6 E——— on “How and Why I Have Come to be Totally Devoted to S——— and Have Made Her the Linchpin and Plinth of My Entire Emotional Existence”
And yet I did not fall in love with her until she had related the story of the unbelievably horrifying incident in which she was brutally accosted and held captive and raped and very nearly killed.
Let me explain. I’m aware of how it might sound, believe me. I can explain. In bed together, in response to some sort of prompt or association, she related an anecdote about hitchhiking and once being picked up by what turned out to be a psychotic serial sex offender who drove her to a secluded area and raped her and would almost surely have murdered her had she not been able to think effectively on her feet under enormous fear and stress. Irregardless of whatever I might have thought of the quality and substance of the thinking that enabled her to induce him to let her live.
Neither would I. Who would, now, in an era when every—when psychotic serial killers have their own trading cards? I’m concerned in today’s climate to steer clear of any suggestion of anyone quote asking for it, let’s not even go there, but yet rest assured it gives one pause about the capacities of judgment involved, or at the very least in the naïveté—
Only that it was perhaps marginally less unbelievable in the context of her type, in that this was what one might call a quote Granola Cruncher, or post-Hippie, New Ager, what have you, in college where one is often first exposed to social taxonomies we called them Granola Crunchers or simply Crunchers, terms comprising the prototypical sandals, unrefined fibers, daffy arcana, emotional incontinence, flamboyantly long hair, extreme liberality on social issues, financial support from parents they revile, bare feet, obscure import religions, indifferent hygiene, a gooey and somewhat canned vocabulary, the whole predictable peace-and-love post-Hippie diction that im—
A large outdoor concert-slash-performance-art community festival thing in a park downtown where—it was a pickup, plain and simple. I will not try to represent it as anything nicer than that, or more fated. And I’m going to admit at the risk of appearing mercenary that her prototypical Cruncher morphology was evident at first sight, from clear on the other side of the bandstand, and dictated the terms of the approach and the tactics of the pickup itself and made the whole thing almost criminally easy. Half the women there—it is a less uncommon typology among young educated girls out here than one might think. You don’t want to know what kind of festival or why the three of us were there, trust me. I’ll just bite the political bullet and confess that I classified her as a strictly one-night objective, and that my interest in her was almost entirely due to the fact that she was extraordinarily pretty. Sexually attractive, sexy. She had a phenomenal body, even under the poncho. It was her body that attracted me. Her face was a bit strange. Not homely but eccentric. Tad’s assessment was that she looked like a really sexy duck. Nevertheless nolo to the charge that I spotted her on her blanket at the concert and sauntered carnivorously over with an overtly one-night objective. And, having had some prior dealings with the Cruncher genus prior to this, that the one-night proviso was due mostly to the grim unimaginability of having to talk with a New Age brigadier for more than one night. Whether or not you approve I think we can assume you understand.
That essential at-center-life-is-just-a-cute-pet-bunny fluffiness about them that makes it exceedingly hard to take them seriously or to end up not feeling as if you’re exploiting them in some way.
Fluffiness or daffiness or intellectual flaccidity or a somehow smug-seeming naïveté. Choose whichever offends you least. And yes and don’t worry I’m aware of how all this sounds and can well imagine the judgments you’re forming from the way I’m characterizing what drew me to her but if I’m to really explain this to you as requested then I have no choice but to be brutally candid rather than observing the pseudosensitive niceties of euphemism about the way a reasonably experienced, educated man is going to view an extraordinarily good-looking girl whose life philosophy is fluffy and unconsidered and when one comes right down to it kind of contemptible. I’m going to pay you the compliment of not pretending to worry whether you understand what I’m referring to about the difficulty of not feeling impatience and even contempt—the blithe hypocrisy, the blatant self-contradiction—the way you know from the outset that there will be the requisite enthusiasms for the rain forest and spotted owl, creative meditation, feel-good psychology, macrobiosis, rabid distrust of what they consider authority without evidently once stopping to consider the rigid authoritarianism implicit in the rigid uniformity of their own quote unquote nonconformist uniform, vocabulary, attitudes. As someone who worked himself through both college and two years now of postgraduate school I have to confess to an almost blanket—these rich kids in torn jeans whose way of protesting apartheid is to boycott South African pot. Silverglade called them the Inward Bound. The smug naïveté, the condescension in the quote compassion they feel for those quote unquote trapped or imprisoned in orthodox American lifestyle choices. So on and so forth. The fact that the Inward Bound never consider that it’s the probity and thrift of the re— to occur to them that they themselves have themselves become the distillate of everything about the culture they deride and define themselves as opposing, the narcissism, the materialism and complacency and unexamined conformity—or the irony that the blithe teleology of this quote impending New Age is exactly the same cultural permission slip that Manifest Destiny was, or the Reich or the dialectic of the proletariat or the Cultural Revolution—all the same. And it never even occurs to them their certainty that they are different is what makes them the same.
You would be surprised.
