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Smart people don't think others are stupid (sivers.org)
167 points by cheeaun on May 17, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 123 comments

There are no smart people or stupid people, just people being smart or being stupid.

The same could be said about almost all behaviors, such as courage, promiscuity, or whathaveyou. However, over time people tend to display consistent patterns of behavior. As a consistent picture emerges, we tend to switch from thinking of people as acting a certain way, to thinking of people as being a certain way. Whether you want to say someone is acting stupid all the time, or someone is being stupid is just semantics.

> As a consistent picture emerges

I've found that the length of time most people take to form a "consistent picture" of someone else is very short. Generally, it is whatever is the shortest length of time required to determine "are they acting in accordance with my desires or not?".

If the person is generally helping to make things happen which you want to have happen, you form a favorable impression of them quickly.

If they are unhelpful, you tend to think negatively of them. There is rarely a deep consideration of who the person actually is, or what might motivate them to behave the way they do.

Of course, if they are not only helpful, but are creating new opportunities, we call them "visionary" or "leaders". Great people.

If their actions are opposed (directly or indirectly) but very obviously to what we think our needs and desires are, we label them "enemy" and push them into that definition.

I'm having a hard time articulating what I want to get across, but it boils down to this: after a while, we stop acting on information that might change our perception of who someone is. We just think of them as "being a certain way" and observe all behavior from there on out as solidifying that definition in our minds.

I think a truly "smart person" is someone who is always staying open to the possibility of people changing radically, however unlikely that may seem.

> I think a truly "smart person" is someone who is always staying open to the possibility of people changing radically, however unlikely that may seem.

But a truly "person who is currently acting smart" may realise that they simply do not have the time to continue treating this "person who is currently acting stupid" as if they're simply acting that way, and may make a temporary value judgement about that person fully in the knowledge that it's an over-simplification and useful only in the present situation. Doing so may also be a smart thing to do, as it allows said person to actually get something done.

> I think a truly "smart person" is someone who is always staying open to the possibility of people changing radically, however unlikely that may seem.

That's a very humanities 1990s definition of "smart," and one that I don't think is remotely accurate, either.

You initial point is related to the fundamental attribution error: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundamental_attribution_error

But I have to agree with the others, I think there is more to being "smart" than just being able to accept that others may change.

> I've found that the length of time most people take to form a "consistent picture" of someone else is very short.

Indeed. I believe this is called the illusion of asymmetric insight: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:youaren... (cache since the site seems inaccessible).

Thanks, that was an awesome read. I'm going to get the book. While this post was short & to the point, I felt there was a lot of generalizing going on... I mean, what the heck is "smart" and "stupid" anyways? Don't we all define that in our own minds? Asymmetric insight; now that's some serious stuff to reflect on...

But people tend to fixate on their first impression of others. It's very common to see someone do something stupid once, and then assume they're stupid forever-or the opposite. It's definitely worth recognizing the first impression bias, and doing your best to fight it.

Fundamental attribution error from social psychology - you tend to attribute errors by others to their intrinsic flaws (stupidity, poor judgment, clumsiness) but your own errors to circumstances (I was tired, they tricked me, it was slippery).

The world would be a much better place, IMO, if everyone ever knew about this cognitive bias and was reminded of it periodically.

Don't forget its counterpart, the just-world hypothesis:


They are closely related but people always forget the second one.

I don't think much would change. You can very well use biases to rationalize whatever you want. It's the intention and attitude that matters the most, not how many biases you can recite.

I'm still for teaching common biases in secondary school. Won't hurt, and may sometimes help. But I don't think knowing biases changes people. At least that wasn't my experience.

Just a quick recommendation for "A Mind Of Its Own" by Cordelia Fine (especially Chapter 3 = The Immoral Brain) for anyone who would like to read more about this, or for anyone already familiar who would like a short, readable book on the subject to recommend to other people.

That reminds me of one of my favorite quotes: judge others by their intentions and yourself by your actions.

The problem with this is that humans are actually really bad at reading others' intentions-not to mention the fact that several people who commit atrocious acts see themselves as good, e.g. Al Capone.

My aim is to judge others by their repeated actions and track record. This is hard, but I've definitely found it worth doing.

An even more extreme example than Capone is Pablo Escobar. He fashioned himself as an honored man of the people in Columbia, even as he was ordering the (often brutal) executions hundreds of police officers, judges, public officials, and personal enemies.

Yet when he died, the people of Columbia wept in the streets.

This requires knowing others' intentions. And that means you have to ask & trust what they say & not make assumptions about what their intentions are.

Thank you! I was trying to remember the name but couldn't.

Actually there's interesting research on this.. I wish I could remember where I read it - I think a Malcolm Gladwell book.

In general, we only need to see someone being smart once and then we will forever label them as smart. It's as if being smart is an achievement and they've proven they're capable.

However, in general we only need to see someone being evil once, and we will forever label them as evil. It's as if that's their true self, and all the other instances of them being good are a ruse.

I think the term for that is Diagnosis Bias.


From his book Blink probably.

