like my neighbor downstairs playing house music at 8AM and waking me and probably the rest of the building up.

Anonymous said...

haven't you seen the film idiocracy? there's a lot of truth in it

buzz said...

Years ago WHOLE EARTH magazine ran an article about good and evil and had a grid chart to help the reader determine if any particular action was good or bad. The top of the chart was "helpful to others", the bottom was "harmful to others" while one side was "helpful to self" and the opposite site was "harmful to self." The absolute dead center of the grid would be a morally neutral action: Nobody benefits or is harmed by it.

A good action was one where more people benefited than were harmed; in fact, better actions were those where some benefited and no one was harmed and the very best actions were those everybody benefited.

The article drew a diagonal line from the lowest corner on the "helpful to self" side up to the highest opposite corner. Separate from the issue of good and evil was the topic of "stupid." The article said anyone who engaged in an activity that harmed themselves AND others wasn't merely evil but stupid.

It's a good distinction to maintain when judging the actions of others. As you point out, oft times "stupid" to use consists of not understanding the other person's POV (in whch case that makes US stupid, doesn't it? ;D ).

Aaron said...

great post

Anonymous said...

great post! Reading the comments on stuff like youtube videos I think gives a really skewed perception of the average persons intelligence. On average the ratio of views to comments is about .3% . so if a video gets 100k hits there will usually be around 200-400 comments. Its really a Mensa for idiots that gets into arguments in comment threads.

Im no misanthrope but about 5% of the population is made up of dolts, ninnies, shnrigs, and glorks, and probably about 20% of them makes up 50% of the comments on sites like youtube.

So its really 1% of people that give the other 95% a bad name

I.D.R.C. said...

It's tempting to think people are stupid because they vote differently than we do. That's silly. Half the time they're just starting from a different premise, which is not so irrational, once you know what it is.

What would you call people who vote for a sociopath and treasonous criminal --when the tenor of the outcome of such a folly is clearly foreseeable? Wouldn't that at least be slavery to an irrational premise? What is the word to describe such citizens as voted for the men who conspired to steal (and successfully stole) their entire treasury?

What do you call people who still believe Bush was a great president, and who want Obama to fail? What would be the right name? I guess "stupid" is already taken with more mundane and understandable things, like changing lanes without a signal.

Maybe "chickenshit fucknut".

Caleb said...

great post. It seems natural for our brains to think that other brains are stupid, and to fear death. Usually we are so focused on the differences we have with people, we don't see all of the similarities. I understand why someone would be uncomfortable pondering death, but I like to think of it as a reminder that we don't have all of the time in the world.

David Germain said...

This happens often with stupid people:

Whenever they hear a joke and don't get it, they call the joke stupid.

Granted, there are some very unclever and/or juvenile jokes out there that can be judged as not funny. But, people should at least make an effort to piece together the elements of the joke before they render their verdict and not just toss out a knee-jerk response of "that's stupid".

Of course, like Forrest Gump said, "Stupid is as stupid does". By that I think he meant that 'people are only stupid when they're doing stupid thing'. That was the basic point of this article, right Eddie?

Anonymous said...

Youre dead on David, Have you ever read the comments under a link to an Onion article? more than half dont get its satire

Anonymous said...

Ive met a lot of good natured humble people that aren't intellectual at all, but Id rather talk to them than your typical smug hipster

Anonymous said...

Isn't it typically smug to refer to people as hipsters?

oddinary said...

hey Eddie!!

awhile back I tried to send you the "ultimate silly walk" video. but I kept messing up the link. so I found it on YouTube. here you go!

your fan,


Jorge Garrido said...

I love how IDRK automatically starts bashing Bush as if he's the only one who hates him.

As for the topic this post is actually about, I'd say a good 90% of teenagers are stupid as heck. I'm judging teenagers because they're the only people I associate with. I'm not sure about old people.

Anonymous said...

Its smug to overuse the word hipster as a blanket description for everyone remotely trendy, but not when youre referring to hipsters

Anonymous said...

Corporate America successfully dumbed down its entire workforce to the point where it is being bankrupted by unchecked paper clip theft.

I.D.R.C. said...

I love how IDRK automatically starts bashing Bush as if he's the only one who hates him.

How was is it bashing? What principle are you defending? What was inappropriate about the comment?

You don't know any of those things, do you?

If 90% of teens are stupider than you, then the future is bleak. We had better hope that is a accurate as the other things you say.

erewr said...

" A lot of people we consider stupid are simply out of their element in the area that we're focused on."

I think you;re right. That's also the basis of racisism.

Lester Hunt said...

As usual, Eddie, you are very wise. My view of these matters is very simple. 1) Just staying alive requires that we solve hundreds of little problems a day. 2) We are all still alive. Therefore, 3) we must be smart enough.

Dino said...

IDRC: Being vitriolic and spitty can make an otherwise intelligent person sound stupid. Jorge didn't say anything out of bounds. Chill.

I.D.R.C. said...

The question is what did I say that was out of bounds? Let's start there.

My demeanor requires no directive, thank you.

Jorge Garrido said...

I didn't say anything you said was out-of-bounds. But I find it funny that there's still people like you who think they hate Bush more than everyone else, and always have to let everybody else know. What, you want a cookie?

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Oddinary: Wow! Carl is great! I can't believe I never heard of him before. Thanks much for the link!!!!

Buzz: Interesting! I wish somebody would reprint that!

EZG: I'm afraid I agree with John about rap music. I hear the occassional thing I like, but not very often.