All right and the near-contempt here specifically in the way you can glide casually over and bend down next to her blanket to initiate conversation and idly play with the blanket’s fringe and create the sense of affinity and connection that will allow you to pick her up and somehow almost resent that it’s so goddamn easy to make the conversation flow toward a sense of connection, how exploitative you feel when it is so easy to get this type to regard you as a kindred soul—you almost know what’s going to be said next without her having even to open her pretty mouth. Tad said that she was like some kind of smooth blank perfect piece of pseudo-art you want to buy so you can take it home and sm—
No, not at all, because I am trying to explain that the typology here dictated a tactic of what appeared to be a blend of embarrassed confession and brutal candor. The moment enough of a mood of conversational intimacy had been established to make a quote confession seem even remotely plausible I deployed a sensitive-slash-pained expression and quote confessed that I’d in fact not just been passing her blanket and even though we didn’t know each other had felt a mysterious but overwhelming urge just to lean down and say hi but no something about her that made it unimaginable to deploy anything less than total honesty forced me to confess that I had in fact deliberately approached her blanket and initiated conversation because I had seen her from across the bandstand and had felt some mysterious but overwhelmingly sensual energy seeming to emanate from her very being and had been helplessly drawn to it and had leaned down and introduced myself and started a conversation with her because I wanted to connect and make mutually nurturing and exquisite love with her, and had been ashamed of admitting this natural desire and so had fibbed at first in explaining my approach, though now some mysterious gentleness and generosity of soul I could intuit about her was allowing me to feel safe enough to confess that I had, formerly, fibbed. Note the rhetorically specific blend of childish diction like Hi and fib with flaccid abstractions like nurture and energy. This is the lingua franca of the Inward Bound. I actually truly did like her, I found, as an individual—she had an amused expression during the whole conversation that made it hard not to smile in return, and an involuntary need to smile is one of the best feelings available, no? A refill? It’s refill time, yes? No?
Q. . . .
And that prior experience has taught that the female Granola Cruncher tends to define herself in opposition to what she sees as the essentially unconsidered and hypocrisy-bound attitudes of quote mainstream women and is thus essentially unoffendable, rejects the whole concept of propriety and offense, and views so-called honesty of even the most brutal or repellent sort as evidence of sincerity and respect, getting quote real, id est the impression that you respect her personhood too much to ply her with implausible fictions and leave very basic energies and desires uncommunicated. Not to mention, to make your indignation and distaste complete, I’m sure, the fact that extremely, off-the-charts pretty women of almost every type have, from my experience, tend all to have a uniform obsession with the idea of respect, and will do almost anything anywhere for any fellow who affords her a sufficient sense of being deeply and profoundly respected. I doubt I need to point out that this is nothing but a particular female variant of the psychological need to believe that others take you as seriously as you take yourself. There is nothing particularly wrong with it, as psychological needs go, but yet of course we should always remember that a deep need for anything from other people makes us easy pickings. I can tell by your expression what you think of brutal candor. The fact is that she had a body that my body found sexually attractive and wanted to have intercourse with and it was not really any more noble or complicated than that. And she did indeed turn out to be straight out of Central Granola-Cruncher Casting, I should stress. She had some kind of monomaniacal hatred for the American timber industry, and professed membership in one of these apostrophe-heavy near-Eastern religions that I would defy anyone to pronounce correctly, and believed strongly in the superior value of vitamins and minerals in colloidal suspension rather than tablet form, et cetera, and then, when one thing had been led stolidly by me to another and there she was in my apartment and we had done what I had wanted to do with her and had exchanged the standard horizontal compliments and assurances, she was going on about her imported denomination’s views vis-à-vis energy fields and souls and connections between souls via what she kept calling quote focus, and using the, well, the quote L-word itself several times without irony or even any evident awareness that the word has through tactical overdeployment become compromised and requires invisible quotes around it now at the very least, and I suppose I should tell you that I was planning right from the outset to give her the special false number when we exchanged numbers in the morning, which all but a very small and cynical minority always want to. I.e. exchange numbers. A fellow in Tad’s torts study group’s great-uncle or grandparents or something have a vacation home just outside town and are never there, with a phone but no machine or service, so when someone you’ve given the special number calls the special number it simply rings and rings, so for a few days it’s usually not evident to the girl that what you’ve given her isn’t your true number but for a few days allows her to imagine that you’ve just been extremely busy and scarce and that this is also perhaps why you haven’t called her either. Which obviates the chance of hurt feelings and is therefore, I submit, good, though I can well im—
The sort of glorious girl whose kiss tastes of liquor when she’s had no liquor to drink. Cassis, berries, gumdrops, all steamy and soft. Quote unquote.
Q. . . .
Yes and in the anecdote there she is, blithely hitchhiking along the interstate, and on this particular day the fellow in the car that stops almost the moment she puts her thumb out happens to—she said she knew she’d made a mistake the moment she got in. Just from what she called the energy field inside the car, she said, and that fear gripped her soul the moment she got in. And sure enough, the fellow in the car soon exits the highway and exits off into some kind of secluded area, which seems to be what psychotic sex criminals always do, you’re always reading secluded area in all the accounts of quote brutal sex slayings and grisly discoveries of unidentified remains by a scout troop or amateur botanist, et cetera, common knowledge which you can be sure she was reviewing, horror-stricken, as the fellow began acting more and more creepy and psychotic even on the interstate and then soon exited into the first available secluded area.
Her explanation was that she did not in fact feel the psychotic energy field until she had shut the car’s door and they were moving, at which time it was too late. She was not melodramatic about it but described herself as literally paralyzed with terror. Though you might be wondering as I did when one hears about cases like this as to why the victim doesn’t simply bail out of the car the minute the fellow begins acting erratic or begins casually discussing how much he loathes his mother and dreams of raping her with her LPGA-endorsed sand wedge and then stabbing her 106 times, et cetera. But here she did point out that the prospect of bailing out of a rapidly moving car and hitting the macadam at sixty miles an—at the very least you break a leg or something, and then as you’re trying to drag yourself into the underbrush of course what’s to keep the fellow from turning around to come back for you, which in addition let’s keep in mind that he’s now going to be additionally aggrieved about the rejection implicit in your preferring to hit the macadam at sixty m.p.h. rather than remaining in his company, given that psychotic sex offenders have a notoriously low tolerance for rejection, and so on.
