The radical idea that people aren't stupid
OR, the toilet spoke and I understood the truth
If you learn a little psychology, you might come away thinking that people are stupid.
After all, one of psychology’s main exports is cognitive biases. There’s the conjunction fallacy, the endowment effect, false consensus, false uniqueness, the curse of knowledge, the availability heuristic, the better-than-average effect, the worse-than-average effect, hyperbolic discounting, pareidolia, the hot-hand fallacy, the Turkey illusion, the Semmelweiss reflex, social cryptomnesia, reminiscence bump, and the “women are wonderful” effect. That’s just a taste, and the list gets longer every year. With all these cognitive biases, it’s amazing that people even manage to feed and bathe themselves.
In fact, “people are stupid” seems to be an assumption we all share and a chorus we love to hear. Say it on YouTube and you might get 31 million views. Write it in a book and you might become a bestselling author. Make it into a movie and it might become a cult hit. Dave Ramsey, the professional blowhard, puts it well:
You ever get in a room full of stupid people? Like, you know, you’re at Thanksgiving dinner and your relatives are saying something that’s absolutely ridiculous, I mean really stupid. […] And you realize there’s not anything to say, because if you say something to them, it’s not going to do any good, because they’ve already made up their mind to live neck deep in the stupidity.
I used to believe this, too. As a kid, I loved reading stories from the Darwin Awards, which ridicule people who were so stupid that they died. But since then a few experiences have pried this little hunk of misanthropy out of my head and squashed it like a bug, and I’m better for it. I’d like to do the same for you.
IF WE’RE SO STUPID HOW COME WE’RE STILL HERE
But “less than perfectly rational” doesn’t mean “stupid.” Our species couldn’t have survived for over 300,000 years if we were a bunch of nincompoops—we’d have gone extinct long ago from tap-dancing near crevasses or trying to hug grizzly bears or snacking on poison berries. Instead, we learn languages simply by listening to them, we remember innumerable facts for our entire lives, we walk on uneven ground and almost never fall over, we see stuff and immediately know what it’s called, and we read people’s minds just by looking at ripples in their facial muscles. Our astounding success is exactly what makes our mistakes interesting.
(For comparison, constructing an artificial intelligence that can do just one of these things takes a bunch of rare metals, a global supply chain, hyper-specialized factories, exorbitant amounts of energy, terabytes of training data, and thousands of people all working together for years. Meanwhile, people can produce an additional human intelligence by accident.)
We should treat cognitive illusions like psychology’s other great export: visual illusions. These circles look like they’re different sizes, but they’re not! These rings look like they’re rotating, but they’re sitting still! These lines look tilted, but they’re straight! Visual illusions don’t prove you are bad at seeing. They prove that your visual system is doing tons of stuff under the hood to make you good at seeing, and specially-designed images can expose its clever tricks. Cognitive illusions do the same—they help us understand how the mind works by figuring out how the mind breaks, just with words and numbers instead of pictures.
WHY EVERYONE FEELS LIKE THE LAST SANE PERSON IN A WORLD GONE MAD
To their credit, some psychologists will remind you that people are smart, or they’ll point out that some cognitive illusions disappear if you make the questions resemble the kinds of situations people encounter in their everyday lives. So why does research like this often get written up as “people are stupid” (i.e., “Your Lying Mind: Science Suggests We’re Hardwired to Delude Ourselves”)? I think the biggest reason is that we expect to hear that people are stupid; a few features of the mind make “people are stupid” an extraordinarily easy thing to believe.
First, there’s naive realism: the belief that you simply see the world as it is. Your brain doesn’t tell you this, but it starts Photoshopping reality as soon as photons hit your retina and vibrations hit your ears. So when other people say that reality is different, they simply seem mistaken. And if they resist when you try to correct them, they simply seem stupid.
Second, there’s psychological distance. Real people are complicated, and if they disagree with you, it’s easy to think of all the reasons why: they were raised differently, they don’t have all the facts, or maybe they even have more facts. But as I wrote in Bureaucratic psychosis, if you’re less connected to someone, you see them less as a person and more as a blob. Blobs are simple. If a blob disagrees with you, that's because it’s a big dumb sack of gelatinous ooze.
And third, there’s correspondence bias, the tendency to attribute other people’s actions to their personalities rather than to their situations. You see a dude get angry and assume he’s an angry dude, rather than he’s having a bad day.
