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The Problem Is That We Are All Stupid

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The question “What’s wrong with the world?!” is usually more of a statement of exasperation than a question. But it can be treated like a question, and it is a good question.

Clearly something is wrong, at least with the human world. Even if you don’t trust the news to tell you how the world really is, we all witness too much pettiness, unfairness, and dishonesty to say with a straight face that nothing’s wrong.

However, I’m not sure you could rewind us to a point in the last 10,000 years when we wouldn’t feel the same way. Our complaints today are about corrupt leaders, unfair systems, unscrupulous merchants, religious demagoguery, and everything else that has happened perpetually since we freed ourselves from picking berries all day.

In a recent article about the “What’s wrong” question, Masha Gessen got me thinking that the answer is quite straightforward: we’re all stupid. Contrary to popular belief, stupidity isn’t only present in some of us, it’s a universal human trait.

But that doesn’t mean we aren’t also smart—we simply exhibit both qualities. As intelligent as we are in certain ways, each of us is also very stupid in other certain ways, and the powers conferred by the intelligent, inventive part can increase the amount of damage the stupid part can cause. 

Among other signs of the times, she mentioned the comedy of Sacha Baron Cohen, who seems able to draw the pettiness and stupidity out of virtually anyone, on camera.

His approach is very simple: get people talking about their strongest beliefs, while pretending to agree, and watch the ridiculous pronouncements pour out. Most recently he was able to get several congressmen to apparently state their support for issuing firearms to “highly trained” kindergarten students to keep classrooms safe.

I have always found his comedy difficult to watch, and I think Gessen might have articulated the main reason:

Every segment of every episode is designed to leave the viewer feeling not so much appalled—something a sentient being in today’s America experiences many times a day—as finally enlightened: the ultimate explanation for what’s happened to us is that everyone is a moron.

The idea that everyone is stupid seems a little stupid itself. Clearly only some people are stupid. Otherwise how did we figure out DNA sequencing and particle physics, or design the Rubik’s Cube (let alone solve one)?

Well, because stupidity can co-exist with smarts in the same person. The human world is so often portrayed as a noble battle between the stupid and the rest of us, each of us drawing our own smart-stupid line in some way or another between individuals, often corresponding to political, religious, or sports team fanship boundaries, as we see them.

This is the classical way to think about the distribution of human intelligence and human idiocy—each person is mostly a concentration of one or the other. But maybe that simplistic view is a good example of our stupid-aspect at work. Perhaps every single one of us is stupid, just not completely. Clearly there are variations in what we can call “personal style,” but nobody is so smart that they are not also frequently stupid, and vice versa.

The same person can design an award-winning public building and still be defeated by a parking meter with perfectly clear instructions on the side. A hobby chess player can visualize a tree of possible moves five or six deep, but cannot anticipate running out of toilet paper until the moment he does. I somehow created my own dream job, but I’ve had winter tires on my vehicle for at least 48 consecutive months, and I cannot seem to make a doctor’s appointment.

Solzhenitsyn famously wrote—or so the smart people tell me—that the line between good and evil runs “not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either but right through every human heart.”

This seems true with the line between smart and stupid, and each human mind. We are complex apes, with innate abilities to be both profoundly clever and powerfully stupid. This isn’t a contradiction, just two complementary talents.

Of course, stupidity can’t comprehend itself—that’s one of its most interesting properties—which is why we overlook our own so easily. When it comes to my stupidest beliefs, I’m likely to think they’re my smartest ones. I easily fall in love with strongly-worded arguments that make me feel good but which I didn’t examine very well. (Am I writing stupid things at this very moment? How would I know?)

This may be why we often feel wholly smart when we witness some apparent evidence of our own intelligence (good grades, completed crosswords) and wholly stupid when that second quality becomes more obvious (such as when it’s your turn to tell the group a little about yourself).

We evaluate others even more readily, with even less evidence, probably because we tend to assess a person’s smart and/or stupid qualities moments after they’ve just impressed us with one or the other.

Meanwhile, privately, we all know that much of life consists of trying to hide the extent of our own stupid-aspect, while accentuating the smart stuff so that others might think we’re made of it through and through.