Something about his aspect, eyes, the quote energy field in the car—she said she knew instantly in the depths of her soul that the fellow’s intention was to brutally rape, torture, and kill her, she said. And I believed her here, that one can intuitively pick up on the epiphenomena of danger, sense malevolence in someone’s aspect—you needn’t buy into energy fields or ESP to accept mortal intuition. Nor would I even begin to try to describe what she looks like as she’s telling the story, reliving it, she’s nude, hair spilling all down her back, sitting meditatively cross-legged amid the wrecked bedding and smoking ultralight Merits from which she keeps removing the filters because she claims they’re full of additives and unsafe—as she’s sitting there chain-smoking, which was so patently contradictory that I couldn’t even bring—and some kind of blister on her Achilles tendons, from the sandals, leaning with her body to follow the oscillation of the fan, so she’s moving in and out of a wash of moon from the window whose angle of incidence itself alters as the moon moves across the window—all I can tell you is that she was lovely. The bottoms of her feet dirty, almost black. The moon so full it looks swollen. And long hair spilling all over, more than—beautiful lustrous hair that makes you understand why women use conditioner. Tad’s boon companion Silverglade telling me she looks like her hair grew her head instead of the other way around and asking how long estrus lasts in her species and droll ho ho. My memory is more verbal than visual, I’m afraid. It’s on the sixth floor and my bedroom gets stuffy, she treated the fan like cold water and closed her eyes when it hit her. And by the time the psychotic fellow in question exits into the secluded area and finally comes straight out and indicates what his intentions are—apparently detailing certain events and procedures and implements—she’s not the least bit surprised, she said she’d known the kind of hideously twisted soul-energy she’d gotten in the car into, the kind of pitiless and unappeasable psychotic he was and what they were heading for in this secluded area, and concluding that she was going to become just another grisly discovery for some amateur botanist a few days hence unless she could focus her way into the sort of soul-connection that would make it difficult for the fellow to murder her. These were her words, this was the sort of pseudo-abstract terminology she—and yet at the same time I was engrossed enough in the anecdote now to simply accept it as a kind of foreign language without trying to judge it or press for clarification, I just decided to assume that focus was her apostrophic denomination’s euphemism for prayer, and that in a desperate situation like this who was in a position to judge what would be a sound response to the sort of shock and terror she must be feeling, who could say with any certainty whether prayer wouldn’t be appropriate. Foxholes and atheists and so forth. What I remember best is that by this time it was, for the first time, taking much less effort to listen to her—she had an unexpected ability to recount it in such a way as to deflect attention from herself and displace maximum attention onto the anecdote itself. I have to confess that it was the first time I did not find her a bit dull. Care for another?
That she was not melodramatic about it, the anecdote, telling me, nor affecting an unnatural calm the way some people affect an unnatural nonchalance about narrating a horrific incident that is meant to heighten their story’s drama and/or make them appear nonchalant and sophisticated, one or the other of which affects is often the most annoying part of listening to certain types of attractive women structure a story or anecdote—that they are used to high levels of attention, and need to feel that they control it, always trying to control the precise type and degree of your attention instead of simply trusting that you are paying the appropriate type and degree of attention. I’m sure you’ve noticed this in attractive women, that paying attention to them makes them immediately begin to pose, even if their pose is the affected nonchalance they affect to portray themselves as unposed. But she was, or seemed, oddly unposed for someone this attractive with this dramatic a story to tell. It struck me, listening. She seemed truly affectless in relating it, open to attention but not solicitous—or contemptuous, or affecting disdain or contempt, which I hate. Some beautiful women, something wrong with their voice, some squeakiness or lack of inflection or a laugh like a machine gun and you flee in horror. Her speaking voice is a neutral alto without squeak or that drawled long O or vague air of nasal complaint that—also mercifully light on the likes and you knows which make you chew your knuckle. Nor did she giggle. Her laugh was fully adult, full, good to hear. And that this was my first hint of sadness or melancholy, as I listened with increasing attention to the anecdote, that the qualities that I found myself admiring in her narration of the anecdote were some of the same qualities about her that I’d been contemptuous of when I’d first picked her up in the park.
Chief among them that—and I mean this without irony—she seemed quote sincere in a way that may in fact have been smug naïveté but was powerful and very attractive in the context of listening to her encounter with the psychopath, in that I found it helped me focus almost entirely on the anecdote itself and thus helped me imagine in an almost terrifyingly vividly realistic way what it must have felt like for her, for anyone, finding yourself by nothing but coincidence heading into a secluded woody area in the company of a dark man in a dungaree vest who says he is your own death incarnate and who is alternately smiling with psychotic cheer and ranting and apparently gets his first wave of jollies by singing creepily about the various sharp implements he has in the Cutlass’s trunk and detailing what he’s used them to do to others and plans in exquisite detail to do to you. It was tribute to the—her odd affectless sincerity that I found myself hearing expressions like fear gripping her soul, unquote, less as televisual clichés or melodrama but as sincere if not particularly artful attempts to describe what it must have felt like, the feelings of shock and unreality alternating with waves of pure terror, the sheer emotional violence of this magnitude of fear, the temptation to retreat into catatonia or shock or the delusion—yield to the seduction of the idea, riding deeper into the secluded area, that there simply must be some sort of mistake, that something as simple and random as getting into a 1987 maroon Cutlass with a bad muffler that just happened to be the first car to pull over to the side of a random interstate could not possibly result in the death not of some other person but your own personal death at the hands of someone whose reasons have nothing to do with you or the qualities of your character, as if everything you’d ever been told about the relation between character and intention and outcome has been a fiction from start to—
—to finish, that you’d feel the alternating pulls of hysteria and dissociation and bargaining for your life in the way of foxholes or simply to blank catatonically out and retreat into the roar in your mind of the ramifying realization that your whole seemingly random and somewhat flaccid and self-indulgent but nevertheless fundamentally blameless life had somehow been connected all along in a terminal chain that has justified or somehow connected, causally, to lead you ineluctably to this terminal unreal point, your life’s quote unquote point, its as it were sharp point or tip, and that canned clichés such as fear seized me or this is something that happens to other people or even moment of truth now take on a horrendous neural resonance and vitality wh—
