Do you often get into arguments with people over stupid stuff, like why the Earth cannot possibly be flat or whether the moon is genuinely made of cheese? And, in your own mind, you are almost 100% certain that the Earth is oblately spherical. The moon is, unfortunately not made of delicious melty cheddar but boring old rocks.
Yet incredibly you end up losing these arguments against utterly moronic people. You know that you should have won the argument, and you provided them with countless irrefutable evidence yet no matter what you say, you somehow fail to change their mind, or remotely shake their ostentatious self-confidence in their erroneous views.
Why is it so difficult to argue with stupid people? Why do they refuse to listen to empirical evidence and instead favour the wisdom that the smelly old weird bloke told them at the pub? And why do they often think themselves more intelligent than their words and actions would lead you to believe? Let’s find out.
Neuroscientists think there are very real and fascinating reasons and explanations for this frustrating phenomenon. But before we talk about these, we must establish whether our suspicions are true. Do stupid people think they’re smarter than they are?
Over the past twenty years, two social psychologists have been attempting to answer this question, David Dunning and Justin Kruger.
David Dunning was inspired to begin this research after reading a feature in the 1996 World Almanac. About a Pittsburgh bank robber, McArthur Wheeler, who held up a bank at gunpoint, in broad daylight, without a mask. But strangely his face was covered in lemon juice. When the police arrested him later at his home he said: “but I wore the juice”.
He explained how, since lemon juice is sometimes used as invisible ink he thought that by covering his face in lemon juice he would become invisible to other people and the security cameras. He apparently took a picture of himself whilst wearing the lemon juice before the robbery to confirm his theory and remarkably, albeit according to Wheeler’s own account, his face was not visible in the photo – police were never quite able to explain this. But then, this is a man who tried to make himself invisible with lemon juice so I wouldn’t put too much thought into it.
Inspired by this blatant idiocy Dunning teamed up with Kruger and conducted a series of experiments in which they got participants to rate themselves on their grammar, logical reasoning and sense of humour. They then compared the participant’s self-appraisals with the results of a series of tests they asked them to complete. The studies all concluded that people consistently rate themselves as being far more competent at everything than they actually are.
Most people in the studies performed far worse on the tests than they believed they had done. A poll in 1986, illustrated this nicely when it showed that 80% of American drivers considered their driving ability to be above average – just think about that for a second, the maths don’t quite add up. The research shows that an overestimation of our talents is something we, mostly, all do, albeit some of us significantly more so than others and that the more inferior a person’s talents and/or intelligence the greater the degree with which they overestimate these.
One of the biggest factors driving this is the brain’s natural egocentric bias. First identified by psychologists in 1979, it turns out that the brain absolutely loves itself and does everything it can to make itself look good. Repeated studies have showed the egocentric bias is present in all types and ages.
For example, we tend to associate ourselves closely with positive events, and we take credit for things that other people achieve. Such as “My team played well” whereas when our favourite sports team loses we try to distance ourselves “They performed poorly”.
Similarly, we have no problem when we are overpaid for work but we think it’s unfair when others are. We think that anyone who drives faster than us is a lunatic yet anyone who drives slower is an idiot. You get the idea, your brain thinks it is the best thing since single-celled organisms. But how does this relate to winning arguments?
Basically, the brain will do anything it needs to in order to save face. Your brain must look good no matter what – even if this involves ignoring facts, making up facts or browbeating your intellectually superior opponent into submission. Your brain isn’t being a dick for the sake of it – evolutionarily the egocentric bias makes a lot of sense for self-preservation. The hunter that steals the prey from other hunters is more likely to survive. Our egocentric bias is so strong that even when we irrevocably lose an argument, we convince ourselves in our own minds that we somehow won.
As the legendary author Dale Carnegie of the seminal “How to Win Friends And Influence People” wrote:
You can’t win an argument – Nine times out of ten, an argument ends with each of the contestants more firmly convinced than ever that he is absolutely right.