Despite our varying personal styles of intelligence and stupidity, there are species-wide patterns. Humans are generally good at untangling contained problems with definite parts, but bad at doing things we’re emotionally averse to doing. We’re good at separating things into lists, labels, patterns, blacks and whites, and not so good at interpreting grey areas and patternless data.

Research suggests we’re atrocious at weighing moral questions objectively, an important skill for any meaningful “What’s wrong with the world” discussion. We make our moral judgments very reflexively and emotionally, and we seldom re-examine them. (Related: Why The Other Side Won’t Listen To Reason)

Above all, we’re notoriously susceptible to confirmation bias: scanning for evidence that we’re smart and already informed, and ignoring evidence that we’re dumb and/or wrong.

It’s not hard to see that whether we deem someone smart or stupid has a lot to do with whether or not we identify with that person in some way—whether they sit in our own political or social wheelhouses, or seem to be an outsider to them.

We’re quick to point out this sort of bad faith in others, even though we’d see, if we looked for it, the same motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, and selective hearing in ourselves. No matter how smart we are in some ways, humans are universally susceptible to those types of stupidity at least.

Probably. That’s my hypothesis anyway. It seems like a smarter bet than the traditional view: stupidity is a defining quality of certain people and not others.

And I think that’s my smart side talking. I’m pretty sure.


Photo by Marc Liu


Michał Stradomski August 29, 2018 at 2:42 am

There might be also “3D view” of the problem: we are stupid on the surface and rational in the deep :)


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Mary-Anne August 29, 2018 at 2:48 am

Albert Einstein apparently said “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” I’m not sure what more to say, but there you go. Thanks for a great post, David.

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Herm August 29, 2018 at 2:49 am

Feeling stupid but not completely… “The idea that everyone is [as] stupid [as Donald] seems a little stupid itself. Clearly only some people are [as] stupid [as Donald]. Perhaps every single one of us is [as] stupid [as Donald], just not completely [as Donald]”?

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BeesMakeHoney August 30, 2018 at 3:25 pm

I think Donald is far from stupid. He clearly knows how to work the system to his advantage. I think that is what irks so may the most.

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DiscoveredJoys August 29, 2018 at 3:16 am

My mind spun off wondering if it would be possible to measure motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, and selective hearing (etc.) and produce a Dumbness Quotient for each person. Then you could subtract a person’s DQ from their IQ to produce an overall Competence Quotient, positive values in some, negative in others.

But what would you do with it? I suspect IQ and DQ are largely innate and not susceptible to change. After all people who hold on to a conspiracy theory can be quite intelligent in its defence… but they are also more likely to believe in other conspiracy theories.

Isn’t the human world complicated?

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David Cain August 29, 2018 at 9:11 am

I’m suspicious of IQ and also would be of DQ. But in any case, we can definitely learn to avoid motivated reasoning and other bad thinking habits. I’m sure philosophers and scientists learn to question their own assumptions as a part of their education.

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Accidental FIRE August 29, 2018 at 4:31 am

I just got out my “I’m with stupid” T-shirt, with the arrow pointing up…..

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David Cain August 29, 2018 at 9:11 am


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Katy Sheppard August 29, 2018 at 6:30 am

I love this. I have said for years, “We’re all complicated. We’re all a mixed bag.”
So maybe it’s confirmation bias?

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John August 29, 2018 at 7:23 am

I’m a huge fan of this blog, but didn’t like this post.
“We are complex apes, with innate abilities to be both profoundly clever and powerfully stupid. This isn’t a contradiction, just two complementary talents.”
Stupidity isn’t a talent, it’s not even a thing. It’s a lack of a thing, such as intelligence or ability in a specific area. I see that as something to reflect on and work on. I think identifying part of us as stupid, implies that we are unable to improve that part, a self limiting belief.

I think the real takeaway from this reflection is that we could learn something from everyone and that no one is perfect.