Not of—just of being left narratively alone in the self-sufficiency of her narrative aspect to contemplate how little-kid-level scared you’d be, how much you’d despise and resent this sick twisted shit beside you ranting whom you’d kill without hesitation if you could while but at the same time feeling involuntarily the very highest respect, almost a deference—the sheer agential power of one who can make you feel this frightened, that he could bring you to this point simply by wishing it and now can, if he wished, take you past it, past yourself, turn you into a grisly discovery, brutal sex slaying, and the feeling that you’d do absolutely anything or say or trade anything to persuade him to simply settle for rape and let you go, or even torture, even willing to bring to the bargaining table a bit of nonlethal torture if only he’d settle for hurting you and choose to drive off and leave you hurt and breathing in the weeds and sobbing at the sky and traumatized beyond all recovery instead of as nothing, yes it’s a cliché but this is to be all? this was to be the end? and at the hands of someone who probably didn’t even finish Manual Arts High School and had no recognizable soul or capacity for empathy with anyone else, a blind ugly force like gravity or a rabid dog, and yet it was he who wished it to happen and who had the power and certainly the implements to make it happen, implements he names in a maddening singsong about knives and wives and scythes and awls, adzes and mattocks and other implements whose names she did not recognize but still even so sounded like wh—
Yes and a good deal of the anecdote’s medial part’s rising action detailed this interior struggle between giving in to hysterical fear and the level-headedness to focus concentration on the situation and to figure out something ingenious and persuasive to say to this sexual psychotic as he’s driving deeper into the secluded area and looking ominously around for a propitious site and becoming more and more openly raveled and psychotic and alternately smiling and ranting and invoking God and the memory of his brutally slain mother and gripping the steering wheel so tightly that his knuckles are gray.
“There are so many kinds of stupidity, and cleverness is one of the worst.”
Many words have been expended on the nature of intelligence, while the topic of stupidity is comparatively neglected - even though it is all around us, screwing us up. That’s probably because we assume stupidity is just a lack of intelligence. I think there’s more to it than that. It comes in many different forms; what follows is by no means comprehensive.
- Pure stupidity
Let’s start with the most obvious type of stupidity: shit-for-brains (excuse the scientific jargon). The common sense definition of a stupid person is someone deficient in cognitive ability, specifically the ability to think and reason clearly. A stupid person has a low IQ. They flunk verbal reasoning tests and Raven’s matrices because they find it hard to spot patterns in data, manipulate language, or follow chains of logic. (I’m bracketing the question of whether analytical reasoning is intelligence - if it is, then according to the Flynn effect our ancestors were all morons - but the lack of it is what most people mean by stupidity). Presented with anything complex, the stupid person sees only meaningless chaos. Introduce a stupid person to a game and they will fail to understand the rules, even after they have been explained clearly and repeatedly, because they cannot learn, or can learn only slowly. Intelligence is inseparable from learning, something that it took AI scientists a long time to figure out; they spent years trying to design an intelligent machine until they realised it’s better to build a dumb machine that learns fast.1 What are the causes of this kind of stupidity? Genetics? The person may have inherited bad mental hardware. Environment? Maybe they grew up in a culture that never required them to learn or think. Or maybe they were poisoned: a recent study found that lead has been responsible for the loss of almost a billion IQ points in post-war America. Whatever its cause, stupidity in this sense means the inability to identify patterns, follow logic, or learn from experience. A stupid person is a novice at everything all the time.
- Ignorant stupidity
Ignorance is also a common sense definition of stupidity: stupid people are people who don’t know shit about shit (another scientific definition). Now, ignorance is by no means always a sign of stupidity; any intellectual exploration, including science, depends on being aware of what one doesn’t know. But it’s also true that people who can’t draw on a bank of experience, technique or knowledge will find it very hard to cope with new problems and tricky questions. How do they get that way? Perhaps they have faulty hardware, as per #1, and so have been unable to acquire and retain information, or it might be that they haven’t been given the chance to do so: maybe they didn’t get much of an education, either from their parents or from school, and so lack the basic tools and frameworks needed to make sense of the world - verbal and mathematical skill, a knowledge of basic geography or political systems and so on. The education scholar E.D. Hirsch has observed that the ability to read a newspaper and have even the vaguest idea of what all the articles are about requires a level of general knowledge most of us take for granted. Background knowledge in any domain is like water for fish: we’re barely aware we have it but it’s what enables us to absorb new information. The less you know, the harder it is to learn; the less you can learn, the less you know - the stupider you get. This is the ignorance loop, and people with perfectly good hardware can get stuck in it.2
- Fish-out-of-water stupidity
So far we’ve discussed common sense definitions of stupidity. It tends to be described as a lack of something - either cognitive horsepower (‘intelligence’), or knowledge, or thinking. This seems inadequate. Defining it only as an absence of brainpower fails to account for what I’m calling fish-out-of-water stupidity. People with powerful brains who have acquired a great deal of knowledge in one domain, and who are therefore regarded as exceptionally smart, tend to assume they will have exceptionally smart thoughts in every field of knowledge they wander into. They take their own accumulated knowledge for granted and believe that the facility it gives them in their field is merely a function of their all-round brilliance.
Now, to some extent, these experts are probably right to assume that because they’re smart at this thing they’ll be smart at other things too - there is such a phenomenon as general intelligence. But they can wildly over-rate how intelligent they are in new domains and end up making terrible decisions. Twitter has been great for revealing how scientists or historians can be stupid once outside of their academic field. Often, experts don’t even notice that they have moved into a foreign domain: the bankers who screwed up in the 2008 crash thought they were in the domain of risk when in reality they were in the domain of uncertainty. Regulators who were flat-footed during during the pandemic (more of a problem for the US than the UK) failed to clock that they were now in the domain of crisis management.