Here’s a little story. The first time I landed at LaGuardia Airport in New York, a woman asked me if I needed a taxi. “I do!” I said, thinking how everyone was wrong about New Yorkers; they’re actually quite friendly. She then led me to a parking garage and directed me to enter an unmarked SUV, which was not yellow like the taxis I had seen on TV. I realized I was perhaps doing something foolish, but she let me sit in the passenger seat, and I figured that if she decided to drive me into an alley where her accomplices could surround the car and steal my things (I assumed this was her plan), I would simply grab the wheel and drive us into a wall, and she, being older than me, would be dazed longer, allowing me a chance to escape.
This is the kind of logic that only makes sense when you’re 19 and you’ve mainly learned about the world by playing Grand Theft Auto. You may feel, reading it, like I made a series of stupid decisions because I’m a stupid person—that’s the correspondence bias part. But I don’t feel like I’m a stupid person. I feel like I was in a stupid situation because I know all of my extenuating circumstances: I was young and naive, I was trying to be polite, each decision seemed reasonable at the time, etc.
(In the end, my would-be kidnapper merely overcharged me.)
Naive realism, psychological distance, and correspondence bias combine to create the funny feeling that common sense is uncommon. And that’s unfortunate, but it’s also a totally sensible way for a human mind to work. Naive realism is necessary—if your unconscious mental systems had to wait for your conscious self to sign off on everything, you’d drive your car right into a tree (fortunately allowing you to escape any middle-aged scammers in the car). The effects of psychological distance are necessary, too: if you could only conclude something about “people in general” by thinking about each of eight billion people one by one, you’d go insane.
THE TOILET SPOKE AND I UNDERSTOOD THE TRUTH
But look, “people aren’t stupid” isn’t really something you learn. It’s something you feel. And I first felt it at an improv theater.
That might sound strange because a lot of people in improv theaters are pretending to be, for example, talking toilets, or Celine Dion made out of sand. (Okay, I was pretending to be those things.) But the second rule of improv you learn, right after “Yes, And,” is: “treat your scene partner like a genius.” Don’t just grit your teeth and agree to whatever your partner says because it’s improv and you have to—instead, fall in love with their choices. If they place the scene in 1830s London, that’s where it should be. If they endow you as their two-timing girlfriend, what a gift!
When I taught improv classes, this idea was remarkably powerful. People’s natural inclination is to stomp into scenes and go “YOU’RE DOING THAT ALL WRONG.” Unfortunately, it’s pretty boring to watch someone yell at a toilet about how bad they are at being a toilet. At this point I would pause the scene and encourage the yelling person to act as if their scene partner had made a really cool and fun choice to be a toilet.
And then something magical would happen. The person would pause, letting themselves feel an actual emotion. Their eyes would well up. “Toilet, I’m afraid that I’m fundamentally unlovable,” they would say. And the toilet would say, “I’m so sorry to hear that, why don’t you sit down on me and we can figure this out.” And a beautiful scene would result.
(To be clear, not every scene had a toilet in it. Just most scenes.)
The moral is: believe people are stupid, and you’ll often be right. Believe that people are smart, and you’ll often be right. What would you like to be right about?
SORRY, YOU CAN ONLY HANDLE THE TRUTH IF YOU’VE TAKEN A COMP LIT CLASS AND PLAYED ULTIMATE FRISBEE
Sometimes you don’t realize how ugly an idea is until someone drags it into the light for you. That happened to me when I went to China a few years ago. I was traveling around talking to lots of students at elite universities, and whenever censorship came up, I would hear a remarkably similar refrain, which went something like this:
“You Westerners don’t understand. We’ve got a lot of uneducated people in this country. If anybody could say anything they wanted to on the internet, then someone would be like ‘let’s overthrow the government’ and a bunch of people would try to overthrow the government, and then where would we be? But we’re educated, so we can read whatever we want. That’s why we have VPNs to get around the firewall."
I saw this same idea pop up in the responses to my critique of peer review. Some objections boiled down to, “We can’t let everybody say and hear whatever they want. They can’t handle the freedom!” The unstated assumption, of course, is that people with .edu email addresses can determine what is safe for others to say and to hear.
Looking back at my own education, I can’t help but laugh at this idea. At what point did I transform from an ignoramus, someone who couldn’t be trusted with knowledge, into an adult with a working brain, someone who deserves to be told the whole truth? Was it halfway through ENG 220: Crime, Fiction, and Film? Was it during my master’s degree, when I wrote in my lecture notes—verbatim!—“if something doesn’t work, try something else”? Was it when two of my PhD classmates and I almost flipped over in a Jeep in the woods because we drove onto a path that we only later realized was meant for pedestrians?