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David Cain August 29, 2018 at 9:27 am

Talent is not meant to be taken unironically there. I mean “the ability or inclination to do things that are self-defeating, illogical, irrational”

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Al Toman August 29, 2018 at 7:34 am

STUPID: having or showing a great lack of intelligence or common sense.
INTELLIGENCE: the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.
COMMON SENSE: good sense and sound judgment in practical matters.

Though I care not for Google definitions on the quick and since human society changes definitions to “suit” their mental disparity over the decades, it is what I have to work with.

Case in point. I heard the word “nigger” for the first time when I was 6 (1956) years old. I came home for lunch and the first thing I did was stand up on the stool in front of the huge dictionary that was older than the gods, it sitting on its own pedestal and looked up the word “nigger”. The 3rd definition was simply and precisely “dirty, filthy people”.

The word “nigger” had no reference to race, color, blacks at least in my mind. My mind took me clear to the other side of town where the niggers lived, mostly white. I tended to avoid that part of town.

Blacks were in my life since I was 5 (1955). I partied with blacks, I went to school with blacks, I wrestled with blacks, I showered with blacks, I made out with blacks. Then suddenly in my senior year of college (1972) I was told by some blacks that I had a problem with blacks.

Ah, okay!?! So, I guess by definition, I have trouble with blacks!?! I’m left wondering by whose definition. Do definitions have any intrinsic value these days? I say not rendering definition useless except to establish a starting point. If you notice, when you read a legal document, it begins with definitions, the author of the law providing the reader a starting point.

To this day I have NEVER associated the word nigger with blacks, the black community did that for me. They themselves called themselves “nigga”. Maybe the blacks have trouble with blacks as well as I!?!

Today, I am an author-philosopher with over 100 writes. And yes I have yet to say the “N-word”. I use the word “nigger” instead because the blacks asked me to. And it makes the write much more powerful, passionate, pure, and painful (the characteristics of love).

A decade a go or so, the bio professors of a well known University, hypothesized that it was time to reclassify homo sapien to its own kingdom, homo sapien currently resides in the kingdom “animalia”, based solely on intelligence. They adjourned and went to conduct their individual scientific research.
They convened thirty days later and NEVER brought up the matter, they all finding through research that the homo sapien was perhaps the MOST STUPID SPECIES ever evolved on Planet Earth.

I too am a bio-scientist as well as an engineer. I concur with their findings. A simple study of other species shows very clearly that we as a species are intellectually deprived comparatively with all other species. To be fare, I would have satisfied the hypothesis and removed homo sapien from the kingdom “animalia” and placed homo sapien in the kingdom “ass holiness”

For those of you who believe in a GOD to which you attach a pronoun (He, She, …) or to whom you attach a visual image, well, He/She already put homo sapien in it own separate kingdom, for you to discover a way out.

Believe you me, you haven’t even begun to attempt to crawl from under your stupidity.

This article mentions breaking the DNA code or Ruby’s Cube … both totally unnecessary in a highly developed species.

Of course, when I was 6 years old and heard the word nigger I was also being brainwashed in Sunday school at the Russian Orthodox Church by some mom who was taught, i.e., brainwashed about GOD and handed me an 8.5 by 11 piece of paper with GOD’S image on it for “us” to color.

I took me to the age of 57 to DISCOVER GOD. Being an author, I penned about GOD at the age of 67. I GUARANTEE that GOD is SO clear to me (being a master of the sciences) that I can convince any atheist that GOD exists BUT not in the way GOD has been and continues to be brainwashed into our stupid selves. Yes. To understand GOD, you need a level of intelligence greater that STUPID. No. Speaking of GOD has nothing to do with religion or faith. GOD is omnipresent, omnipowerful, and is present within the entire Universe. IF you consider yourself intelligent, I just now defined GOD and that unused light bulb in your brain just lighted.

There is hope for you yet.

Kind regards,
Al Toman

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David Robertson August 29, 2018 at 8:23 am

I think you might Richard Rohr. Becoming Stillness extends this great article you have written.

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David Cain August 29, 2018 at 9:28 am

Will check out, thank you David.

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Bob August 29, 2018 at 8:38 am

Someone once told me, “To err is human, but for a real disaster you need a computer”. I think that speaks to our intelligent aspects empowering our stupid aspects to cause damage.