There is, however, another reason why learned people often walk away from arguments with those who possess the intellectual aptitude of a veritable sea sponge feeling wholly disappointed. There is a general fear amongst the human race of intelligence, even amongst the intelligentsia themselves. This is a very real phenomenon that numerous neuroscientists have observed. True, we admire those of heightened intelligence yet we simultaneously fear them.
In modern society, we have no need to fear those of superior physical might over oneself, unless you just made a pass at their wife. But say you meet a huge burly bloke at a dinner party with guns larger than your entire torso. Most of us could converse with him rather happily, without feeling intimidated. Whereas if we meet a weedy professor of astrophysics at a dinner party that knows general relativity better than you know where you left your car keys, then suddenly, and for reasons which are unclear to yourself, you feel intimidated by him.
Perhaps you don’t, if so, congratulations, you’re probably rather intelligent or a psychopath. The reason for this disparity is strangely related to the egocentric brain. We know how the bodybuilder gained his mass, by relentlessly pounding the gym and protein. We know that if we could be half as arsed or inclined as he then we too could match his level of esteemed physical prowess. And most importantly, we can usually predict his intentions and actions, we don’t need to be as strong as him to know what he might do – if we piss him off; he hits us in the face.
Yet the scientist, unless we are intellectually superior than he, and even if we are – then we cannot predict what he might say or do. He could say something that will reveal our lack of intelligence and make us look stupid. Thus we fear him, to compound this fear, unlike the bodybuilder most of us will feel that even if we read 100 books, we could never reach the scientist’s level of intelligence. And rather pessimistically, research supports the idea that many people are most likely, unable to.
We all can improve our crystalized intelligence, our bank of facts and knowledge, but once we hit our mid-20s, the brain becomes less plastic, it is not totally, but mostly set in its ways. Like a car that has already been built, parts can be swapped out and polished up but ultimately there’s a limit to what one can do with its performance. And thus, after this age, we lose the ability to improve our fluid intelligence – that is the ability to pick up new skills quickly, think on the spot, outwit your opponents and problem solve.
So if the scientist has, not only impressive crystalized intelligence but also greater fluid intelligence than us, then we subconsciously know that this is a state of mental acuity that we are most likely, unable to ever reach.
Biologically we are hard-wired to fear this prospect and we will feel a natural propensity to repel that which we cannot better. So you may defensively say something stupid to the scientist, even jokingly, such as “oh, a scientist, you think you’re so clever, don’t you?”. Even if he gave us no obvious reason to feel so intimidated. This has a reciprocal effect.
Clever people are generally well aware of others fear and distrust of their intelligence and so feel less self-confident when in argument or debate with a peer, even if they know they could easily win. Also, most people become intelligence because they have a proclivity to question their surroundings and their self.
Intelligent people are generally more aware of them not knowing everything – especially in the scientific fields it is normal and expected for one to criticise their own theories and for colleagues and peers to cross-examine them. Thus smart people will always question whether they are as intelligent as they think they are. Whether they put their own point across adequately, and if, perhaps their opponent does. In fact, have a point in their ardent cheesy moon and flat Earth beliefs, as bonkers as they may sound. So they will come away from the debate with their head swirling with questions and self-doubt.
Conversely, stupid people are far less likely to question things including themselves. They tend to be less introspective, that’s probably why they are still so stupid. So they seem and are far more confident in their moronic, unfounded theories. They don’t need to question them or see how they stack up when confronted with empirical evidence because they have never done so before and they possess not a shred of self-doubt, anyway.
To add to all this, as the Dunning-Kruger effect proved, stupid people rarely think of themselves as stupid. They have absolutely no idea that they have less intelligence than a Swiss cheese. As Dunning and Kruger’s research showed, there is a direct correlation between a lack of intelligence and one’s high confidence in their intelligence and vice versa.
To put it simply, stupid people think they are proficient and proficient people think themselves less so. Keep in mind that the Dunning-Kruger effect is not an absolute but a general trend. Not all stupid people overestimate their intelligence and some intelligent people are very aware of how smart they are and will happily tell anyone who will listen.
I’ll end this with a great quote by the late great comedian George Carlin that anyone who has ever despaired with human stupidity will sympathise with:
Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.