As I’m sitting on a near-empty L train going home amidst this pandemic and wonder what to write about, I am saved. A well-dressed-mask-less stranger appears in my peripheral. He pushes me to the side of the bench and takes out a bottle of Xanax. He pours the pills into his hand like Skittles. As he starts chopping them with his AMEX credit card, I wonder if 4 million years of evolution had been rolled back. Just in the last year, we’ve seen people eating tide pods and falling off cliffs while taking selfies. There seems to be no ceiling to people’s stupidity. After thousands of years of recorded history, there shouldn’t be any surprising stupidity. And yet, every day, people will prove you wrong. People’s determination and ingenuity at finding new ways to be stupid is mind-boggling. People are the most intelligent species on the planet and in our galaxy. But if you leave your house for 10 minutes, you wouldn’t get that impression. So why are people so dumb? I will, with my limited intelligence, try to answer that question.
For the first part of the explanation, let’s take a look at what makes someone dumb. Aside from actions or words, we tend to evaluate intelligence as a society through test scores and achievements. From early childhood, we hammer it in our kids’ heads that those who get good grades are smart. Those who don’t are dummies. After that, it’s exams, SAT scores, and interviews. These tests validate our intelligence or confirm our stupidity. But do they? Testing isn’t even a great way to reveal book-smart intelligence. It’s even a worse way to represent a person’s intelligence as a whole.
So let’s take the first part of that argument. One bad test or a lifetime of bad tests doesn’t show someone’s lack of intellect. There are many reasons why a person could underperform on any single test. Some are be poor test-takers, unmotivated, or have problems outside of school or in their head. Others lack financial or mental support. We often hear of average or below-average students who have incredible achievements. If we gave everyone the same exact tools, then, testing would be a fairer assessment of book-smart intelligence.
As for the second part, testing fails to reflect the full spectrum of intelligence. Here’s what I mean. Testing shows these book-smart abilities: test-taking, memorization, following directions, reading, problem-solving, and logic. But there is more to intelligence. There are other types of intelligence. According to a developmental psychologist Howard Gardner, there are 9 types of intelligence:
Bodily-kinesthetic – coordinating your mind with your body.
Interpersonal – sensing people’s feelings and motives.
Existential – tacking the questions of why we live, and why we die.
Logical-mathematical – quantifying things, making hypotheses, and proving them.
Musical – discerning sounds, their pitch, tone, rhythm, and timbre.
Naturalist – understanding living things and reading nature.
Spatial – visualizing the world in 3D.
Intra-personal – understanding yourself, what you feel, and what you want.
Linguistic – finding the right words to express and what you mean.
How many of these do we test for in a school or anywhere else? What about other things that could be interpreted as types of intelligence? Think charisma, humor, or street-smarts. Without evaluating all these, we cannot determine someone’s true intelligence.
Each person has limited effort points. Each day we have a limited amount of activities we can perform. Kind of like the game The Sims. Where you oversee a character and play God in what they do with their day. Money, time, weather, health, stamina, focus, and other factors limit us. So each of us (if we have that luxury) can choose where to spend those effort points each day. Some people may not be fortunate enough to attend universities or school altogether. While you can spend it on education, they can spend it on menial tasks, or specific skills. Thus expanding areas of intelligence other than linguistic or logical-mathematical.
Intelligence can be found in the most unexpected places. Let’s take Joe Exotic, the zoo keeper featured on the Tiger King documentary. After watching the show, you may conclude that he is quite dumb. Yet, when it comes to naturalistic intelligence, he is far smarter than an average person. He has a much better grip of understanding animal behavior than an average person. As you begin to examine people in this broader concept of intelligence, you will begin to see that most are pretty smart in some way.
Next reason why you keep running into dummies is that you are in the wrong environment. If I was an NBA player and they played me in a game against kindergartners, I wouldn’t wonder why they suck. The same goes for intelligence. You are more likely to find someone intelligent in your university than a night club in New York City. If you find yourself in environments where people are less likely to be educated (and affected by drugs or alcohol), then you are bound to run into some dummies. Change your environment, your hobbies, and start finding like-minded people. You may find yourself as a dummy in someone else’s path.
The type of environment plays a huge role. Let’s take someone incredibly gifted when it comes to book-smarts like Einstein. Let’s throw him into a theater performance, basketball game, or a dating show. How does one of the world’s smartest men fare then? You may be smart in your own element, but step out of your comfort zone, and you may find yourself to be the dummy. Even in the same intelligence category, your perceived intelligence can instantly deplete. Take the world’s best English professor and let him teach Chinese. Take a sprinter and put him into a long-distance race. They may adapt quicker, they may fare better than a person of another intelligence, but when it comes to an outsider’s eye – they are just another dummy. Next time you judge someone, think about how’d you’d look if they took you out of your element. If you are the smartest person in the room, it’s time to switch rooms.
Many of my personal quandaries about human intellect come from the media. It seems that every time I turn on the TV, or read an article, someone somewhere has done something incredibly stupid. Type in “Florida Man” in Google and it will make the Sunshine State seem like the dummy capital of United States. As I’m writing this, one article reads “Florida man attacks victim who didn’t thank him for holding open door to liquor store”. Why is this? Is it because humans are all this dumb? No. It’s because it’s entertaining to read about someone steal their neighbor’s peackock and then get chased by angry birds. It’s because something out of the ordinary gets more views. Even if you hate the president, you will tune in or read about what he did anyway. It’s not only the media to blame. We are guilty for sharing articles without reading them. We are guilty for sharing information without credible sources. We are guilty of reacting to something designed to get a reaction out of us. We are guilty for not asking for all the facts. We click on dumb videos and SHOCKING articles, yet we are surprised when that’s all that you see on the media. Even algorithms (with no personality or political bias) show you these things because it knows that it’s what will get the most engagement. Our perception of the world is through a very narrow lens controlled by the media. Along with our stubbornness to look outside of it. Understanding that the media will focus on a story or angle that will get the most reactions will change the way you think. Turn off the TV, stop reading the news, and experience the world instead.