Kurdt, Adam, Darby, Anon, David, Caleb: Thanks much!

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Anon: That Hipster Olympics video was hilarious! Many thanks!

Ben said...

Psychologists call part of what you're talking about "fundamental attribution error"- we take the situation and circumstances into account when evaluating our own behavior, but not when evaluating the behavior of others.

So when you're late for work it's because the power went out briefly in the night and your clock was reset, but when someone passes you on the right twenty miles over the speed limit, sweating and combing his hair in the rearview mirror, you think of him as a perrenially-late jackass who needs to get his act together. I think this is a big part of why we tend to think everyone is dumb but us, something I'm guilty of as well.

pappy d said...

I'm with you, Eddie. I think the hard core stupid are a small part of the population.

A lot of common stupidity comes from just following your instincts. Who can honestly say he hasn't been tempted to run some other driver off the road & beat him with a tire iron? Reason says: "Use a condom every time!", but sometimes you can't hear it over the howls of your instincts.

On the other hand, running into a burning building to save someone you don't know can't be a well-reasoned move or risking your life by jumping into a river to save a toddler who is in no way related to you is a bad strategy for passing your own genes to the next generation. These are rank instincts too, though they evolved within small kinship groups & don't reflect conditions in our present environment. People almost always say they didn't take time to think about it. Is there a hero modest enough to admit that it was a form of stupidity too?

As a reasonable person, I keep this list of some 80 cognitive biases which warp the perceptions of every human on the planet. Every time I make a decision I check them off in my head just to make sure my reasoning is pure:

You can exploit these human weaknesses to gain wealth & fame. All of them have been used on me at some time to separate me from my money or my vote.

Freckled Derelict said...

Love your social commentary posts!! Especially this one. I wholeheartedly agree with you on all points. We often forget how our mood affects the way we handle and view people/situations.
PS - I love the doggie diner pic heading this post. Their used to be one near my house as a kid!

I.D.R.C. said...

Jorge, I have the courtesy to respond to your nonsense with the name you chose to be called, instead of habitually referring to you whore-gay, or little twirp, or some such dismissive demeaning monicker. Calling me IDRK is asking for it from the start. Although you lack the power to upset me, you do have the power to annoy me. Try arguing a point instead of pronouncing yourself superior. You have not earned that sort of opinion of yourself, not in this forum. You have to be right sometimes in order to have any hope of justifying such a device, but it will always be a cheap device.

I am amazed that I have to break this down, but here goes:

Eddie asserted that people who vote differently than you (or or in my case me) are not stupid, they are more like differently oriented. I attempted to refute that using the most blatant example in the history of the world. I assert that they are oriented away from reality. You insist that that is not directly relevant to this post.

I assert that this orientation away from reality and away from self preservation, is plainly a mental disorder of some kind. I'm asking what kind it is?

Why would you assume that I think I hate Bush more than anyone else? What does that even mean?

That's not even an interesting question. The question that is interesting is why does not everyone hate Bush? What process made the past 8 years possible, and why doesn't stupidity --or something much like it --figure heavily into it? Why is it not in fact what certain political factions prey on?

Rick Roberts said...

This leads to the question of what is smart ? A genius is always considered an expert in almost all sciences. How does said person constitute as a genius exactly ? Science is one point of view of the world. Also a great artist can't be considered a genius either because that's just the other extreme. Both usually have the same weakness, social ineptitude. To me a smart person is someone who has a vast knowlege of both art and science. Also more importantly, they are very much social beings. A truely dumb person is just someone who is not aware of anything around them at all.

Jorge Garrido said...

"The question that is interesting is why does not everyone hate Bush?"

The answer to that question is that everyone DOES hate Bush, he was the worst President in modern history. Of anything.

As for the 20% that still approved of him when he left office; the reason some people still liked him is the subject of Eddie's post.

pappy d said...

Ben said...

Psychologists call part of what you're talking about "fundamental attribution error"

...that's #75

I.D.R.C. said...

Jorge, it was the subject of my post, too. In an effort to back peddle, you are skipping over quite a bit -foreseeability, for example. The question you did not answer, which was clearly implied if not stated, is this: If voters are not stupid, then why did not everyone always hate bush? How is it possible that he got even close to half the vote of the country when his policies benefit less than 1% of the population? That gap would be the stupid factor.

There are only a few categories of things we generally refer to as stupid.

1) Mental retardation. That would probably be the clearest illustration of stupidity, but it's no longer acceptable, because now we have decided that willfulness is a component of stupidity, and those born with a challenge are not at fault, and should be helped, not hindered. I agree, but it does not really alter what stupid is. We have simply decided that the word comes pre-charged with blame and ridicule.

2.) Cognitive lapse. That might describe the asshole who cuts you off in traffic but who can still pass the bar exam.

3.) Intellectual retardation. That, in my view, explains people who vote differently than me.

Intellectual retardation can be either a cognitive lapse or a more permanent condition, but a case can be made that it is not the fault of the person but merely his circumstances. So what in Eddie's view does it take to cross the threshold of genuine stupidity? What, if anything, would be stupid?

I don't wrestle with that, I already have an answer that has worked flawlessly for myself.

Anonymous said...

Stupid people …

Stupid is a label. Anything you label is a product of how you were labelled and hence your perception. If you were to be entirely free of all labels, how would you possibly speak? Stupidity would not exist but amazement of the variety of individuals.

I.D.R.C. said...

Saying that stupidity would not exist without labels is like saying that temperature would not exist without labels. It would still exist, we would just not have a label for it.