Why are other people so f***ing stupid?

This, my friends, is a question that all of us have surely pondered. When I say “other people” I don’t mean you, of course, esteemed reader. I know that all of us here today are not stupid in the least. We are all smart, reasonable people. It’s those others I’m talking about. You know the ones I mean. Just what the effing fuck is wrong with them?

Here I’m going to share a theory of mine.

All theories need to start with an axiom, or basic assumption. Here’s mine: other people are not (usually) stupid. Sure, a few are. But in general, no. Even those hairy web-trolls who dwell in the comments sections of blogs and forums can typically learn a vocabulary of some 30,000 words in their native tongue. They can solve a wide variety of problems. They can recognize other people and store memories of people, places and events. These are all signs of a high level of intelligence.

But if people are not stupid, why do they often appear to behave that way, especially on the internet?

“Haterz gonna hate” is a popular explanation for the phenomenon of web rage. It’s simple to understand, with deep predictive power. But can it be true? There may be some haters around – damaged individuals with insoluble personal issues – but I don’t think this is the real explanation.

There’s a well-documented social phenomenon called the “echo chamber.” It’s what happens when most of the people you know belong to a narrow group. You tend to have the same social, religious and educational backgrounds. You live in the same place. Your jobs are similar. You share the same political opinions.

Within the echo chamber, everyone agrees with you. It’s a comfortable place to live, and not very challenging. When you say something to the group, everyone agrees, reaffirming your belief that what you believe is true. Narrow beliefs are reinforced and amplified through repetition. Since people in these groups are not accustomed to having their ideas challenged, anyone who challenges the entrenched belief system is regarded as hostile, and countered with aggressive behavior.

I know people like this. I have seen it happen. These people are not stupid, and they are not haters, but they very often act like stupid haters towards outsiders.

Now the people here are not like this. We’re broad-minded folk. We’re used to discussing all kinds of topics with friends and colleagues, in person and on the internet. We don’t regard challenges to our beliefs as personal affronts. We can engage with issues, consider opposing viewpoints and deal with new facts. It’s what comes from travel, from education, from having a diverse set of friends. It’s rewarding; it’s enriching.

But it might not be normal.

Perhaps most people have spent their lives cocooned in echo chambers of one kind or another. Suddenly the internet has arrived, and barriers have started breaking down. People who were not used to free and open debate are suddenly confronted with every opinion you could possibly think of. They are reacting to those opinions, sometimes in the only way they know – by verbal abuse.

Perhaps this is a learning phase. Maybe we will move beyond this era into one where the world really is a global village, and ideas will flow freely through the datasphere, opening everyone’s minds to new and exciting possibilities. That’s what I’m hoping for.

But those of us who are not closed-minded have a part to play. We have to demonstrate through our actions that everyone is welcome online (although certain actions may not be), and we have to be inclusive in our own behavior. So if you believe that other people are simply stupid, or vindictive, I’m challenging your beliefs here. I’m confident you can handle that with an open mind.

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35 responses to “Why are other people so f***ing stupid?

  1. I think an important facet of intellectual maturity is realizing that other people may have very different worldviews from ours, and not automatically assuming their viewpoint is blinkered just because of that difference. I think there’s a lot to be said for asking people why they hold the views they do and explaining to them why you hold your views.

    A higher tier of effectiveness is realizing that, if we do conclude that they’re wrong, treating them as stupid is not a productive way to bring them to our way of thinking. The vast majority of the time, it just causes them to dig in deeper into their position. You can’t win an argument. Even when it appears you’ve won, you haven’t, because the other person is usually more committed than ever to their position.

  2. I share your optimism. Although I worry that even as we become more interconnected, there are plenty of dark, little corners of the Internet where new echo chambers are being created. Still, I think the general trend is positive, and a lot of old, comfortable assumptions people make about the world are being challenged.

  3. “Here’s mine: other people are not (usually) stupid. Sure, a few are. But in general, no.”

    It would be helpful to have a definition of what you mean by “stupid.”

    “They can recognize other people and store memories of people, places and events. These are all signs of a high level of intelligence.”

    By this definition, most dogs and cats are highly intelligent. Even fish have been shown to be capable of recognizing their owners and feeding times and locations.

    How about a definition based on the ability to learn new things, think new thoughts, recognize when you’re wrong, and engage in reasoned discussion?

    “But if people are not stupid, why do they often appear to behave that way, especially on the internet?”

    I would be inclined to discount behavior on the interweb as too artificial to be an accurate judge of people. Certainly going by some of the infamous locations (Twitter or YouTube, for example) the human race looks extra-especially bad both in comportment, intelligence, and education.