They say to not judge a book by its cover. But as humans, we think that we are great judges of character or people’s intelligence. I’m guilty of it myself. Yet, I can’t tell you how many times I did or said something dumb. I can only imagine if someone got a glimpse of those moments alone. Oh, how stupid I would look. No one would would put it past me to be the biggest asshole and idiot all at the same time. No one would want to read my articles. But luckily, at least with those closest to us, we get many chances at redeeming ourselves. For years we get to build our social portfolio and seem slightly less dumb. Yes, I did just drop my phone on my face as I was laying down. But if you could look right here on my resume, I did build a business and help you explain Newton’s Laws of Motion. But with most people we have no such rapport.
A director of corporate communications, Justine Sacco, was traveling to see her family in South Africa. During her stops, she tweeted satirical jokes about the indignities of travel. One of them: ““Chilly — cucumber sandwiches — bad teeth. Back in London!” And a final one before she took off on her last leg to Africa: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” No one replied as she had only 170 followers and she took off for an 11-hour flight. When she landed, she had a weird text from someone she hadn’t spoke to in a while: “I’m so sorry to see what’s happening.” Baffled by this message and others, she checked her Twitter account. Her last tweet went viral and it was the number one trending tweet. Like wolves, the internet had surrounded Justine. There was even a hashtag, “HasJustineLandedYet”, as people knew she wasn’t aware of what was happening to her. One tweet read, ““We are about to watch this @JustineSacco bitch get fired. In REAL time. Before she even KNOWS she’s getting fired.” Someone even tracked her in real time to see where she was landing. Then, took a photo of her to confirm she landed to shame her further. A random 30 year old became the prey for the internet’s anger, and ridicule. She had embarrassed her South African family, fired from her job, and cried herself to sleep. In today’s world, a tweet could change your life. We judge and we get judged on small insignificant moments.
It used to be a daily occurrence of wondering why are people are so dumb during my commute to work. The amount of dumb drivers is insufferable. Until you realize that most people are in autopilot mode. No, they don’t have self-driving Teslas. Yet. Your brain is programmed to take shortcuts in order not to exhaust you. You have used your blinker so many times to change lanes that now every time you do it, it’s automatic. Sometimes you may not even recall how you got home. You zoned out but your brain took over and accomplished the task. This is why people don’t get out of the left lane, go under the speed limit, make dumb turns, and do other dummy behavior. They are on autopilot. Their mundane routines and boring lives have signaled to their brains, “hey, there’s nothing interesting or dangerous going on here”. Also, we don’t judge ourselves the way we judge others. How many times did you call someone an idiot as they cut you off, but then did the same thing two minutes later? Show me a cab driver in New York City and I’ll show you a hypocrite. And when you say “I’m in traffic” what you ought to say is “I am traffic”.
I often hear someone say “wow they’re such sheep”. Implicating that people are brainless followers and consumers. You can be following your favorite politician, fashion guru, or daily routine. It seems it’s never good to be a follower. Yet, being way out of the spectrum is not great either. Either way, people will label you as dumb. What you have to consider here, is that most people are not going to be leaders. Leadership is a skill. If we were all leaders, can you imagine how hectic the world would be? Also, I may want to be a leader in my business, but do I need or want to be a leader in other areas of my life? Spreading yourself too thin will cause people to doubt your abilities. You may suffer as well. As you don’t have infinite time to become knowledgeable enough to pave your own path. At some point, somewhere, you will have to take someone else’s word for it. Finally, all ideas come from something else. Everything is a remix. Anything that you can create came from another thought or idea. We’re all sheep.
We all start our lives as dumb babies. As we grow, our experiences and environments shape us into who we are. We get better at some things but some things we never learn. We perceive others as dumb for not understanding something basic but we were all there at some point. Rotary telephones were as basic as any technology that there is out there. Yet, give that to any young tech kid and it will look like a caveman trying to figure out how to light a fire. Bring an introvert to a party and watch how even the most basic of interactions can go wrong. In many ways, we are still dumb babies. To be enlightened you have to first realize that you’re not.
According to Einstein’s theory or relativity, we can experience the same things in a very different way. Everyone experiences life slightlydifferently. Everyone’s own reality is their only truth.
The least likely possibility, but a possibility none the less, is that you are smarter than everyone else. After all, statistically speaking, someone has to be at the very top, right? Even if we found a way to measure all types of intelligence in one test, someone had to be the smartest. And maybe that’s you. If that’s true, give us dummies a break. But the very fact that you are nodding to yourself in agreement tells me that you lack inter/intra-personal intelligence. Dummy.
We all like to think of ourselves and our kids as above-average intelligence. But someone’s kid will be the one smearing poop in the bathroom. But hey, maybe he will be the next great painter.
So what’s the takeaway from this? There are many factors in play like culture, psychological well-being, habits. Even microscopic bacteria in our gut play a role in how we act. We’re all smart in some ways. We’re also dumb in many others. And a small minority of us are dumber than a rock. If you are of average intelligence, that means half of the population is dumber than you. So what should you do? Simply by knowing this fact should take some anxiety off from your life. Don’t set expectations too high. Lead by example. And if you work in the creative or engineering fields, design your products accordingly. Design them so dummies could use them. Apple did. Don’t put too much pressure on being or seeming intelligent. Pick your categories to invest your time in and try to be a decent human being. People value that more than anything else.
Remember this next time you are impatient with a friend, your parents, or a stranger.