Why People are Stupid

In a February 19, 2017 article in The New Yorker, “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds,” Elizabeth Kolbert laid out the reason most people are stupid. I assume I don’t have to argue this. Anyone older than seven knows this to be true, which reminds me of the statistical paper I read in high school claiming that most people have above average intelligence. I’ll leave that for another post.

As Kolbert makes clear, however, people are not really stupid. In fact, we can be quite clever. We just want our side to win and will ignore or deny facts that don’t fit our position or worldview. Case in point, the Mueller Report, which is giving the Warren Report a run for its money in terms of scrutiny from all angles, including morally unscrupulous ones. This includes ex intelligence directors, certain House Judiciary Committee members, and anyone working for MSNBC.

Yet, there is another twist to this “confirmation bias.” According to cognitive scientists, human beings did not develop reason to solve algebraic problems or ponder transcendental notions of the good, the true, or the beautiful. Rather, reason developed as a way to resolve disputes and make weighty decisions in social groups. In other words, we developed reason so we wouldn’t kill each other. In this sense, reason is a function not of objective truth but rhetoric. Reason is the way human beings persuade each other and collaborate. They call this the “interactionist” perspective.

To put it in concrete terms, if you like the President and voted for him, when you read the Mueller Report you rejoice over the fact that (1) there was no collusion with the Russians and (2) so-called obstruction of the investigation amounts to nothing more than what my father used to characterize as “that and fifty cents will get you a bus ride.” Fares have gone up considerably since then, but you get the point.

Conversely, if you hate the President, belong to any of the groups mentioned above, or reside in the Bronx Congressional district to my immediate north, then you (1) accuse the Attorney General of being a Trump stooge, (2) continue to accuse the President of being a Russian agent, and (3) resort to ad hominem attacks that depict Trump as the American Yeltsin, which is just another way of saying he’s a Russian agent.

Why do people react like this? The interactionist perspective says that it aligns like minded people and mobilizes them against the threat posed by the other side. This is why the House, led by Nancy Pelosi and the not too brilliant Jerry Nadler, will spend the next two years investigating Trump’s emotional outbursts and foul language. Personally, I’ve never met anyone from Queens who didn’t use foul language, but that’s me.

What I find especially irritating is that the House, instead of running the country, will look for ways to out Trump Trump, which is doomed to failure. It sounds even worse when you say it out loud. So we are left not with stupid people but untrustworthy people. That is, most people can’t be trusted to be objective or open minded even if they swear on their MAGA hat or “I’m With Her” tote bag that they are the most tolerant people on the planet. The Left may rail against conspiracy theorists who protest vaccines and deny the moon landing, but they are blind when it comes to the overwhelming media bias against the Right. That bias is so blatant as to be comical. Yet, to point that out is to be labelled a “hater.” Let haters hate, they say, which is a convenient substitute for thinking and another form of intolerance.

And don’t get me started about intolerance on college campuses. This often expresses itself as Marxist praxis even if it isn’t acknowledged as such. A sociology professor admitted to me once that he never used uppercase letters, because he found it “oppressive.” Why should a letter at the beginning of a sentence be given special treatment? Naturally, whenever I wrote to him I used all uppercase. My emails looked like ransom notes. He didn’t complain. Too bad. I was willing to admit my bias.

So, where does this leave us for Easter? Yes, there is an Easter connection. You hear it in the cries of the crowd demanding an innocent man’s execution. You see it in Pilate’s washing his hands of responsibility. You find it in the disciples’ acts of cowardice. Each group sought their own interests and ignored not just the facts but the truth. Truth is the loser in nearly all cases when faced with human stupidity. At Easter, however, it is the ultimate winner. Now, that’s a miracle.

Image credits: feature by 俊逸 余, graffiti image by Brian Wertheim. Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance


  1. I would add one more thought to this, Robert. In the case of the news media, I’m. I’m not sure it’s stupidity as much as it is gross incompetence.

    I wonder why network and newspaper management doesn’t clean house and restore objectivity to what is supposed to be a primarily “news” operation, and I don’t understand why journalists don’t also follow the quest for facts, regardless of whose ox is going to be gored.

    The state of the news media is a complete embarrassment – to themselves and to their consumers.

    1. The Chinese Communist Party has its state-run news media. We have CNN-MSNBC-CBS, etc. They’re our state-run news media.

      I came across this quote from Karl Mannheim today:

      “Only in a world in upheaval, in which fundamental new values are being created and old ones destroyed, can intellectual conflict go so far that antagonists will seek to annihilate not merely the specific beliefs and attitudes of one another, but also the intellectual foundations upon which those beliefs and attitudes rest.”

      It’s called ideology…

      1. Yes. I’m not sure this relates, but it seems like a lot of people are speaking about the need to “deconstruct” things, languages, values, culture, literature etc. In psychology, practitioners speak of the need to deconstruct the selves of their clients. These ideas seem to be a part of what I see in our world and media these days…

        1. Susan, I think the deconstruction comes out of a nihilistic worldview that views people not as individuals but “knots in a biospherical network” (I actually came across that phrase today). From there, we become “human animals” that derive our importance from the collective. Resisting that is the real resistance, I think. You can’t blame it all on Sartre, just 90%…

          1. Wow! Thank you for this. I have been concerned about this therapeutic psychological deconstruction of the self and the consequences of this on vulnerable persons. No identification with values or persons allowed.

  2. Wow! The blog just allowed me to post! Ask and we shall receive:). The short version of my disappeared post.

    Robert, I am one of the confused and saddened and weary persons after the most recent view of the divisions among so many in our country, though not solely.

    The main focus of our media, government, and some of our institutions seems to be upon looking, but not seeing; listening, but not hearing, and determining how we are different, rather than recognizing the bonds that connect us on the journey as humans.

    The journey can be so difficult, the load so heavy for so many, Robert. I know that there are so many persons of compassion, of thoughtful discourse, desiring to lift up rather than put down. It is so saddening when the focus on offer, media and other “stages” is otherwise.

    So, once again, Robert, my sincere thanks for your faithful writing.

    1. That may be a pretty high bar, although not really, not if you’re a human being. Still, I’d just like these jokers to do the job they were sent to DC to do… that’d be an improvement…

    2. The deconstructed client/patient is treated with no values or personhood, because it fits the ideological framework of the therapist. But does it really help the patient? Is it that they are supposed to reconstruct a (new) person within themselves or just be left to the vagaries of chance and others (the therapist in particular)? I went to a “Catholic” therapist once. I found it very helpful. Maybe it’s time we opted out of mainstream engagement. Just some ideas.

      1. Yes. I don’t believe you would be surprised at the hundreds of referrals I receive from just one referral source: overwhelming numbers of persons in crisis seeking help every single day. Everything from requests for astrological readings, hypnotherapy to every therapy seen on earth. A few for pastoral counseling, which I accept.

  3. Thank you so much, Robert, for your writings of Palm Sunday and today. I tried to post a message last week and tonight, but they simply disappeared-poof-into the air. I’ll try again next week:). Blessings!

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