I agree with you. A good example of this is what we experience when driving. If someone cuts me off, my instinctive reaction is to think, "What a moron!" Which is unfair, of course: it may have been a one-time stupid mistake.

Even if you think you see a pattern, someone who seems stupid at something may just be outside of their comfort zone/talent area. In another field, they may be quite smart.

Another example would be when a developer who build a framework at an organisation has left the company.

90% of the time, when people look at the code, you will hear comments like 'who wrote this garbage??'. In reality, the system was generally built to the best knowledge / requirements that were available at the time.

(I'm sure many people here have thought 'who wrote this crap' and then viewed the author to find out it was something they wrote many years ago, but have just gotten much better over time)

Some activities do however prejudice my view of others, the most obvious one is smoking. While one former good friend is very intelligent and has a work ethic second to none she recently started smoking at work. Now since I knew her before this I am less likely to write her off as being stupid but I cannot say the same for others whom I first meet and find out or witness them smoking.

So yeah, it is hard to fight a first impression.

> Whether you want to say someone is acting stupid all the time, or someone is being stupid is just semantics.

Actually I think there is a crucial distinction here that is not just semantics. When you say someone is stupid, it implies that this is an in-born and unchangeable condition. When someone is acting stupid, you can look at the information they have, the way society frames certain issues, and many other mutable factors which we can work on to solve the problem.

Exactly. Humans are more likely to attribute their own behavior to situational factors (I acted stupidly because I haven't gotten much sleep recently) and the behavior of others to inherent characteristics (he's stupid).

Edit: What I may have slightly mischaracterized is the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundamental_attribution_error, and I guess I'm one of many pointing it out here.

Smart people accept that some people are smarter then them. Stupid people will never agree with this. I think this is the way to spot smart people.

Smart people don't think others are stupid merely because of the beliefs they hold. That is, being a [Southerner, Northerner, Republican, Democrat, Indian, American, Christian, Muslim, Atheist, Tauist, Piist, vi user, emacs user, ...] does not mean a person is stupid. There are smart people who really have thought things through and ended up at each of those positions for good reasons.

But smart people might conclude some specific individual is stupid because of consistently erroneous patterns of thought and analysis which do not improve with experience. There are a few individuals who I've spoken to on a variety of topics over the course of years who, as a rule, develop beliefs based on sketchy evidence and then retain those beliefs even in the face of mountains of contrary evidence. Even when they hold essentially the same views as I do, it's often for bad reasons; there isn't really a coherent thought process or a body of evidence that got them to that point. Such people really are stupid.

Even when they hold essentially the same views as I do, it's often for bad reasons

I noticed this too, and for a long time it bothered me. But I recently read Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind, and in it he points out that a lot of people appear to hold believes about a wide array of issues (politics, religion, consumer products, and so forth) that they don't really hold based on logic and evidence, but to signal group identification and affiliation.

In addition, he points out that, on a wide array of issues, people tend to have gut, intuition-based reactions first, then look for evidence to support their intuition, while a lot of us assume or want to assume that it works the other way around.

I probably learned something from The Righteous Mind on every page, and I say this about very few books; I also wrote at more length about it here: http://jseliger.com/2012/03/25/jonathan-haidts-the-righteous... .

(BTW, I agree with your basic point and think it's well put.)

To your first point, some scientist believe it is hard wired in our DNA to associate with any form of group (as this played a role in evolution). Here's a related interesting talk on TED that I recently saw: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral...

. . . that scientist is Jonathan Haidt, who wrote The Righteous Mind.

Thanks this is something that always bothered me as well.

The real question is what to do with stupid people?

I usually try to hold it as their defense. Something like: "It's OK he said something like that because he's -- well, like that. Now let's change the subject quickly." This makes me look like a bad person but hey, it's better than pick on people because they didn't use their brain.

And then I try to avoid stupid people. There is only so much time.

What really matters is how you treat people, not what you believe about them.

Right on, couldn't have said it better. Thanks.

Sometimes people appear to me unskilled, sometimes they appear unknowledgeable, sometimes they're thinking in twisted ways that they picked up from their environment, sometimes they're falling prey to cognitive biases, sometimes they're making one of a hundred other mistakes I happen to recognize.

And sometimes, so far as I can tell, they're stupid. Sorry.

Original article's error: The fact that a conclusion sounds nice does not save it from being patently false.

As a rule people are a lot smarter than they may appear to be at first contact. And people that think they are very smart are typically smart along some fairly narrow field and then extrapolate their smartness in that one area to all areas.

Thinking is interesting that way, if you're 'smart' it usually means that you know a lot about some subject but that isn't actually being smart. Being smart means that you can use the knowledge you've got in creative ways when presented with unforeseen problems or situations.

And there are plenty of people that would not normally be called smart that excel at that.

Being smart or not has nothing to do with making mistakes or falling prey to cognitive biases. The first is typically evidence of people trying things a little bit outside their envelope of experience, in turn they'll acquire new knowledge because of this. Guilty as charged, I make mistakes all the time. Your environment has nothing to do with you being smart or not either. Otherwise, how would you ever be able to recognize someone from a society with different levels of development as smart.

The fact that someone does not appear smart in a way that you recognize does not mean they are not.

