As I established in a previous blog, the concept of the Wizard’s First Rule, that people are stupid, is unquestionably true. However this doesn’t do much good to just know this. Sure it helps to relieve stress when we run up against morons on an hourly basis (trust me, every time you’re about to yell at someone for their gross incompetence and lack of worth as a human being, just repeat to yourself, “People are stupid, they can’t help it, people are stupid.”) But still it’s kind of cynical and certainly doesn’t work to solve the problem.
This is also somewhat of a problem, because personal experience also tells each and every one of us that people are rational. Not that they are just capable of reason, but they are rational. After all, almost all of us seem to make it through the day, the week, the years without problems. If even 10% of all our choices were idiotic, we’d all be dead. So people are rational to some respect, and yet we seem to do some very large and boneheaded things. It seems to be a paradox that isn’t easily unraveled. People are rational. People are stupid.
So how do we solve this problem?
The only way to do that is to ask, why are people stupid?
And after a little self reflection and research it comes down to three points: choice, depth, and breadth.
People are stupid because there is no breadth in their thought. What do I mean by breadth? By breadth I mean the amount of information they have at hand. Human beings are spectacular at making decisions based on insufficient information going by probability and past experience. We’re so good at it in fact that we forget (or choose not to) to expand the amount of information we could possess. We deem most information irrelevant to our lives and don’t worry about it. The problem is that irrelevant information has this odd way of becoming exceedingly relevant at the oddest times. Granted, we can never know exactly what information will be use at unexpected times, but we can learn a little bit of everything.
And this goes for everyone. Lots of people will think, ‘I’m not a genius’ or ‘I’m not the one who has to make the big decisions’ ‘I’ll let other people learn all that stuff so I don’t have to waste my time.’ And if we lived under an absolute tyranny that would be a valid life choice…however, we live in a democracy. If you’re going to live here you have a responsibility as a citizen to learn, to educate yourself, and to decide the fate our nation—and not just through voting; through your job, and any and all community, charity and political activism. (You have every right to choose not to engage in these things, but get a mirror when you want to complain about who is responsible for how bad our nation is). Now granted there are some people who will not initially grasp that the boom and bust cycle of the economy, the circadian rhythm of humans, the relationship between population growth of predators and prey, the tides, are all natural cycles—but they should all be familiar enough with the concepts that when a person uses one to explain another they understand the analogy…or even better how about everyone actually remembers their high school history courses that show that the environment of the Earth has changed radically over the past 5,000 years without any help from humans and that perhaps any weather changes in the last 20 years are just part of the larger cycles with the earth and have nothing to do with my driving.
Part of this is a lack of education. Unfortunately we have no choice but to try and at least stuff a survey of this information into people’s heads when they are least mature to understand its value—when they’re teenagers. It would be nice if we could make them work for 10 years to support themselves before sending them to school when they might have some respect for knowledge…but I don’t see any pragmatic way of doing so silly an idea. Of course not learning in high school is a choice on the student’s part, one that they will be living with all their lives (unemployment rates for dropouts are 50% higher than high school graduates and nearly four times higher than college graduates…probably why I don’t always feel for the unemployed) but it is a little sad that you are judged on choices you made when you were least capable of making rational choices…but hey, life’s not fair, deal with it. And, you know, with these things called libraries, the internet and TV you can actually learn a lot all on your own, so if you are ignorant, your fault. You constantly have the choice to end that. The sciences, history, philosophy, literature–people need to be at least familiar with all of these; you don’t need a Ph.D. in all of them, but you do need to be familiar with the broad strokes.
Now this doesn’t mean that just because you’re educated you’re going to make the connections. Let me give you an example. Socialism is a based on a belief that people cannot take care of themselves; that a government needs to help those who cannot help themselves. Any correct version of capitalism is based on the idea that when given the tools (i.e. a basic education) anyone can pursue and achieve if they choose to. If there was one person who should have understood that anyone can overcome anything with a basic education, no matter what the impediments to their life, it should have been Helen Keller—yet this didn’t stop her from rabidly believing and professing socialism, the very antithesis to her being able to learn and succeed. People will often learn the lesson, without learning the lesson should be expanded to all of life. Why? Because people are stupid. (People will often over apply a lesson as well, because people are stupid).
And how many businesses make decisions based on what the board or the CEO wants things to be like (to hell with what realities are)? How many business plans are made without any input from engineers or employees on whether or not that’s what the clients want or what can possibly be done? How many businesses ignore consultants, whom they paid to tell them what to do, on what has worked for other similar businesses and will work for them? Well, judging by the state of the economy, I would say far far too many. Again choices made on insufficient knowledge because people wanted to believe in their vision of the world, not the truth of their ignorance.
If people are ignorant of these things, or worse know their own little field very very well and don’t admit that there are other fields out there, they lack the breadth of knowledge required to deal with the complexities of life and society. But that doesn’t stop anyone from saying they know lots of stuff they don’t.
People are stupid because they lack depth in their thinking.
People make a decision off the information they have available. This decision is a rational one. “It seemed like a good idea at the time” would be a good way to sum up every single choice every made by anyone, at any time, in any situation. After all no one sits down and even in a split second thinks, “Let me choose the option that will make me the most miserable and will completely and totally screw me and everyone I know.” No, even what proved to be the dumbest choices in history were made by thinking, “It will work out okay.” Why is this? Are people stupid in the sense that they think 2+2=5? No, people are stupid because they lack depth in their thinking.