    You get the same effect from drivers in cars. The anonymity allows hind-brain behaviors usually suppressed when there are consequences. Likewise mob behavior with the anonymity of the crowd. Such situations can give a very dim view of humanity.

    I think it’s better to look at how people behave naturally in their day-to-day life. One gauge I find interesting is how people spend their free time. What information do they seek left to their own devices? That tends to lead to a more positive view, since most people at least have good intentions.

    “Within the echo chamber, everyone agrees with you. It’s a comfortable place to live, and not very challenging.”

    Yes. But isn’t it a stupid way to live? “The unexamined life is not worth living.” (Socrates)

    “Since people in these groups are not accustomed to having their ideas challenged, anyone who challenges the entrenched belief system is regarded as hostile, and countered with aggressive behavior.”

    You don’t think that’s stupid behavior?

    “People who were not used to free and open debate are suddenly confronted with every opinion you could possibly think of. They are reacting to those opinions, sometimes in the only way they know – by verbal abuse.”

    Or that? It means they haven’t learned things about living in society that have been known to be important since the notoriously Ancient Greeks. How is that not stupid?

    “Perhaps this is a learning phase.”

    I dunno… Stupidity seems like a fundamental aspect of the human race. Always has been, always will be. At least until homo sapiens superior evolves.

    “But those of us who are not closed-minded have a part to play.”

    I’m not exactly sure what you’re asking, but my efforts are directed at curing ignorance and stupidity as much as I can. (The problem, I find, is that you can’t force it on people. Horse to water, and all that.)

    • There are many different kinds of intelligence. I personally found the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator invaluable in understanding how other people may see the world very differently to me.

      You’re right about the non-personal nature of the internet bringing out the worst in people. People write things on websites that they would never say face to face.

      • The “anonymity of the keyboard” has been true on the internet as long as I’ve been online in the mid-1980s. It was a far more select group of people, initially government and academic researchers and scientists, later lots of college computer science students.

        By the time I came around in the 80s it was more of a public square, but the demographic definitely trended towards the highly intelligent. I would guess that just about everyone on the ‘net back then had a college degree and a questing mind. Access took some determination then.

        The web changed everything, and I sometimes still can’t believe that only happened starting around 1995 and only really took off in the 2000s.

        But the point is that, even in the highly selected, highly educated, generally highly intelligent crowd of the early internet, the keyboard slings and arrows still flew. It was rarely as gutter nasty as it is today, but intelligent people have their own ways of twisting knives deeply.

        The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, as it name says, is about types of psychological approaches to the world. That’s a different meaning of an “intelligence” than you posted about.

        The intelligent we’re discussing is a quality of any thinking style or type. Just as there are many types of human body frame, any of them can be strong or weak. Strength is a quality.

        E.g. I’m an INTP (56,50,1,11 as of a year ago). There are INTPs who have high intelligence and INTPs who have low intelligence. Dumb ones and smart ones! 😄

        And that’s true of people in general, is my point. Dumb ones and smart ones.

        • Well, Wyrd, you and I have debated this particular question tirelessly on your blog. Since you are so insistent, I will concede that some people are better than others at certain things, but that it isn’t very nice to draw this fact to their attention, and I don’t think it’s the explanation for why people disagree with each other. It’s just not the case that clever people are right and stupid people are wrong.

          If anyone truly believes that they are right about everything and everyone who disagrees with them is wrong, that person should seriously shut themselves in a dark room for some time.

          By the way, I’m an INTJ, so I know that I’m right about this. 🙂

        • “I will concede that some people are better than others at certain things,…”

          That seems less a thing to concede than an obvious fact that’s true of people in just about every quality they have. People are not all alike; why would we expect them to be all the same intellectually?

          “…but that it isn’t very nice to draw this fact to their attention,…”

          I never said I was a nice guy! 😄

          I know what you mean; I’ve had mixed feelings about this one all my life. The Engineer in me feels like it’s hard to correct a problem if you won’t identify it. I’m not sure how far I’m willing to go for people’s feelings when it comes to public policy. It depends on the feelings. (Private life is another matter.)

          A good example might be the anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, or even creationists. Should I respect their feelings and support their causes?

          “…and I don’t think it’s the explanation for why people disagree with each other.”

          Actually, it frequently is exactly the reason. The three groups I just cited disagree because their way of life and the echo chamber you wrote about insists on a demonstrably non-real view of reality.

          Any of them who looked at the actual facts rather than their dogmatic view would be forced to realize the truth.

          If you want to define that as something other than stupid human behavior, you’re free to do that, but I think it’s stupid.

          “It’s just not the case that clever people are right and stupid people are wrong.”