My favorite thing to learn is to recognize a cognitive bias in myself. I might know one, theoretically, but if I recognize it consciously when I fall victim to it, I feel like I've grown a bit.

I have this link on my bookmark bar. I do the same thing.


Even people that are in general stupid may surprise you.

The problem with labeling someone as being stupid is that you're applying a stereotype to his behavior and by definition, you have preconceived ideas about stereotypes.

However, stereotypes are human-invented concepts and the world is much more complicated for that, as in fact everybody has a unique combination of knowledge and perspective that's dependent on his environment in which he grew up, his passions, his ideals, his education, his friends, his luck, his misfortunes and so on.

In my country we have a billionaire that started making money by herding and selling sheep. He's also a completely illiterate buffoon, a redneck that still has the same mentality as a sheep herder. Every time he talks, stupid things come out of his mouth. However, he's a billionaire that started from zero, while I have the income of a regular employee, he's also a politician with a seat in the EU parliament and he's also pretty involved in charity work, while I'm not. Judging by his words or actions that end up in the media, he's completely stupid, but judging by his accomplishments only, it's really hard to do that.

So be wary of calling people stupid, because stupidity is relative.

He's right - smart people know others are stupid.

Seriously though, people do Stupid Things. And I call them stupid when they do them. Change lanes without signaling, without looking - maybe you're not an idiot all the time, but at that moment you're acting like an idiot and endangering other people.

I think the point is that we vigilantly distinguish "that was stupid" from "that was a stupid person". Judging someone as stupid means we've stopped thinking about possibilities. Derek wisely says there's always more to the story (reminded me of this: http://garrysub.posterous.com/what-does-it-feel-like-to-be-s...)

Labeling people is nearly always a substitute for thinking and empathy (both hard things).

Lest I forget, there is also ignorance-- willful cluelessness; can't be bothered to learn something; won't have a reasoned discussion. I do label these individuals "stupid." Don't get me wrong, it's not immediate prejudice, but it doesn't take much time talking to some people to learn that they are willful in their efforts to remain uninformed.

That's provably wrong. In the first place, both his definitions of "smart" and "stupid" are wrong according to the dictionary. You can't just redefine words so that they suit your argument. If that's an acceptable approach, I can just as easily say all living humans are stupid by defining "stupid" as "not Einstein".

Secondly, even if we allow that his private definitions be used for the purposes of this argument, he's still wrong. People do exhibit consistent behavioral tendencies, after all. Some people consistently think things through, while others consistently jump to conclusions. So I think there is pretty good justification in applying the heuristic of thinking a person is stupid if he consistently jumps to conclusions.

I hate to say this, because I have much respect for Derek Sivers, but this post was pretty stupid.

I used to think people are stupid.

Then I stopped being a teenager and realized that, hey, most people are actually pretty cool. When they're being stupid it's usually just a lack of information and when you educate them a bit, they get better.

But then the internet reminded me that there are, in fact, stupid people all over the place, they just don't live in my IRL filter bubble.

Evidence: http://notalwaysright.com/ http://clientsfromhell.net/ http://textsfromlastnight.com/

Perhaps OT because of the age involved, but... as a kid, I was 'gifted' (not sure if that label is still used today or not). I would get people (adults or other kids) saying "you're so smart", and I would naturally try to deflect/downplay that - was never really told how to react to statements like that as a 7 year old. "Thanks" just sounds so bland, but, I didn't even think that far ahead.

Instead, I would usually protest some - "no, I'm not really". But eventually I adopted the attitude that yes, there was a difference between me and many other kids in my classes, but it wasn't that I was smart - it was that they were dumb. Relative to me, most of them were. But it wasn't so much a 'dumb' as in 'you're a lesser person', it was just hard for me to realize people didn't retain as much info as I did, nor could they make mental connections like I could, nor as fast.

I do remember having that line of thinking for a few years, and it wore off by early high school age.

This, except I'm in college now and it works that way. At times, I still have to consciously remind myself that X is not completely obvious to everybody.

It will probably go away in time. As I get older, it's more apparent to me how much I don't know any more, and my expectations for others knowing things I consider obvious has tempered some.

Indeed, for only a smart person can come up with a twisted and convoluted rationalization that a person with an IQ of 75 is not stupid and a person with an IQ of 125 is not smart. You'll find some of the most passionate arguments about the problems of IQ testing from people with IQs over 115. If you really think it doesn't matter, well, I'm sure there are some interesting ways to knock down your IQ quite a bit that you might want to try as a personal experiment. As a safer experiment, find someone with an IQ in the 90s or less (do you know anyone with sub-100 IQ?) and try to teach them Haskell.

Of course, we're all intelligent on a species-scale, but that's a separate distinction.

I heard that learning to "game" IQ tests is a common exercise in psychology classes. According to my friend it's fairly easy to get very high scores with the appropriate preparation.

A very good old friend of mine is a professionally trained waiter and never had "advanced" math classes. His knowledge of math was limited to the rule of three.

One day I tried to teach him functions, quadratic equations, basic analysis and other stuff. He grocked it immediately. Much much faster than most of my class mates when we had to learn these topics back at school.