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David Cain August 29, 2018 at 9:30 am

Haha… exactly. Although I’m sure we managed to create disasters long before we created computers to help us.

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Jane Terry August 29, 2018 at 9:42 am

:-D Thanks for the morning laugh, Bob! Now my computer and I will return to causing disaster and despair at the office!

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JV August 29, 2018 at 9:46 am

Only speaing for myself here, but if I was interviewed by SBC – or in other situations of a face to face nature – my gut instincts are: kindness/compassion…maybe beyond that into people pleasing. I never want to burst out with a hearty “are you insane! That’s ridiculous!!

Still working on that…saying what I think…I always question myself.

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Devin August 29, 2018 at 10:22 am

In my experience ‘stupid’ is really just emotional or undisciplined.

Building the award-winning public building is a disciplined, mostly unemotional series of thoughts and actions. Getting foiled by the parking meter usually happens when were “in a hurry” or “not paying attention” – emotional, undisciplined. Same goes for not changing your tires or making a doctor’s appointment – lack of discipline, avoiding discomfort.

So I wonder if the “personal style” you refer to is really about how much emotion and discipline we allow in our thinking and behaviors. Personally I find that when I set emotion aside and practice discipline, I get much better results in life. And the opposite is also true. Add a little emotion to a situation, and watch how stupid I can be!

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David Cain August 29, 2018 at 5:00 pm

I think that’s part of it — the inability/unwillingness to act in the best interests of yourself or others because of an aversion to discomfort.

But we could imagine scenarios of very disciplined people doing stupid things, like neglecting their health because they’re too disciplined to take enough time off work, or spending their lives on a project that will not in the end fulfill them. Not every application of discipline is smart.

Emotion also isn’t necessarily dumb. Running from a bear out of fear isn’t dumb. So I think there’s an overlap between discipline/impulse and smart/stupid but they’re not quite synonymous.

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Adam September 2, 2018 at 10:42 am

Actually, David, your example perfectly confirms Devin’s point. Running from a bear is exactly the wrong thing to do, but people do it because emotion — fear — overrules their intellectual knowledge that running from bears actually encourages attack.
While it is of course true that we can never fully remove emotion from our decisions, being able to find an intellectual “Archimedean point” outside of our emotions from which to gain perspective on our decisions is in many ways the hallmark of smart decision-making.

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Abhijeet Kumar September 3, 2018 at 2:19 pm

It depends on the bear and the situation. Is it a mother bear with cubs, with no predatory intent? Then standing ground is inviting attack.

It isn’t just intellect. There is a bit of empathy, reading body language. It isn’t just intellect, there is a more complex intuitive process involved.

Emotions are just reactions from the body, just like feeling tired or excited. Most of the time it worked in the past. Through awareness we can recognize what is going on. This is the challenge and fun of life.

Trisha Scott August 29, 2018 at 11:03 am


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Sharon Hanna August 29, 2018 at 5:16 pm

Love it. ;-)

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Jose August 29, 2018 at 11:10 am

Stupidity was described and characterized from a scientific point of view by the late Carlo M. Cipolla (a professor of economics at Berkeley). His work “Allegro ma non troppo” on the laws of human stupidity go through many of the elements you mention here, but is way more systematic. It includes graphs that help you understand how the level of stupidity in one given individual may affect that individual and those around him/her. At first, the book may seem a funny collection of hilarious musings on the subject. Because it’s really funny. But when I read it a second time, I began to realize how trascendent, how accurate it was, and how much effort Mr. Cipolla had put in it. Then I read it a third time and got seriously worried. Now I use it as a reference book, reading specific sections every now and then, which helps me building my defenses against stupidity (for myself and from others).

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David Cain August 31, 2018 at 10:06 am

Haha this sounds wonderful

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Charmaine August 29, 2018 at 12:59 pm

Thanks for an excellent post. Stupidity is in the eye of the beholder and therefore you can’t get out from underneath these labels no matter what you do. I can deal with mild stupidity, both mine and other people’s. What I find very difficult is the evil twin meanness that most often accompanies stupidity. Silent pinching. Best not to rely on others for approbation then. You’ll never know who you are no matter how many people attempt to tell you that.