The best way to think of this is in terms of chess. The person who thinks only two moves ahead in chess will always lose to the person who thinks five moves ahead. Does that mean that the person who thinks five moves ahead is making the correct choice? Not necessarily, they’re making the correct choice for five moves ahead. But what may be the correct move for thinking five moves ahead is not going to win against someone who can think ten moves ahead. There may be a correct choice for however many moves you think ahead, but that does not mean that it is always the correct choice if you choose to think even further into the future. And this is where most people have a problem…
Most people can’t think further than 10 minutes in the future. (Hell the success of McDonald’s and other fast food outlets may very well indicate the inability to think more than 5 seconds in advance). After all if you think 5 minutes in advance then all you’re worried about is your hunger, ergo the Big Mac is a good idea. If you think hours ahead, the gastrointestinal discomfort you will have tonight makes the Big Mac a bad idea. If you think a day ahead you realize the discomfort will pass, but if you don’t eat something know you will not be able to focus for the rest of the day thus your work will suffer and your stress level for the whole week will rise and the Big Mac becomes a good idea. Life however isn’t a system of yes/no, eat the burger/don’t, kind of questions. There are numerous options and it is considering all your options (it will take 10 more minutes to get to Panda Express, and 15 more minutes to get to Subway, or if you really thought ahead you could have made something last night to bring to work with you to eat) all with issues of cost (cost of the food, cost of the gas, cost of time wasted, cost of how much more time at the gym) and how far ahead you’re thinking that options begin to compound.
This is where people can be very reasonable and yet at the same time very stupid. After all if you’re only looking one step ahead, what seems like a good idea might even be rational for that one step.
And it isn’t just a single line of thought one has to be worried about. Everything is interconnected. A change in economic policy doesn’t just affect spending and consumption, it affects human behavior, it affects industries that weren’t originally involved; it affects quality of life. For better or worse is a relevant question, but it is a question that is now often asked. Every second you have more options than the most powerful supercomputer has ever crunched. And most of you regrettably choose to go on a sort of autopilot of not ever “let me get through this day” but “let me get through this next minute.” We don’t consider our options and consider the effects of long term planning.
You don’t plan so you don’t have a retirement fund. Congress doesn’t plan so they come up with the joke that is social security that would never have been able to pay for itself even if age or retirement and life expectancy had remained constant.
This is a habit that everyone needs to learn. To plan for the next day. To plan for the next year. To plan for one’s life. Yes plans will always have to be flexible and adjust as circumstances adjust, but planning and adjusting is unquestionably better than simply going with the flow of every moment with no plan at all. (Now some Taoist might complain that it is very much this being without a plan that is part of being one with the Tao, but I would argue they are misinterpreting their own beliefs. It is having a plan but allowing to constantly adjust that is being one with the Tao, see Col. John Boyd’s theory of the OODA loop for the best example of this. Being one with the Tao with ability to constantly adjust to the situation, but even the first step of the journey of a thousand steps can’t begin if you don’t have some idea of the direction you’re going.)
People need to learn to think ahead as far as they can and consider as many possibilities. They will still be making mistakes because being human prevents them from knowing all the possibilities, but it also will get rid of many of the obvious idiot moves. (Idiotic moves like should I nominate an idiot who has no real experience to be my party’s candidate because he says cool words like “hope” and “change”? Should I nominate a moron who opposes everything my party stands for but call himself something cool like “maverick”? Obviously even the slightest amount of thinking more than one step ahead would have revealed the correct answer to be NO!)
Finally people are stupid because of choice.
People are stupid by choice. It’s not because there isn’t enough information out there…basic education is free. Libraries abound. The internet is at our fingertips. Hell, just watching TV can give you mountains of information if you want to look for it. The breadth of information is all there. People choose not to look for it, to see it, to integrate it into their systems of thought. Learning is a habit, and any habit begins with a choice to develop that habit—sometimes that choice is made by those around us when we’re young, but that still doesn’t mean a choice isn’t made, and it doesn’t mean later as adults we are not capable of making out own choices that may get rid of bad habits.
The world isn’t difficult to understand. If you’re a New Ager you believe the universe is a classroom trying to teach you the rules and it’s you who refuse to learn what is right in front of your face. Hell the world isn’t that complex; there are basic principles to be discovered in even the most basic actions. (Even something as basic as tic-tac-toe can reveal greater truths. As we all remember, if you play enough games of tic-tac-toe you can deduce the futility of nuclear war.) People choose not to glean knowledge from the literally millions of pieces of information being shoved at them every day. People refuse to take the five minutes to plan out their day that would actually save them hours of time because they can’t be bothered to waste those five minutes. And these aren’t hard things to do, and it’s not like I’m the first person to suggest these things. It’s a choice. The information is there, the ability is there, the brain is there. It’s a choice not to use them. And for that people are unspeakably stupid.
So the real point here is not if everyone else is stupid, they are and you can’t do anything about it. The real point here is that yes you and I are also stupid, at least at times. It’s our choice and our fault. So the question becomes before doing anything, do you make choices to make sure you have as much information as you can? Do you always look up something when you don’t know what it means or do you choose to remain ignorant? For instance there were a few things I probably should have linked to other site in this article but didn’t…are you going to go look them up if you don’t recognize them? Do you plan out your future? Do you have a general idea what you’re going to accomplish tomorrow? This week? This month? This year? Do you have goals and plans or are you just going to float like a piece of flotsam on the water?
Is it perhaps that you are so upset at others for being stupid because you know it’s a sin you commit often as well?
First and foremost, the idea of Wizard’s First Rule, that “People are stupid” is a personal warning not a societal condemnation. Learn. Contemplate. Choose. Don’t be stupid.