I think it is important to distinguish between "knowledge" and "intelligence".

A good life lesson was given to me by my English teacher in high school. He always told us that when you notice that you have more knowledge in area than the person you are talking to, then it is your job to adjust your way of communication. Not the other way round. It's of no good to be smug. In fact if you fail to communicate your ideas, you might not be as smart as you might think.

The dictionary defines stupid as: Adjective: Lacking intelligence or common sense.

and intelligence as The ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.

Perhaps the author does not often meet people who lack the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills but that doesn't mean they don't exist.

I can't imagine anything more apt than a conversation about this subject on a forum made up of people who hold their own intelligence in a high regard.

I assure you that your definition of "stupid" is short-sighted. I've pre-judged a good many of people in my life as such and have been proven wrong almost every time, provided I'd spent enough time to try to understand what makes that person think the way they do.

We all have our methods. You might call them madness - or stupidity - but the moment you do, your ignorance becomes your bold weakness.

tl;dr: Get over yourself.

Downvotes... Let's continue the point...

"Sometimes, so far as I can tell, they're stupid. Sorry." [1]

"people do Stupid Things. And I call them stupid when they do them." [2]

"Smart people also triage their time so as to not waste it going down likely unproductive avenues." [3]

"Maybe politically correct people don't think others are stupid, but smart or not, there are definitely some morons out there." [4]

"Define usually. More often than not when I hear "I don't know" it is offered as an excuse/explanation for laziness and shirking responsibility" [5]

"Odds are that the all of the people from the article, and the author, are relatively stupid." [6]

"Smart people don't think others are stupid as the truely smart know that others are stupid." [7]

"at LEAST 15% of the world is stupid. That's just getting started." [8]

1: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3985594

2: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3985040

3: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3985265

4: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3985575

5: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3985050

6: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3985118

7: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3984894

8: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3985224

>So when someone says “They are so stupid!” - it means they’ve stopped thinking.

Don't listen to this !!

If you don't stop thinking , pretty soon you'll be deconstructing socio-economic behaviour of wage employees, thrashing between cultural/societal programming and why that is so, then you will move on to swarms surviving and problem-solving in groups and why programming is necessary for this, then you will proceed on to variety in nature, and degrees of freedom and 'coincidental' interlocking of such degrees of freedom of various entities leading to formation of stable ecosystems of assemblies of moving parts . By this time your soup would've gone cold and the opportunity to tell the establishment that this is not what you ordered would be far gone.

Maybe politically correct people don't think others are stupid, but smart or not, there are definitely some morons out there.

I for one, do not need to be PC to be smart. I don't claim to know everything, but that doesn't mean there aren't people who know less who also decided a long time ago to stop learning/embracing new ideas.

Therefor, according to his own rules, the author of this a article is stupid.

Before someone concludes the obvious about my comment I'll point out that those are not my rules.

Interesting choice including Republican and Democrat, there.

I don't think they're stupid, but if someone identifies themselves as "a Republican" or "a Democrat", as opposed to "the Republican party best fits my views", or "I'm a registered Democrat", I pretty much write off any chance of having a decent political discussion with them.

A large segment of the population follows politics the way they follow football, except without even watching the games, just the commentary and opinion pieces afterwards.

Smart people also triage their time so as to not waste it going down likely unproductive avenues.

But it's just a numbers game; there are invariably going to be people a level above me intellectually who this will filter out. But I can live with that.

Well, one argument is that politics is essentially a football game. The stakes are far, far higher, but fundamentally it comes down to all the institutions of a society self-organizing themselves into coalitions for the assumption or protection of power. "Reason" amounts to a way to mask rhetorical flourishes to convince dupes that they're morally better or smarter than the other side.

And if you're turning to the Wall Street Journal or New York Times to learn about the finer points of Nozick's critique of Rawlsian liberalism... well, then you're the dupe, even if it's of a "pox-on-both-your-houses" variety. Thinking too hard about whatever outrage-of-the-day Mitt or Obama has done is a similar waste of time--it's not that there isn't conceivably some correct position about whether eating a dog or strapping them to your roof reflects worse on your character, it's just that it's all a smokescreen.

Given that, I'd say you have to pick a side. If you end up rejecting politics because it isn't the Oxford debating society, you've essentially let the other side deprive your own side of a valuable resource. It might suck that you're stuck in a game not of your own choosing, but if someone's kicking you on the ground, you don't quietly accept it because they're not following Marquees of Queensbury rules.

I agree with your first two paragraphs. The position you advocate in the third would make sense if political affiliation conferred a tangible benefit or our participation in the process affected the outcomes. But neither of those is true, and it undermines your case.

Affiliation is rife with intangible benefits of a vaguely religious character: believing that you're right, believing that you're benefiting the righteous and confounding evil, etc. But there is no 10% discount for Democrats at the Toyota dealership, and Republicans don't get a $1500 tax deduction simply for being Republicans. The only tangible benefit to affiliation is the ability to vote in the primary—a benefit so dubious we all personally know people who affiliated opposite their beliefs just to muck up the process.