- Rule-based stupidity
We often talk about stupidity as if it is an individual trait - something a person is or isn’t. It is commonplace to talk about smart people and stupid people, even among intellectuals: one of the few scholars to have taken stupidity seriously, at least somewhat, was the Italian economist Carlo Cipolla, who wrote an essay in 1976 called The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity which you can buy as a book. As you can see from this summary of it, Cipolla starts from the premise that the world divides into stupid and non-stupid people and builds his “laws” on top of it (‘Always and inevitably, everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation’). The essay is wittily written but I suspect the reason it’s still being read is that it is comforting. It is nice to imagine that a person is either clever or stupid - and that since I realise that, I must be one of the clever ones. It is more unsettling to think of stupidity as something that anyone, even you, can be captured by.
Stupidity can be systemic. The Santa Fe Institute complexity theorist David Krakauer observes that the Romans, as intelligent as they were in many ways, made no advances in mathematics. He puts this down to a numeral system that made it virtually impossible to do complex sums. Arabic numbers, imported to Europe in the Middle Ages (not as dumb as their reputation), are easier to manipulate. The new system made our civilisation collectively smarter, or at least less dumb. The tool or platform we’re using can keep us stupid, even when we’re smart. In fact, Krakauer’s view is that stupidity isn’t the absence of intelligence or knowledge; it’s the persistent application of faulty algorithms (itself an Arabic concept, of course). Let’s say someone hands you a Rubik’s Cube.
Rubik's Cube » Cleve's Corner: Cleve Moler on Mathematics and Computing - MATLAB & Simulink
Consider three possibilities. You might know an algorithm or set of algorithms which enables you to solve it quickly, and look very smart (actually Krakauer would say that is a kind of smartness). Or you might have learnt the wrong algorithms - algorithms which ensure that no matter how many times you try, you’ll never solve the puzzle. Or you might be completely ignorant and just go at it randomly. Krakauer’s point is that the ignorant cuber at least stands a chance of solving it accidentally (theoretically speaking - don’t try this at home) whereas the faulty-algorithm cuber never will. Ignorance is insufficient data to solve a problem efficiently; stupidity is using a rule where adding more data doesn’t improve your chances of getting it right - in fact, it makes it more likely you’ll get it wrong.
Look around and you can see people trapped in flawed algorithms (if there is war, then it must be America’s fault’; ‘if there is a market crash then a recovery is just around the corner’) Rules of thinking inflexibly applied lead to stupid conclusions. You find a lot of stupidity among people who are highly partisan on behalf of a political party or ideology. Those people tend to be cognitively inflexible, regardless of which side they’re on. They are drawn to clear stories or chains of reasoning. The politicians or activists who capture them are skilled at building and disseminating these algorithmic structures of thought.
Very often, stupidity isn’t derived from an absence of mental materials but from a superfluity of them. It is the product of all the stuff we carry around in our minds and absorb from others: powerful algorithms, bad theories, fake facts, seductive stories, leaky metaphors, misplaced intuitions. The stuff that feels like solid knowledge even though it isn’t. As the old saying goes, it’s not what you don’t know that will get you into trouble but what you do know that isn’t so.
When the psychologist Philip Tetlock was a graduate student he witnessed an experiment, designed by his mentor Bob Rescorla, which pitted a group of Yale undergrads against a rat. The students were shown a T-maze, like the one below. Food would appear at either A or B. The students’ job was to predict where the food would appear next. The rat was set the same task.
Rats and Mazes
Rescorla applied a simple rule: food appeared on the left 60% of the time and on the right, 40%, at random. The students, assuming that some complex algorithm must be at work, looked for patterns and found them. They ended up getting it right 52% of the time - not much better than chance and considerably worse than the rat, which quickly figured out that one side yielded better results than the other and so headed to the left every time, achieving a 60% success rate.
Smart people, or at least people who have come to believe they are smart, dislike strategies that incorporate the inevitability of error. Confronted with what looks like randomness, they won’t throw up their hands and go with the flow. They wish to impose themselves on the world. That kind of intellectual ambition can lead to insight and innovation but it can also lead to stupidity, when errors are energetically and skilfully defended.
Once a clever person has adopted a mistaken belief it is very hard to talk them out of it: ‘cognitively sophisticated’ people are if anything more susceptible to flawed thinking than average, because they are so skilled at bending reality to fit the model of it they have constructed. I suspect this tendency is associated with high verbal fluency, a quality I used to admire unreservedly but now view with suspicion. People with the ability to speak brilliantly off-the-cuff are also likely to be very good at finding instant and persuasive justifications for whatever it suits them to believe at any point. The right words just magically appear, perfectly turned, glistening like truth.
You can observe another manifestation of overthinking every time you use a product or app that is so crammed with ingenious features it’s impossible to use, or watch a movie that has everything going on except a coherent story. Clever people have a tendency to add features to a product or movie or argument rather than subtract them, which can produce stupid outcomes.
I am particularly wary of cleverness when applied to social and political questions, which can’t be solved with maths. In this I’ve been influenced by some clever thinkers. You can trace a fundamental divide in Western thought between those who believe that knowledge and rationality invariably make us smarter and those who warn they can also make us dumber. On one side, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Voltaire, Paine, Russell; on the other, Socrates, Montaigne, Burke, Nietzsche, Freud, Wittgenstein. The latter group includes thinkers who are, in their different ways are interested in the ways that human intelligence generates a unique kind of stupidity. These are my guys.
- Emergent stupidity
Quite often in organisations that do stupid things, it’s hard to pin the stupid decisions on any one person even in retrospect, and there may be no stupid individuals involved. Sometimes, as with Enron, the people are very smart. Stupidity can emerge in the same way that intelligence emerges in a flock of geese, or an ant colony, or the cells and synapses of the human brain. When a group of individuals are following a few simple rules in co-operation with each other, then collective behaviour which is much smarter - or much stupider - than the sum of its parts may emerge. In any organisation, leaders should reflect on the simple rules that people follow even when they’re not thinking, and ask if they’re more likely to generate intelligence or stupidity.
