Why do smart people do stupid things?
If you have ever asked yourself “why do smart people do stupid things?” Or, if you have at times asked that question about yourself then this post will change your life.
We all know someone who is highly intelligent and masterful in one area but desperately lacking in other, vital areas. Perhaps they are amazing at making money but terrible at managing it, or great at making acquaintances, but unable to keep long term friends. Really smart about politics but unable to create a fulfilling career. Able to help others but unable to help themselves.
It may even be closer to us personally if we are disappointed that we are not living up to our potential, self sabotaging, making the same mistakes over and over again, stuck in a bad pattern but unsure why or what to do about it. This post will help you to understand the root cause, the why you do the things you do.
Intelligence is not enough
Stupid people do stupid things because they are stupid. It is irrational to expect people of low intelligence to perform well in a world where successfully navigating complex systems is a prerequisite for success. They simply don’t have the mental horsepower required and nothing can change that.
Intelligence, being smart, gives us abilities that lower IQ people fundamentally lack, however merely possessing the ability think clearly and rationally is not enough. No matter how much mental horsepower you have you will not see success unless you can consistently direct it in such a way so as to get traction.
If intelligence is not enough, then what else is needed?
How we construct ourselves
When a skilled musician plays a guitar he is not thinking about the placement of his hands or the notes or even the feel of the strings. These things are all fully under his control at a subconscious level. He has “written” into his brain and nervous system a complex and cascading set of subroutines that allow him to conjure up music as if, to the uninformed observer, by some magic.
Of course a learned skill is not magic. Skills are the result of habits, doing something over and over again until it becomes a part of who you are. Subjecting yourself to a certain stimulus, thought or action repeatedly makes a measurable imprint on your brain. You are constructing yourself.
The musician has built up his skill from the simple to the complex since BEFORE HE WAS BORN. Yes that’s right, us humans are developing skills even before we are born.
His skill stack to play a guitar might look something like this:
(in vitro) Move body > move arm/hand > rotation of wrist > grasp/release object >
(infant) controlled movement > pressure control > manipulate object > visualize object
(child) understand cause/effect of actions > timing of actions > symbology and systems > basic music theory > specific movement patterns for each note and transition >
(adult) advanced music theory > complex movement combinations > showmanship
These subroutines can be broken down into MANY smaller parts almost infinitely. Many subroutines are used across multiple higher order skills, it’s more of a network of skills than a stack.
(If an actual guitar player wants to make a more detailed breakdown I’d love to add that in here.)
All of our learned behaviors, from how we have conversations to tying our shoes are built in a similar way. We don’t think about the underlying subroutines, they just fire as needed (when triggered by stimulus or other subroutines).
What happens when a subroutine is maladaptive?
What happens when a subroutine gets corrupted?
Keep the above questions in mind as we go deeper.
Our personality, as expressed in thinking, emotions and actions is constructed over our lifetime using a mix of hardware (our genetic predispositions) and software (our learned behavior) functioning within the limits of a system (our environment).
We can’t change our hardware. (Currently impossible)
We can radically change our software. (low cost/high reward)
We can change our environment in a limited sense. (high cost/low reward)
A healthy personality (or mind) is one that is trying to keep us alive and on the path to reproduction (or in support of reproduction by others who are genetically similar).
An unhealthy personality is one that fails to keep us alive or to support our reproduction.
Please note that happiness, pleasure and joy (HPJ) are OPTIONAL to survival and reproduction. If you primarily seek HPJ you are likely to fail at reproduction (see mouse utopia experiments).
If you primarily seek what is healthful for your genetics (not limited to your own body) you will likely also find a good measure of HPJ in fulfilling your potential.
The adaptable part of our personality is built up of millions of subroutines (operating systems + software). If a single subroutine is maladaptive it can affect all the programing that is networked in with it.
For example: If you have built up a set of unhealthy learned behaviours (programing) around how you perceive and handle confrontation it will impact your relationship with friends and family, your ability to work with other people, you ability to handle internal emotional conflicts and even your health. Changing as little as a single maladaptive subroutine in your programing can have a knock on effect that “fixes” multiple areas of your life.
Since your ability to change your personality is limited and your resources are limited where should you focus your efforts on refining your personality?
Where do you get the most leverage to change?
Choosing the right operating system
This is a very serious issue. A maladaptive software set will get you killed or even worse prevent you from reproduction. It warrants your careful consideration and personal investment in ensuring that you are running software that works for you and in your environment.