> The only tangible benefit to affiliation is the ability to vote in the primary—a benefit so dubious we all personally know people who affiliated opposite their beliefs just to muck up the process.

OT: I don't know anyone who's done that, but I've long wondered if the most effective way to get the result you want is to simply destroy everyone opposing it, rather than promoting the result directly. It seems that it'd be much easier to manipulate the system (and the people) using a negative influence than positive. It's definitely not right, but seems like it could be effective. Then again, as I write this I realize that this is half of what happens already.

In an ideal world with infinite time for arguing with... well, I'll avoid an ad-hominem when responding to an argument about ad-hominem attacks, but... in an ideal world it would be worthwhile to drill down through the onion layers of rationality, irrationality and emotion which drive any argument we disagree with, every time.

Sometimes this spelunking is both constructive and instructive.

Sometimes though, dismissing the assertion that the earth was created 6000 years ago or that the world will be ending next month with a quantitative assessment of the intellectual capacity of the asserter is a completely appropriate shorthand.

The key is judicious application. ;)

Isn't this the crux of infamous "ad hominem" argument: attacking the person instead of their reasoning?

Even smart people sometimes make stupid arguments.

And good arguments can be made by anyone.

It's very difficult to be right 100% of the time.

It's also quite unusual to be wrong 100% of the time.

Evaluate the reasoning, not the author.

Stupid argument, not stupid person.

Look at what Alsup said to Boies.

Still, this is easier said than done.

It is more accurate to say that the difference between stupid people and smart people is that smart people can be proved wrong.

you mean smart people are more open to be proven wrong?

I am implying that stupid people don't listen to rational arguments.

Sorry but no. Most people are cattle. Utter retards. The only thing missing them is drooling on the floor and making feces. They're little more than animals that can speak. Anyone even remotely smart knows most people are stupid compared to himself.

Of course, smart people don't go around whining about it. But they do KNOW they're surrounded by retards.

> Of course, smart people don't go around whining about it. But they do KNOW they're surrounded by retards.


I disagree. Labels are sometimes derived of prejudice and bigotry. But if someone is obese, and I call them fat - it's not a label that I invented because I'm "not thinking" and "I don't realize the possibilities". I am thinking, and I do realize the possibilities, and the person is still fat and the person might be me looking at the mirror. And if I don't know I'm fat because I'm afraid that by admitting it; I've jumped to a conclusion, which would in turn mean that I've avoided thinking and have jumped to a conclusion - wait, I mean stupid -- then how am I ever going to know that I can do something about it? Bleh. Fallacious logic is not logic at all.

"That’s why saying “I don’t know” is usually smart, because it’s refusing to jump to a conclusion."

Define usually. More often than not when I hear "I don't know" it is offered as an excuse/explanation for laziness and shirking responsibility.

When a smart person says "I don't know", It's usually followed with a "give me a second to figure it out." or "let me look that up real quick.".

I've given up on 'I don't know'. I only say that when I'm at the end of the line and there's nowhere to go.

Instead, I usually use anything else that indicates that I'm going to make inquiries. "That's a good question. I'll have to look into that." comes out of my mouth a lot now. Sometimes without "That's a good queston." at the start.

I like to form a hypothesis then test. Does that make me stupid for jumping to a conclusion? I'd rather approach something with "I don't know, but I think maybe...", lets test and see.

In my experience, I think smart people often think others are smart. And that's sometimes a problem-- because they believe that others are smart as well, they should think everything through the way they do (Also, I'd really like to say we here, but pride is never good karma :-))

Then you start wondering why they are doing something so obviously unwise, and then tend to rationalize it with some enormously complicated theory. Perhaps, this is the reason why Hanlon's razor is useful and recognized-- without it smart people are kinda lost.

Generally I agree. But there is a huge weasel clause in this whole line of thinking: Ultimately, I could always end up with "they haven't done the research or connected the dots because [insert something reasonable that is stopping them] so they are not stupid, just lesser informed or emotional" but essentially there will always be reasons that people do hard drugs or get involved in scams or get in fights at bars but "they are just so stupid" can sometimes suffice.

The article should maybe have been titled "Smart people don't assume others are stupid". But even then the argument is wrong.

It seems to me that what this comes down to is: is it justifiable and appropriate to categorise a person according to their behaviour (including the holding of opinions)? The author doesn't seem to deny that people can exhibit stupid behaviour, but argues that its wrong to categorise a person who exhibits such behaviour because you will (inevitably) never have enough information about the person or situation to make a judgement about the intrinsic qualities of the person. This might be true in some theoretical sense, but it doesn't really sit well with human nature or needs. We all have finite lives and stuff to be done in those lives. Making judgments about people is necessary to avoid a frustrating life spent (as in 'used up') dealing with people who behave stupidly.

And really, how long do you have to evaluate someone's behaviour before you are no longer 'jumping to conclusions' about them? Strangely, the author doesn't say. At some point you have use the history of a person's behaviour to decide[1]. A purist might say that such a decision should always be tentative, but in reality I think they soon become fixed. We are talking about people here.