There is no innate human drive to avoid stupidity. We evolved to survive and thrive and that means getting along with others - that’s our priority, most of the time. The good news is that getting smarter and getting along are not necessarily at odds with one another; the bad news is that they often are. In my book CONFLICTED I show how avoiding open disagreement reduces the collective intelligence of any group. The more that members of a group follow a rule like ‘agree with the consensus’ or ‘agree with the leader’ the less gets contributed to the general pool of ideas and arguments. The shallower the pool, the more likely it is that something stupid will crawl out from it, covered in slime.
- Ego-driven stupidity
We’ve talked about stupidity mainly as a cognitive phenomenon but of course it’s deeply bound up with emotion, and with the sense of self. We could probably name seven varieties under this heading alone but the basic principle is that the more insecure a person feels, the more willingly they will make themselves stupid. Psychologists call it ‘identity-protective cognition’. We might call it the ‘I’m with these guys’ effect.
There is a well-established correlation between the propensity to fall for conspiracy theories and feelings of anxiety, specifically the feeling of not being in control. You could see this in action after 2016 when the online left in the UK and US started feeding hungrily on conspiracy theories about Brexit and Trump. Lots of clever people felt helpless and scared and displaced and made themselves stupid in response.
Political extremists and conspiracy theorists crave the safety of clarity. It’s not just the ideology or conspiracy theory to which people are drawn, but the community that forms around it. The ideology or theory is like a park or stadium - it is social infrastructure. You like being there, and your beliefs are the wristband. If you’re worried about being thrown out you’ll do everything you can to show how loyal you are to these beliefs, and how little you care about the opinions of outsiders. Even if it means repeating and believing stupid things.
I wrote positively about Twitter last time so I think I’ve earned the right to say that it’s also a space where the forces of stupidity converge and dance. You have experts who feel compelled to pronounce on matters outside their expertise. You have insecurity and status anxiety: everyone jostling for followers, likes and retweets. You have people doing their thinking in public, in the gaze of peers and enemies. You have ideological communities and sub-cultures who are also up in each other’s faces all the time, in-groups gaining energy from out-groups. The result is that some quite stunningly stupid threads go viral and get celebrated by lots of smart people (you’ll have your own examples - this one is a doozy). But it’s also an interesting laboratory in which you can observe the process of someone struggling to manage and reconcile affiliations with different groups. People can have more than one identity to protect - a scientist may want to maintain a ‘good scientist’ identity with peers and a ‘good liberal’ identity with the public. It’s revealing to see which one they go with when a conflict between these identities arises. More often than not they choose unscientific stupidity (a recent example of this below the fold).
The truth is that stupidity is often an act of will: people make themselves stupid, when it suits them. That humans are able to do this at all is, in its way, quite impressive. The English psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion fought in the First World War, and his ideas were shaped in part by that experience. Bion was fascinated by the way that people shut down their capacity for thinking and reasoning when they go into battle, figuratively as well as literally. His theory of how people learn was unusual in that he incorporated the fact that we don’t always want to know. People don’t just miss out on knowledge; they unconsciously resist or reject it. They seek minus knowledge, which Bion called -K. Failing to learn from experience stems from fear of thinking about what we don’t know, and sticking to the reassuring heuristics and habits at hand. Learning from experience, according to Bion, requires the hard, uncomfortable work of thinking about our own emotions. Put it that way and you can see why many of us so often choose stupidity.
In Top Gun: Maverick, Tom Cruise’s character Maverick tells the young pilots he is training, ‘Don’t think, just do.’ The phrase is picked up by his students, and repeated throughout the movie. It becomes a mantra for life.
It is not good advice, taken too literally. Not thinking means failing to reflect on your actions or their consequences. It means you act only on instinct and impulse. That’s almost the definition of being dumb. But it’s not a totally vacuous instruction, either. We are capable of using elaborate logic to reach stupid conclusions or justify stupid premises, a problem I touched on in my piece on stupidity. Faced with a decision, we can get lost inside our own thought process and forget to act. There are mistakes to made in either direction.
Broadly speaking, leaders fall into two categories: over-thinkers and under-thinkers. Think of these as describing two different cognitive styles, or leanings, rather than as value judgements on the leader concerned. There is no perfect type of thinker, just different kinds of error profile. To decide who fits which category, we can ask, were this leader’s mistakes more likely to be the product of under-thinking, or over-thinking?
In the Tory leadership election currently underway, an under-thinker (Truss) is up against an over-thinker (Sunak). Tony Blair and Gordon Brown formed a productive partnership (for a while) because one of them was an under-thinker and one an over-thinker. The U.S. tends to swing between under-thinkers (Reagan, Bush Jr., Trump) and over-thinkers (Clinton, Obama, Biden). Steve Jobs was an under-thinker, Tim Cook is an over-thinker.
Over-thinkers are always asking for more information, and more time, to decide; under-thinkers talk about going with their gut, or doing what they feel is right. The two dispositions represent different attitudes to the future. Over-thinkers are more likely to worry about all the things that could go wrong; under-thinkers to focus on what will work out well. Marriages often yoke together an over-thinker and an under-thinker, the difference becoming most apparent when planning a holiday.
It’s not that anyone should always live by Maverick’s mantra or always reject it. We need over-thinkers and under-thinkers in this world, and each of us should lean into or away our own disposition when appropriate. Circumstances determine whether over-thinking or under-thinking is likely to be more effective; Steve Jobs was the right CEO for Apple in the 2000s, when it depended on radical innovation to grow; Tim Cook was the right leader for the 2010s, when the task was managing a complex global behemoth.