Your understanding of reality, your world view, your values, your religion, your political understanding and your deeply held beliefs form your operating system. All our existing programing and subroutines run on and are interpreted via this social/mental operating system.
For example a person can run on a communist operating system, a christian operating system, an atheist operating system, a rational operating system etc. Not everyone (or every group) is capable of running all types of operating systems.
Most people are running on multiple, overlapping OS’s. This is especially true of people who may run on one OS at work, another at home and another in church or with friends. Therefore the rational engineer can operate fully on an empirical, scientific OS at work then go to church and make decisions using his faith based OS. The cognitive dissonance doesn’t bother him if he is not looking through both frames at the same time.
If a person’s overlapping OS’s are incompatible it will cause great anxiety (cognitive dissonance) and stress until he resolves the conflict by choosing to reject one or more OS’s or harmonize the differences. Much of what is called philosophy is really the use of pilpul in an attempt to harmonize, obfuscate or pacify this cognitive dissonance.
Most people have an operating system foisted upon them by their parents, society and the natural human desire to conform. This is not completely a bad thing as it increases social cohesion and our ability to survive within our current system. As our life (and environment) changes we must reassess our operating system and determine if it is still serving our needs.
Some people change their operating system by choice, seeking out a better system, others are converted by force. New information, disenchantment with our progress under a previous system, and the discovery of greater truth can cause sudden and potentially harmful OS changes. The potential harm comes during the period where we lack a frame with which to view the world and execute our daily programing subroutines.
No one can remove a person’s (or a peoples) operating system without first installing something to replace what has been taken. A failure to do so causes the person to become temporarily “lost”, disconnected with reality as they have no frame through which to apply their programing or view the world. This also applies to the inherent danger in rejecting our current operating system, even if its suboptimal. Do we have something better to replace it?
Even when needed, changing our OS is painful and high cost. We may no longer be compatible with old files, programs or networks. Many are not willing to pay the cost and therefore will remain with an obsolete and suboptimal OS until a high enough pain threshold is reached, forcing a change.
Incremental upgrades are often cheaper than changing our OS completely but often turns into a pattern of “kick the can down the road”. At some point we will need to deal with an obsolete system more directly.
True to all adoptions of technology it progresses slowly at first, then very quickly, then all at once. Early adopters of successful OS’s pay a high cost and often face ridicule. In retrospect the abandonment of the old and the embrace of the new always seems inevitable.
For example: Abandoning superstition for the scientific method enabled rapid progress in human technological development. At this point our progress seems deterministic. It’s ridiculous to go backwards however many early thinkers were criticized and suffered for being early adopters of a new paradigm.
Activity: What’s your Operating System?
Most people are completely unconscious of their OS. Because they lack the Agency to choose their own OS and to rewrite their programing they just “do” and rarely take the time to think about it. Very often they end up following other people’s patterns and instructions, their frame, which may not have been designed for their benefit.
Developing Agency is the key to living up to your full genetic potential mentally and physically. The development of Agency starts with self knowledge. In the activity below you will build Agency by discovering your Operating System(s).
You will need your notebook and something to write with.
Find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed for about an hour.
Sit still for a few minutes and breath deeply. Become as calm as you can.
Listen to your internal voice. You are going to ask yourself some questions. There is no wrong answer.
The more honest you are, the more effective this exercise will be. If you are deceiving yourself by saying what you think you should say then this exercise will not have the results you need.
Answer these questions:
What values drive your decision making process?
Prove it with examples from your life.
Look for counter examples in your life.
How are those values logically grouped and connected to each other?
How would changing or adding/subtracting some values affect your decisions?
Use the information you have discovered to synthesise a description of your operating system.
What do you want to change about your current operating system and what is holding you back from making the changes you wish?
Stupid people do stupid things because they are stupid.
Smart people do stupid things because intelligence is not enough.
Smart people with maladaptive thinking patterns (bad programing, bad operating system) will do stupid, self sabotaging things, including simply not living up to their potential.
Having Agency means that you choose what programming you run (which operating system and software).
You must add Agency to your natural potential if you wish to live your best life.
Training your Agency
You can train your Agency and learn how to break out of old patterns of thinking, old programing loops. There are specific exercises like the one above that can work you through the process of training your Agency and I can help you.