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Rebecca | Seven2Seven8 August 29, 2018 at 1:12 pm

I enjoyed this as I enjoyed most of what David writes as being thought-provoking and thoughtful. I also really enjoyed perusing the comments. In particular, I am chewing on the IQ/DQ comment, and my conclusion would please my father, as I return to his favorite maxim:

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

When you consider something, like the actions of the sitting president, I am not sure it matters if he is measurably intelligent, dumb, or susceptible to bias (though I’m quite sure we all have opinions about the extent to which those descriptors apply). We need only consider his actions, whether they line up with his words, and what they mean for us and those whose welfare we care about (a group of people whose overall size might be inverse to the level of competency one ascribes to Mr. Trump).

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Hana September 1, 2018 at 8:37 am

I think about this all the time, thank you for bringing it into the idea stream. This is the missing ingredient needed to catalyze solidarity among seemingly disparate ideological groups. This article (https://www.alternet.org/story/80171/one_nation_under_elvis%3A_an_environmentalism_for_us_all/) had a huge impact on me, so much so that ten years later when I see a conceptual overlap I remember the title word for word.

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Jim August 29, 2018 at 2:11 pm

Firesign Theatre said it best, “I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus.”

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Tracy August 29, 2018 at 2:19 pm

Far too often, ignorance of a specific subject is portrayed as stupidity, when the real reason is that someone has never tried due to lack of interest. If I don’t know how to fix mu car, that doesn’t make me technically inept; I simply chose to focus my attention elsewhere.

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Abhijeet Kumar August 29, 2018 at 2:39 pm

I don’t think we are stupid or intelligent. It is just the way universe is. Stupidity or intelligence needs a way to measure it, and that means a reference. The reference isn’t the same for everyone. We have all had and are having unique experiences, and unique situations and unique ancestry.

On top of that, the way existence functions is based a lot on memory, most of it we can only be aware of when we observe it in action. So yes, we are all stupid, we can never know everything or anything for too long.

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Abhijeet Kumar August 30, 2018 at 1:21 pm

Don’t mean to imply meaninglessness. Often the mind gets in the way of really taking constructive steps in the moment. I have found getting stuck in moments, where logically what the mind is saying seems correct — someone sucks, and situation sucks. But then (just as you mention in the blog), this was the reality since the beginning of mankind (or any other species). The mind can only say things from the perspective of the limited experience it has had. From the perspective of the form, there will always be adversity. It is like music that universe plays through us. Without adversity, we can sit here, and our form will make no sense.

As another commenter spoke about actions over words — I have noticed just letting go and recognizing that all the mess at the end is created by the mind, is like finding the remote control to this device that we are. Something shifts, and then there is a potential to do something constructive.

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David Cain August 31, 2018 at 10:04 am

It is a value judgment, yes. But we are pattern-recognizers and conceptualizers so we do use labels and descriptors and I don’t think there’s any way around that.

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Sharon Hanna August 29, 2018 at 4:51 pm

I too am a fan of Richard Rohr – think you’d like his stuff, David. I totally loved this article. Shared it with one of my sons who is a philosophy professor, waiting to hear his thoughts. Shared it on Facebook even. Shared with my ex-husband even!! Noticing the….defensiveness…..in some of the comments. People “don’t like it” when you infer that they might be stupid ;-) It’s SO goddamn zen. I did the est training long ago, and there was something about not knowing that you don’t know….if that makes any sense. Makes sense to me.

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Andy August 30, 2018 at 7:33 am

To me, there are two hallmarks of “stupidity”: 1) Simply letting yourself take at face value your thoughts to be “the truth” without scrutinizing them and 2) continuing to do the same thing despite clear evidence that another approach or paradigm is needed. (Clearly, there need to be certain criteria by which to measure the desirability of ways of perceiving and acting in the world, which I would argue need to be based on compassion, empathy, and kindness.)

In that context, it’s less a judgment value upon any given individual but rather just a way to prod each of us to examine circumstances and question whether a thought or action is apt to bring about a (more) optimal action or solution. For me, this interpretation has the added bonus of scaling from the individual to the collective.