For what its worth, my approach is that if I decide to think of someone as being stupid (or smart) then I try to be conscious and mindful of the decision, allow myself the opportunity to change my mind (while recognising that I probably won't), and always respect their dignity as a person.

[1] I suspect that how soon this happens will mainly depend on the social relationship between the people involved.

I would argue that personal effectiveness includes the life skill of being a character judge, and then having the courage to take action based on those judgements.

Ie, if you judge someone to be a dishonest time waster, then politely brush them off and don't have anything to do with them. This is true whether in a work situation or a social situation.

Taking it even further, it means leaving a job or an area if it dawns on you that you're surrounded by people who are either stupid or lazy and going nowhere.

As you say, life is short. Learning to sort the wheat from the chaff is a way of spending better time with more interesting people.

> "Smart people don't assume others are stupid".

FWIW: This is Chersterton's fence fallacy. This states that you should not criticise a viewpoint without understanding the reasoning behind it. The reasoning may be unsound, but without knowing it at all, criticism is useless.

Nearly 15 percent of people worldwide believe the world will end during their lifetime and 10 percent think the Mayan calendar could signify it will happen in 2012, according to a new poll.


^at LEAST 15% of the world is stupid. That's just getting started. That's one poll, about one thing.

All evidence suggests that the universe/world will end upon my death in any sense that matters to me. Once my brain has stopped functioning it will be impossible to ever receive stimulus from pysical phenomenon again for all eternity. So, if you can agree with that then you could agree that the world will end sometime during most people's lifetimes assuming I don't outlive them. So from my point of. View they are right, but for the wrong reasons.

The author makes an interesting point; however, he seems to make the same assumptions that he is actively protesting. If smart people do X, then would not doing X mean people are not smart?

This generalization that can be inferred from the article--as well as demonstrated in this comment section--seems to fall into this same trap.

As a reader of "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People", I think there is a better way to go about this. Rather than "smart people do X [therefore if you do not do X, you are not smart]"; it should be: people do X, which is smarter than doing Y.

People can change. If they have a consistent ability to do stupid things, it just means they are acting in poor judgement and possibly could use help. If they fail to accept help, or are too headstrong/temperamental/can-never-be-wrong then it just means that their behavior and mindset should change [in order to be more productive].

Although, I would sometimes choose a less-intelligent person that is of no fault of their own, than a willingly ignorant person who should know better, but does not act it.

Can we find better things to write about than this? It is getting really boring reading about how other people think we should all behave.

Um, what kinds of things do you want to read about? (Completely serious question. Honest.)

I like to read about new ideas, advances in science and technology, and political developments, especially where the Internet is concerned. I accept that people have different lifestyles and viewpoints, and if variations on those sorts of things are presented as "hey, here's a different way to live", then that's alright. On the other hand, if the message is "hey, do it this way because I'm right" then I'm inclined to stop reading.

Thanks. I like to write about personal hacks -- debugging the wetware, fixing health issues at their roots that doctors claim cannot be fixed, effective parenting for challenging children. So you are probably not my target audience. Trying to think such things through for myself, I guess. I agree with your distaste for what amounts to lecturing. I have a half formed thought for a piece about that which might get written, or at leasted started, today.

Thank you for the feedback.

My fear would be that he wants to read things that validate what ever it is he feels criticised about.

For example, people who smoke get irritated by being constantly told not to. Non smokers, of course, take no notice.

Sivers has it right, and I'm disappointed by the reaction here. People are smart. This should be your baseline. From there, people may do or say stupid things. It may become pathological. But the person has not lost his capacity to be smart (barring some physiological damage). It may have atrophied, like an unused muscle, but the capacity is still there.

But even this is getting ahead of yourself--how would you know they are stupid? Acting stupid is at least multi-dimensional: the act+stupid. It's a limited claim. To be stupid, though, now that's a very broad claim, to reduce things to a position on a single axis. And that is pure hubris, an intellectually indefensible position, an argument from apathy: "well I don't care about all those things, to me the guy's just dumb". Ah well thanks for clearing that up!

And there's the inverse: you casually judge others as stupid, and you have shown yourself to have poor judgment. You are being stupid with judgment.

I completely disagree with the conclusion.

If I go along with the premise that people are merely "acting" stupid, that is all the more reason to casually dismiss them. I can have patience with people that have limited capabilities, but people who choose to act stupid?

Being semantically correct isn't particularly relevant. It's how you deal with consistent stupidity (and I'm not talking about the occasional brainfart or error of judgement).

Whether or not casually dismissing stupidity is the right thing to do depends completely on the context, not on whether you use the correct semantics to do so. I people are being viciously stupid (as in "gay people shouldn't have equal rights"), I will dismiss them as stupid, and I don't give a flying fuck if they are acting or being stupid.

And on the flip side there are also situations in which it is useful to figure out why people do or say stupid things. It's context that determines if my judgement is poor, not semantics.

I can have patience with people that have limited capabilities, but people who choose to act stupid?

You assume it's a choice, as if at the brink of decision, someone says, "I'll do the stupid thing." But in real life, you see people motivated by ambition, pride, fear and desire. And if that drives you do stupid things, to argue for stupid positions, does that make you stupid? Well, if limit ourselves to "stupid" always being contextual, if we understand "is stupid" as "acts stupid in a given context", then sure.