But now I want to get a bit more precise about what we mean by overthinking, and ask if there is any such thing, in the context of decision-making. We generally say thinking is good and celebrate those who are good at it. So at which point does thinking about a decision become a net negative? Why does it become a negative? Why is thinking ever bad at all?
A little bit of theory is helpful here. I recently came across a discussion between the cognitive scientists John Vervaeke and Anna Riedl about the study of rationality, which combines psychology with economics, biology, AI and philosophy. I can’t do justice to the depth of thinking in Vervaeke and Riedl’s conversation, but I’ll give you a flavour of it, because it helped me reflect on the questions I pose above.
After the jump:
When over-thinking decisions is dangerous, and what cognitive science tells us about the right time to apply Maverick’s mantra.
How will Liz Truss fare as Prime Minister? (Building on the same theme)
A beautiful example of a musician following Maverick’s rule, because she had to.
Any Other Business: the usual selection of juicy links.
In 1955, Herbert Simon published a paper called A Behavioral Model of Rational Choice, in which he introduced the idea of “bounded rationality”.
Simon was one of those brilliant post-war Americans who roved across academic boundaries, taking on economics, psychology and computer science. He had become dissatisfied with how economists talked about human decision-making. They assumed that individuals are rational utility-maximisers, always making reasoned decisions in their own interests. Simon thought this model was wrong, first because humans sometimes act irrationally, and second because it was based on a misunderstanding of what rationality is.
Economists conceived of rationality as an abstract process of axiomatic reasoning (if this, then this…) which, performed correctly, leads inexorably to the optimal answer. Simon conceived of it as an activity that flesh-and-blood people do in particular places at particular times (hence ‘behavioral model’). Real people in real circumstances are using up finite resources when they make a decision, and it’s rational for them to take these costs into account.
One of those resources is cognitive energy. Each of us has only so much brain capacity, or computational power, to devote to our problems. So we have to allocate it prudently, especially if we didn’t get much sleep last night. Another resource is time - how much time should we spend on this decision, given all the other things we have to do, and the fact that at some point we’re going to die?
Should I spend twenty minutes in front of this shelf of toothpastes, rationally calculating the best one for me? No. First, because if I actually tried to take all the potentially relevant information into account (price, ingredients, flavours, product benefits, corporate governance, etc etc) my head would explode. I don’t have the brain capacity. Second because I’d rather be doing almost anything else.
While making any decision, we’re also making a kind of meta-decision about resource allocation - about how much energy and time to spend taking it. Simply put, it would be irrational for a person to be, or try to be, perfectly rational about their toothpaste choice. It’s worth them accepting the possibility of a sub-optimal decision, in order to conserve resources for other decisions or just other activities, like going to work, or walking the dog.
Instead of performing a rigorous toothpaste brand analysis, most people just a pick the brand they used last time, or the brand they’ve seen on TV, or a brand that they’ve seen others use. Simon called these short-cuts “heuristics”, or rules of thumb. They get us imperfect answers, but they save valuable time and energy. In Simon’s terms, human decision-makers, bounded by the constraints of their bodies and brains, are not optimisers but (horrible coinage alert) satisficers, who look for inadequate but satisfactory solutions.
Here’s one way to define over-thinking, then: being rational about the decision in front of you while being irrational about those meta-decisions over resource allocation. Over-thinking is optimising when you should be satisficing. Over-thinkers fail to recognise that there is a trade-off between getting to the right decision, and making the decision in a way that is right for you (and those to whom you have responsibility).
Over-thinkers also fail to recognise their own limitations. Investors frequently over-estimate their own brain capacity, and deceive themselves about how much time they will have available to spend on analysis. That’s why trackers perform relatively well, versus managed funds, and why amateur investors should aim for simpler solutions rather than complex ones.
Vervaeke and Riedl define Simon’s fundamental insight in this way: that before you can apply rationality - in the axiomatic, logical, algorithmic sense - to solve a problem, you first have to decide what the problem you’re solving for is. You have to “limit the problem space” - to zero in on the relevant information.
In a complex system, everything is connected to everything else, which means the problem space is always threatening to sprawl out of your control. There is always more information to be had (especially now). So your first task is to draw a line around the problem you want to solve. In fact, this, according to Vervaeke and Riedl, is the primary challenge of human rationality; the ‘mathematical’ part is the soft bit. (Riedl defines ‘insight’ as realising that you’ve zeroed in on the wrong problem. You were focusing on x and ignoring y, and now you realise that y is relevant after all. So you redraw the problem space.)
Defining the relevant problem is not a logical or mathematical question so much as a philosophical one. It’s about grasping what really matters - to you and to the people your decision affects. It’s about seeing what’s possible and what’s not. It’s about deciding on priorities. We often talk as if this is the easy part and the working out of the problem is the hard part, when actually it’s the other way around.
When I look at the most effective of the ‘under-thinkers’ on my list of leaders above, I’m struck by how they’re particularly good at knowing what they want to achieve, and at knowing what to exclude or ignore. Really good leaders have strong analytical capacity (as individuals, and in terms of the team and tools at their disposal), but their greatest talent is for being right about how that capacity should be used. That’s an ability comes from experience - from life itself - from cultivated intuition, from meditation and reflection, rather than from logical, quasi-mathematical thinking. It’s the difference between being smart and being wise.
(Writing helps me understand this. As I write this post, the key decisions I’m making are about what to include and what to leave out. The most important decision of any piece of writing, from an article to a book, is what do I want to say? The question of how to say it is crucial but secondary. These decisions aren’t made sequentially, of course, but iteratively; you work them out as you’re working them through. But the ‘what-am-I-saying’ decision is very dependent on prior knowledge, personality and experience rather than just in-the-moment analysis.)