          Sometimes not, but usually they are when there’s an actual conflict of views. It’s more accurate to suggest that ‘smart people don’t know everything’ or that ‘everyone has something to contribute’ because those statements are entirely true.

          “If anyone truly believes that they are right about everything and everyone who disagrees with them is wrong, that person should seriously shut themselves in a dark room for some time.”

          Ah, you’re talking about Donald Trump! 😀

          Only a stupid person believes they’re always right! Remember the Dunning-Kruger effect!

  4. I think we all have our stupid moments. It’s just that we don’t like to admit it. If we can admit that we have stupid moments, then we can have compassion for people when they have stupid moments. Does this positive mentality work all the time? No. It’s definitely something I aspire to though. There are moments in life I would not want others to see me like when someone cuts me off in traffic and I flip them off. At that moment, I definitely lack class and I am definitely stupid. Why am I stupid? I don’t know what that other person is going through. Maybe they just found out someone died. Maybe their wife is pregnant and they are rushing to the hospital. I don’t know. All I know is that I can control my behavior. So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to continue to try to control my behavior by analyzing situations and thinking positive. Will I always succeed? No. But I can try.

    • I certainly have many stupid moments. I could give you examples, but they are so stupid that I just can’t face them.

      • I know exactly what you mean, Steve. Discussing our exact instances of stupidity is probably one of the hardest things we humans will ever have to do. By the way, I’ve been meaning to tell you that I have decided I am agnostic bordering on atheist. I thought you might be interested to know that. Given our history.

        • OK. That’s interesting. I hope that works out for you. I know that you have been through a lot in the past few years and moved through many different social circles. It wouldn’t be surprising to question everything. Take care to look after yourself, Heather.

        • Works out for me? I don’t even begin to know what you could mean by that? Religion isn’t a part of my life, so there is nothing to work out.

        • Sometimes when people leave religion behind, they find that an emotional crutch has gone from their lives. But of course your whole blog is about how to build real-world tools for making yourself strong and able to deal with problems – so I’m sure you’ll be fine!

        • I see. I don’t have that problem. I am an emotionally secure, self-confident person. And you are right, I have built myself that way. I do not feel lost even a little bit. : )

        • I just thought of something. My time of being lost was 2006–2013. During that time, I question religion among many other things. But now I’m at peace and I know what I believe. I know what I think. My emotions are separate from my logic. I have a complete self identity.

  5. I think the trolls are just lonely.
    Attention-seeking.
    Maybe they think it is cute.

    Or, far worse… They actually believe the crap they spew all over the rest of the world.

    Then I remember, I can block them.

    • I’m not sure. I have been accused of trolling twice. In each case I was trying to make helpful comments. Perhaps my tone was wrong.

      • More likely- people are overly sensitive and missed the nuance.

      • I know what you mean, as you say sometimes we only want to hear people who agree with us. The referendum was the biggest shock for me as I can honestly say that I have never come face to face with anyone in favour of Brexit! ( clearly I need to expand my social circles) about trolling, I usually get at least 2 comments, when I post a photo of myself. One is that I am too fat and the other that I have ‘body issues’ stemming from anorexia… 😟

        • That’s truly shocking, Sarah. I hope you just delete those comments and don’t give them a moment’s further consideration.

          This article is really part of my response to Brexit. I have been listening to a lot of Brexiteers being interviewed about why they voted to leave. It’s so hard not to imagine that most of those people are stupid!

        • I think anyone who is foolish enough to post a photo of themselves on the internet should be robust enough to ignore those comments. I was quite shocked at first, but then again the level of hidden racism that seems to have surfaced post Brexit vote is quite frightening. Having said that, I am very much against those little ethnic minority ghettoes that are created where people hardly speak decent English, never mind understand aour culture and democratic values. What can we do to restore balance?

  6. There are also trolls – people who enjoy stirring up controversy and seeing other people fight. Trump is a typical example and a very dangerous one. This is now routinely used to stir political unrest. Russia, I’ve heard, employs hundreds of people whose day job is to make abusive comments all over the internet. Often, when you read an abusive hate speech on the net, chances are, it’s done deliberately by a professional.

  7. Great post, and fortuitous for me, as I’ve just read Brenton Dickieson’s post on C. S. Lewis’s understanding of art – mainly, that when we only engage with art for the sake of enjoyment and comfort, we only encounter what we already like about ourselves. The challenge to engage with the world in an open way is something that’s been on my mind more generally as well. Can we have a concretized sense of self and be open to opposition and newness at the same time, or does that openness require that we leave a few cracks in our armor? I’m inclined to think it’s the latter.

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