Likewise, if someone doesn't care about the things you care about, and consequently doesn't focus their attention on them to the same degree you might, does that make them stupid? Or just uninterested?

It's not a semantic issue. You are dismissing people outright, you are creating an alternate universe in your mind that through hubris drifts further and further from reality. Invariably, there's something else going on, something more interesting and more true to reality than just "he's stupid", and you miss that. I'm not arguing that you necessarily should engage with such people, but neither should you box them off with pat pronouncements on intellectual capacity.

"People are smart. This should be your baseline."

I don't necessarily disagree with you, but can you justify this? You seem to be treating it as axiomatic.

It is axiomatic. Maybe I could prove it directly, but as an axiom, it is more productive than "some people are smart, some people are stupid".

For example, when you look at children, or look at history, or look at other cultures, you see patterns that make more sense when you start with this axiom. It's not perfect, but if you have a concept of "smart", it is better to assume all people are smart, to take it off the table entirely, than to assume some are smart and some are stupid. The latter will shortcut your reasoning: "Oh well they must just be stupid."

Very good post. In fact, thinking in terms of smart / stupid is fairly pointless. Firstly, there are numerous forms of intelligence (as the first phrase of its wikipedia entry confirms). Secondly, sticking to the IQ kind of intelligence, most tasks require only a sufficient amount of it (say, more than 90 or so), more of it doesn't necessarily help. The guy with the highest IQ I ever met (180 or something) had a junior job (at 40yo) as a statistical analyst in a bank. This applies also to developers: for instance, getting things done is more important than being IQ-smart. Thirdly, and I think this is the poster's point, the form of intelligence I came to admire the most (and I find most useful) is the one that makes you humble enough to know what you don't know, and capable of listening to and appreciating people who think differently from you. Hard to really learn anything new without that one.

I think others are stupid. Oh noes, I guess I'm the stupid one then.

Jokes apart, there's a consistent pattern in how I judge intellect. The people who I consider smart get logic. Some of them do it intuitively; Some of them are familiar with formal theory. The most common logical error made by those I consider stupid is a non-sequitur [1] Ex: "He doesn't use vim. He must be stupid". The biggest mistake you can make is judge people by knowledge, rather than intelligence. Ex: "A is really good at programming. He's definitely more intelligent than B who's a singer"

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non_sequitur_%28logic%29

This is absolute BS. Odds are that the all of the people from the article, and the author, are relatively stupid. Maybe one or more of them isn't, but the odds are against them - that is just how it works.

I totally disagree. I get a lot of people saying crap to me about being smart or intelligent, I even got bugged into joining MENSA by other members. I still hold that I'm not really smarter than other people.

Most people are average, I get a lot of attention for things I do that people don't understand. But I'm not really a smart person, I just like puzzles and I do them quite often. There plenty of situations where I appear like a bumbling idiot.

Heres how I see it. People who have an interest in something invest lots of energy into understanding it. Judging someone by there ability not to understand something that they have invested a lot of time into doesn't make you smart, it makes that person a jerk.

And heres the reason. Calling someone stupid is an insult, a way of asserting a dominant position i.e. "I am better than you because my understanding is more advanced." Guess what, thats one hell of arrogant position to have.

As someone who usually runs teams I'd probably ask to someone who used statements like that to be transferred. If said person held an attitude like that, its not helpful to the team, potentially damaging to someone trying to get up to speed, undermining confidence. And lastly it wrecks of someone who would hold a something over someone else to look better rather than cooperate, build needlessly complicated code that half the team couldn't work on at a decent speed.

Anyway theres a quote attributed to Einstein I'm sure you've heard which sums it up nicely for me "Everybody 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."

Pedantic nonsense. What exactly is the difference between "he's stupid" and "he's acting stupid"? The only one I can spot is the latter avoids labeling the person while still condemning them for the act. PC nonsense without substance, IMNSHO.

However, he does touch on something Dan Kahneman in his 'Thinking, Fast and Slow' talks about: most people stop thinking at first intuitive answer (aka System 1) and don't bother engaging in the tiring deep thought (aka System 2).

Love the title of this post. Smartness and stupidity are a matter of motivation and interest in the subject. Most times being stupid is doing what you are not meant to do / reasoning about what doesn't truly interest you.

There are many activities that meant to be done by "smart" people like math or high stakes poker or programming. But most people are just scared of these things because they don't know they are smart enough to succeed.

Calling others stupid is just a toxic thinking which tricks our brains to rely on easy and quick-fix pseudo “feel-good" but it is an addictive dangerous practice for our mental and general health in long term.


I recently graduated from college and found a job. My manager is one of those people who is a brilliant programmer but doesn't help the greenhorns like me adapt to the working world.

I believe I have potential to be a great programmer, but it's difficult when you're being told your code is "all sorts of wrong."

This was exactly what I needed to read right now. Thank you for posting it.

Although not a fascinating topic nor anything new, I think the main point of the article is a good one, and one that everyone should consider before name-calling, yelling, or interrupting for that matter. Many use these techniques to supposedly win arguments just because the other shuts up, or is offended.

