Why smart people do stupid things

We’re often dumbstruck by the stupid things smart people do.  For instance, how can a smart person park their car on the corner? Don’t they know it is going to obstruct the movement of other vehicles?  Or fail to understand that investing in marketing is essential even for the best products or minds in the world (example here). 

Slightly less often, we realize that we’ve also fallen for the stupid trap.  We do things which in hindsight seem stupid, at best.  It’s possible that we fall into the stupid trap more often than we realize.  Well, it’s a bit easier to see stupidity in others!  So, what causes smart people to do stupid things?  And how do we prevent ourselves from falling into this stupid trap?  This article looks at 4 causes and 3 ways to avoid the trap

Cause #1: Cognitive miserliness

The human mind is a cognitive miser.  Just like a miser finds the cheapest way to do things, our minds try to solve problems in ways that don’t involve much effort. Often, people capable of intelligent reasoning, don’t apply their brain power effectively.  They try to apply shortcuts or use their gut feelings. 

These cognitive shortcuts can lead to wrong inferences or judgements.  Stereotyping people based on how they look or where they come from is an example of cognitive miserliness.  A stereotype is an almost irresistible cognitive shortcut to judge a person.  But it can lead to sub-optimal decision making.  To cut a long story short, use you head more often!

Cause #2: We believe what we want to

We often want to cling on to false beliefs.  Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  So, instead of searching rationally for information that either confirms or rejects a belief, we actively search for information which proves what we believe in.  And its not difficult to find someone who’s belief is in sync with ours.  Flat-earthers, or people who believe that the earth is flat, are increasing multi-fold.  More concerningly, anti-vaxxers, or people who don’t vaccinate their children. Driven by an unproven belief that they cause autism, are increasing. 

Biased or motivated reasoning is powerful.  Sometimes, the emotional pull of an argument makes us think in a very one-sided manner.  And while the examples above are extremes, its easy for us to fall prey to motivated reasoning.  Often, it’s inertia or our ego which makes letting go of old (and wrong) beliefs so difficult.

Cause #3: We’ve always done it this way

Once we’ve done something often enough, doing it becomes automatic (refer back to Cause #1).  But often, there is vital information which we miss when we make automatic decisions.  This is either information which was not vital when we used to make the decisions earlier.  Or its information our internal algorithm has forgotten how to process. 

Let’s apply this to a business context. You might base your marketing and sales plan for a new product in the same way as you’ve been doing for years.  Yet, the channels which your customers frequent might have changed.  As might be their pain points.  So, while experience is valuable, if it remains static is becomes more of an impediment than help.  Similarly, if your processes remain the same even after you become a larger business, there are going to be problems. 

Cause #4: We’re the experts!

Related to the previous point, we often make stupid mistakes when we start getting over-confident in our abilities.  Its great to be confident.  Yet, we need to constantly acknowledge that we could do better. 

As an example, it might be obvious to us that a customer will come to us since we have the best product, best service etc.  Yet, we need to keep knowing and understanding a customer. 

The ways out

Way-out #1: Don’t trust yourself too much

When you need to take a decision, don’t go with your initial gut feel.  Try arguing with yourself.  Or get someone who can give you their frank and unbiased opinion. 

Way-out #2: Put yourself in someone else’s shoes

Our stupid decisions are often due to us looking at it solely from our perspective.  Try thinking of things from other people’s perspective.  It can make a world of a difference. 

Way-out #3:  Let go of the big E

Our Ego can often lead us to make poor decisions.  Whether it be through not wanting to appear unsure or sticking to a decision, our Ego is dangerous. 

Closing thoughts

And lastly, but most importantly, we need to get rid of our cognitive miserliness.  Our brains are often the most under-utilized organ we have.

What are your views on why we do stupid things? Have some comments?  Post below.  Liked the article?  Use the Share button at the bottom.

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