How Smart People Can Be So Stupid

I’m currently reading a book called Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid, edited by Robert J. Sternberg. The book, as the title suggests, is a compilation of essays written by various authors on some of the sub-optimal behaviours that otherwise “smart” people engage in.

The first essay in the book that I read, called Beliefs That Make Smart People Dumb, written by Carol S. Dweck, talks about a couple of beliefs people have that can often be used as a predictor on whether or not they are successful in any activity. These two beliefs are:

  • that intelligence is fixed; and
  • that intelligence is malleable and can be improved.

The conclusion of the essay is that people who believe in the possible improvement of intelligence (i.e. intelligence is not fixed) are more likely to be successful in their endeavours — not because they are intrinsically more intelligent, but because the behaviours associated with either belief will help or hinder one from successfully completing a given task.

Those with a fixed view of intelligence tend to have the following associated traits/beliefs:

  • The belief that performance measures intelligence and self-worth: When given a task to do, and a person with a fixed view of intelligence fails at it, that person’s self worth drops. This leads to a drop in self-esteem and motivation, leading to a downward spiral. When going the other way, there isn’t much it can do except help back-up a belief that has always been there: that the person is “intelligent”. In short, there’s much more to lose than to gain having this belief.
  • Avoidance of learning opportunities if weaknesses may be discovered: A person with a fixed view of intelligence who sees himself as “intelligent” would avoid situations in which that person may be “exposed” as being less intelligent than this person is thought to be. This occurs even when that situation is a learning opportunity that this person may consider important or immensely useful. Fear prevents one from improving oneself if there is a chance of failure.
  • The belief an intelligent person does not need to put in effort: A person who has a fixed view of intelligence believes that intelligent people do not have to put in effort in order to carry out a task well. What that person is neglecting is that very often those who appear to do things “effortlessly” put in countless hours of work practising and working at that particular skill in order to carry out the activity as well it is observed to be.

These three are the main points of the essay with regards to those who hold a fixed view of intelligence. Those who hold a malleable view of intelligence, or who believe intelligence has the potential to be improved believe that:

  • Performance at a given task measures the ability of a person’s ability at a given task: In other words, the person who believes intelligence can be improved disassociates the ability at a given task with his or her overall intelligence. Just because the person is not particular good at a given task does not mean he or she won’t be good at others
  • Opportunities to improve on one’s weaknesses should be pounced at: Even if it means that the person may potentially appear “less intelligent” than before, a person who believes in the potential of improving one’s intelligence will do whatever it takes to be good a task he or she believes is worthwhile pursuing. These people know that in order to run, we have to learn how to walk first.
  • To make doing a task appear effortless, one has to put in tremendous effort: A person who believes in the improvement of intelligence does not avoid worthwhile activities simply because they require effort. He or she knows that most leaders in their fields put in countless hours of effort in order to be where they are today.

I hope you found these points useful. Read more, learn more, and become more intelligent today, tomorrow, and every day after that.

One thought on “How Smart People Can Be So Stupid

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  1. So, according to this essay you summarized, we have those who attempt to BE capable, as well as those who care to APPEAR capable.

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