One doesn't need to be smart to find stupidity (in others or in our own). "Stupid is as stupid does."

I don't know I like to think I'm of above average intelligence and I would generalize and say that some religious groups are "just so stupid."

Then again, religion is a great way to cope with the paradoxical and absolutely absurd reality we live in so maybe they aren't that stupid...

I agree on the most part, however there are certain situations where you just get sick of explaining stuff (see: Feminism 101) to people who have done no research or have ignored the research because they are so headstrong about their issues.

This has quite a bit of information on the subject: http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Map_and_Territory_(sequence)

Very few people act without good motivation to do so. So when most people see someone engaging in an act that is "stupid" they are generally failing to see their motivation for the act.

"Everybody 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." — Albert Einstein

But insecure people do see others are stupid.

Smart people don't think others are stupid as the truely smart know that others are stupid.

Thinking is not 100% knowing. Think about that.

Also there are two types of stupid, those that are naturaly gifeted in such arts and those that work at it. It is the later that are truely stupid and the former who are just limited.

This article will resonate with stupid people's feelings.

You know, I've been teaching my dog a few tricks, and when I do I always think about how smart EVERYONE IS. Man, humans are so smart. If this were a human - really, practically any human that isn't currently comatose, even a baby, I would be done by now.

Smart means smart compared to something. Everyone is very smart - compared to a dog. But when you use the word smart about people, it means smarter than other people. Does that make other people stupid? In actuality, it has to.

When you say "smart people don't think others are stupid" either you are really saying "smart people never know they're smart. They think everone is just as smart as them". (This is a possibility.) Or, you are saying, "Smart people never acknowledge the fact that they're smart. Even thought they know others are not as smart, they never mention this fact."

This second possibility is probably closer to the truth. When I'm trying to get my dog to realize it can step over its own leash when it's tangled in it, it doesn't help me to think about how much smarter I am and how I never get tangled in anything.

I think smart people know very well that they're smart. Sometimes they just have better things to worry about than pointing this out. (Sometimes they don't. Linus Torvalds was quoted here calling someone a moron a few days ago. Obviusly, he's still a smart guy.)

A total opinion piece with nothing backing it up. You can just type some things in bold letters and make it true. Show us the data.


Was thinking that the smiley face was not much of an addition, but then clocked that you are probably the author of the piece, in which case the smiley face was probably fairly tactful.

We certainly know he doesn't think adviceonly is stupid :)

Off-topic! This isn't reddit...

Is an opinion piece based on a rational argument. You can argue against his assertion if you like, but to merely complain about typefaces and lack of hard data would seem to miss the point. For one thing, I strongly doubt that the author thought that using bold text made the opinion true, but rather that it added emphasis to what he thought were the important points.

Also, why not go and check the assertion yourself if data is what you require on this. Set up a study, go write up some surveys, get out there, nothing is stopping you.

I see a lot of programming debates start with assertions that look like this:

> Language A is dynamically typed, so it's more expressive, so you'll have working code sooner, so you'll be more productive!

or this:

> Language B is statically typed, so you can't fool the compiler, so your code is more likely to work on the first try, so you'll spend less time debugging and therefore be more productive!

Neither of these statements should carry any weight without actual hard data, no matter how compelling the argument sounds. And the fact that we can't come to an agreement about how to quantify things like productivity and "expressiveness" is itself evidence that these are subjective statements.

The whole point of science is that rational thinking alone is not enough. There must be empirical data. A rationally argued falsehood is as useless as an irrationally argued falsehood or an irrationally argued truth. A beautiful logical argument based on false premises is still wrong. Only empirical data can sort out which it is you have in hand.

I think it's a good attitude to take, particularly when dealing with peers. Giving others the benefit of the doubt and not assuming that everyone should know everything you know goes a long way toward making the world a better and more tolerable place. Also, when discussing matters of principle it's extremely valuable to be able to understand and argue for the opposition, rather than merely dismissing opposing views as 'stupid'.

However, the author is fundamentally wrong. There are stupid people. I didn't believe it until I got out of my college/career track and met a few of them.

Human brain capabilities differ, just like computer processors. Failing to realize that is stupid.

Right, but brain capability is not a one dimensional quantity, and measurements of it are time-varying and noisy. This suggests that one shouldn't jump to conclusions before careful measurement, and that it is not trivial to compare measurements from different people along just one axis.

So according to him, if you think others are stupid, then you are stupid. What irony.

No, try reading it again. "So if you decide someone is stupid, it means you’re not thinking, which is not being smart."

"Not being smart" != "is stupid" is exactly the distinction he is making.

I'm well aware of the words he chose. I am referring to his actual meaning.

The fact is that there are stupid people on this planet. The fact is that we can know there are stupid people. The fact is that we can identify a stupid person. And it is utterly stupid to pretend otherwise. He's made a very stupid generalization based on the behavior of the masses -- yes, most people who call others stupid are themselves stupid. But that doesn't mean we can't know who is stupid nor does it mean that it's wrong to call someone stupid.

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