I don’t mean to imply that my education taught me nothing. It taught me a ton! But one of the most important things it taught me was that you can pretty much never be certain about anything. The evidence is almost always mixed, half the studies might not replicate, and things that seem obvious today will seem obviously wrong ten years from now. If you’re going to prevent other people from accessing knowledge, you have to be pretty darn sure that you know what’s true. Anybody with that level of certainty is probably fooling themselves, or trying to fool you.
The idea that people are stupid and that only an elite few can handle the truth has led to some nasty places. Governments have relied on this lie throughout history, downplaying imminent danger out of fear that the public will panic. And yet, when disaster actually strikes, panic rarely follows. People don’t start blubbering or looting; they get themselves and their families to safety, and they risk their lives to help total strangers on the way. Misleading the public doesn’t protect them, it protects the people in charge. Better to keep the masses calm than to give them any reason to wonder who didn’t build the levees high enough, who scrapped the pandemic preparedness plan, who didn’t fix the roads in time for the firetrucks to get through.
GOOD LUCK WITH YOUR “DEMOCRACY” LOL
We’ve been struggling against this idea for a very long time. According to the historian Ada Palmer, people thought that American democracy would fail because common people were too stupid to govern themselves, and they couldn’t learn any better. An under-appreciated corollary of “all men are created equal,” she writes, was "all people when born have the capacity to absorb education if given access to it."
Many in the 18th c. who thought democracy was absurd rejected it because they disagreed with this thesis, believing that the majority of people (even of white men) were not educable, i.e. that even with educational resources most people were born incapable of being guided by Reason and making sound political judgments. Those who believed this predicted that government by the people would collapse into absurdity, since it would be led by a parliament of fools.
Two hundred and fifty years later, we’re still standing. It’s been rocky, but we’ve done pretty darn well for a country that people thought would immediately collapse into an anarchy of dunces. If we can go from “only kings and dukes could possibly become less stupid” to “anybody can become less stupid,” maybe we can make it all the way to “people aren’t fundamentally stupid to begin with.”
Getting there requires giving up on the very seductive idea that your mind just happens to contain every true belief. When people like the things you hate, when they vote for the wrong guy, when they devote their lives to things you think are pointless, the easiest way to deal with them is to assume that God didn’t put enough neurons in their heads. If only their brain functioned properly, like yours does! Then they’d see.
I think that we can outgrow our need for that idea. And I sure hope we do, because “people are stupid” is the gateway drug to a lot of worse ideas. When you write someone off as a moron, you suspend diplomatic relations; you declare war. This works the other way around, too—how can you have anything other than open hostilities with someone who has decided that your brain doesn’t work?
THE CADAVER, THE BABY, THE SPAGHETTI SANDWICH
I’m hellbent on arguing that people aren’t stupid because it’s the whole reason I write Experimental History in the first place.
My life would be way easier if I was cool with only talking to psychologists for the rest of time. I could say “Cronbach’s alpha” and they could say “partial mediation” and we could laugh and laugh and wait for the sweet release of death to take us.
But I’d much rather talk to everybody, because I believe that people aren’t stupid. I believe that if I put my ideas where anyone can find them, maybe someone cool will find them, and maybe we’ll both learn something. I can only speak for myself, but I’ve definitely learned something. If you like data analysis and you're ever looking for a research idea, there’s a ton of free ones in the comments on Pop culture has become an oligopoly. I got so many good comments on The rise and fall of peer review that I wrote a whole followup article. At the bottom of Things could be better, my coauthor Ethan and I acknowledge all the commenters who helped us improve the paper. Why would I do this any other way?
“People aren’t stupid” may always be a radical idea. There will always be people doing stupid stuff, and it will always be tempting to assume that stupid actions = stupid people. It’s hard to imagine how naive realism could disappear, or how we could bridge the psychological distance between each person and the public.
But sometimes radical ideas become common sense. Doctors used to think washing their hands between dissecting a cadaver and delivering a baby was a silly waste of time. What we call racism now was once mainstream opinion. For goodness’ sake, people used to eat spaghetti sandwiches. If we can leave all that behind, maybe we can ditch “people are stupid” too. I hope to speed that day on its way.
Until then, if no one agrees with me, that’s all right. At least I’ve got my toilet to talk to.
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