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M August 30, 2018 at 5:30 pm

This article is nonsense,
Sacha shows the people in his show to be halfwits, precisely because they are halfwits, not because of some rosey picture of how everyone has a lil stupid in them.

It’s not a coincidence that most of them belong to the stupid peoples’ party either.

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Hana August 31, 2018 at 9:35 am

For me it’s all about hierarchy because stupid is an insult and people use it to feel superior to others. The poster above describes a ‘stupid peoples’ party which I can interpret as a classic example of how the political binary in America decreases our ability to have compassion for one another as citizens and degrades our block strength. Labeling a person as stupid decreases their worth. Egos are so vicious that they love finding these ways to box people in and make them smaller rather than inspecting situations to apply logic and understanding. I love David’s post because it pushes us to acknowledge our own failings and to have greater compassion for others. My mother grew up in Birmingham, Alabama in the 50s and she didn’t learn how to read until her first child was born. She thinks about things differently and looks at the world differently and I love it the most about her.

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David Cain August 31, 2018 at 10:02 am

Agreed. The comment you refer to is exactly what I’m talking about. It’s a very simplistic label for everything from mistakes, bad logic, political views, motivated reasoning, the effects of our upbringing, attachment to certain ideas, and other traits we all exhibit

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Drew September 2, 2018 at 5:33 pm

I love the Solzhenitsyn quote. Life really does come down to the individual and what we can control. Without understanding that line of good and evil in your own heart, what is the point of all the keyboard warrior activity and the like? If we each took individual responsibility primarily before judging others, I think we’d all be in a better place. I’ll do my best to start with myself.

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Maureen September 3, 2018 at 11:12 am

I was reading along, feeling smart, paying, attention, when I suddenly felt irked and wondered why you were repeating paragraphs. Is this a trick to see if we are paying attention? Then, uh oh. I was hitting the PgUp key, not page down. Thus is your hypothesis proved. Or is it proven?

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Ruben September 7, 2018 at 10:36 am

I think the links I included may have torpedoed this post, which I wrote several days ago, but which has never made it up. Maybe I will repost with more googling on the part of any readers who want to read more.

Hi David,

Before I start, let me thank you for Camp Calm. You have built a really great and valuable experience there.

I think I have a little expertise on this topic, having spent several years now researching behaviour and running municipal pilot projects on behaviour change.

And I am going to disagree with you, and with most of the commenters, from top to bottom.

I find the frame that we are all stupid to be misanthropic. In contrast, I call my behaviour model Compassionate Systems–specifically to highlight the counterpoint to compassionate, which is some flavour of hateful.

Mary-Anne offered the Einstein quote above, and she is the most right, I think.

“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

And so what is our version of a fish-climbing-a-tree?

It is intelligence/rationality.

This is hangover of the Enlightenment, when Descartes erroneously separated the mind from the body. This was the beginning, effectively, of the notion that our thoughts control our behaviour.

So, your post and many of the comments bemoan how poorly our thoughts control our behaviour.

But they never did. Just like fish don’t climb trees. Eagles don’t swim and dolphins don’t fly.

We can only run so fast, jump so high and think so much.

So, the problem is not at all that we are stupid. We are in fact marvellously brilliant. It is that we have a false narrative that literally demands fish climb trees.

And then we—hatefully—wag our fingers at people and call them stupid.

I am speaking strongly here, but I love you man! I have been reading your blog for years because you are super interesting!

And I hope you will read a couple of my posts, and maybe more if it starts to make sense. These should be easily found if my website links under my name, or through the googleplex.

Please search for “The Compassionate Systems Theory of Change”

Please search for “The harsh reality of cognitive limits”

More detailed version of #1
Please search for “Compassionate Systems”



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Sandy September 17, 2018 at 3:13 pm

Came to this page from your page on D. Harding Headless Way and I see a connection. We believe that we are what we have been taught. Upon further wisdom and exploration, are we who we think we are?
If we are in essence awareness and the capacity for the world then what or who are we referring to as crazy?

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