Daniel Kahneman (Thinking, Fast and Slow) and his research partner Amos Tversky were deeply influenced by Herbert Simon. They proposed a speed-accuracy trade-off: that we take decisions using ‘System One’ (intuitive thinking) to save time, at the cost of the more accurate decisions we could reach if we applied ‘System Two’ (analytical thinking). But their work contains a residue of the old classical model of rationality, in that it assumes that more time spent analysing a problem leads to a better solution. That isn’t always true. It fails to account for the environment, for the real world situation, which often has ideas of its own.
Imagine an army officer considering the best way to retrieve an injured comrade, stranded on the battlefield. He has to decide the best way to do it, the way that minimises the risk to the rescuers and maximises the chance of success. So he tries to gather as much information as he can about the positions of the enemy, while pondering alternative approaches to the operation. Let’s assume that the more he thinks, the better his proposed solution gets, and let’s assume that he doesn’t have any more important way to spend his time. Does that mean he should keep thinking until hits the optimal solution?
Of course not. His comrade is bleeding and vulnerable. The officer might hit upon that optimal decision if thinks long enough, but the optimal decision will be worse than useless if his comrade dies before he reaches it. In other words, the decision-maker doesn’t have just have to consider the cost of his own decision-making resources (cognitive effort, time), he also has to consider the opportunity costs of not deciding. Depending on the conditions in which he’s operating, those costs can be very high indeed.
This graph from a paper on ‘computational rationality’ shows the point at which the value of further thinking (‘computation’) drops to zero. That’s the time to act.
This might sound rather theoretical but in the clip below you can see someone who has reached the same conclusion from a more practical direction. Laurence Alison is a forensic psychologist who has spent thirty years working with the police and emergency services. I’ve written about Laurence’s work on interrogation; he also specialises in decision-making under pressure, and has studied many emergencies, real and simulated. One of the key problems he’s identified is ‘decision inertia’: when the person in charge, who is often faced with only with bad options, becomes paralysed by their awful choices and makes no decision at all. They keep asking for more information, and fail to move until it’s too late. The situation then ‘decides’ for them, often for the worse.
According to Laurence, failures to decide create more disasters than do flawed decisions. When a situation is moving fast and the stakes are high, poor decisions are better than no decisions. Sometimes it really is better to stop thinking and just do - although your chance of unthinkingly doing the right thing will be greatly enhanced if have already done a great deal of thinking, and not just of the analytical variety.
In the end, then, ‘Don’t think, just do’ is an argument for the value of human intuition in the age of algorithms. It’s about recognising that time is always short, because we’re all mortal. Maverick’s dictum is a distillation of something he said in the first Top Gun: “You don’t have time to think up there; if you think, you’re dead.”
Becoming an entrepreneur comes with risk. So does getting married. No one is advocating for either of these, nor willy-nilly risk taking. Risk taking requires a self-awareness around the true costs and outcomes, sprinkled with a modicum of confidence and faith. Options play a key role in risk taking, and when used correctly the returns can be spectacular.
There is a surfeit of advice out there on how to communicate successfully, effectively, persuasively. Some of it is even useful. But maybe we should lower our expectations a little: how about we start by trying to avoid the most frequent and predictable screw-ups?
(Although I’ve framed much of what follows in terms of person-to-person conversation, it applies to other forms of human communication too).
Believing you have communicated. In 1990, a Stanford psychologist called Elizabeth Newton divided participants into two groups: Tappers and Listeners. The Tappers were asked to tap out a familiar tune (like Happy Birthday) on the table. The Listeners’ job was to guess the tune, based on the taps. As you’ll see if you try it, that’s hard. Out of 120 tapped renditions, Listeners guessed right only 3 times (2.5%). After the tapping but before the Listeners guessed, Newton asked Tappers the odds that the Listener would guess correctly. They predicted 50%! In other words, they vastly over-estimated the likelihood that Listeners had understood their message. Tappers were amazed when Listeners didn’t get it: it seemed so obvious to them. At least the Tappers found out the truth; in our normal lives we blithely tap away while assuming our message has landed. William Whyte, an astute observer of post-war corporate life, put it this way: “The great enemy of communication is the illusion of it.”
Talking without listening. The ur-mistake. When we talk, we can hear ourselves, which is enough for us to convince ourselves that someone else has heard us. But much of the time, they are not even hearing our beautifully crafted eloquence, let alone absorbing it. Either they are oblivious or they are aware of what we say only as a stream of noise, like Gary Larson’s dog. The fundamental reason for this is that we haven’t engaged their attention. The only way to do that is to figure out what they’re interested in, what they care about, and speak to it. It’s so much easier and more pleasurable to focus on what we’re saying rather than on what the other person is taking out.
Failing to connect. As the saying goes, I don’t care what you know until I know you care. Communication scientists identify two fundamental levels operating in every conversation. There’s the content level - ‘what we’re talking about’. Then there is the relationship level - a subterranean, emotion-driven, inarticulate conversation about whether you and I like and respect each other. Success at the relationship level is a precondition of success at the content level; if no mutually satisfactory connection has been made, then no matter how eloquent and clever you are being, the conversation is guaranteed to go badly.
Trying to convince. Paradoxically, the worst way to convince someone of anything they don’t already believe is to make a confident argument for it. Instead of communicating I want you to understand or I want you to see what’s best for you, it actually communicates I want to push you over. The other person stops listening to us because they feel threatened, and they push back with whatever weapons are at hand - irrationality, aggression, silence. They do anything except concede they’re wrong. Psychologists call this “reactance”. Reactance is generated when the persuader hasn’t made the other side feel that they are being treated as an equal - only then will people lay down their arms and listen.
Second-guessing. Sometimes we make no effort to understand what our audience is thinking and feeling, and that’s not good, but it’s probably better than making an over-confident guess. There are few things more annoying than a person who seems to believe they know exactly what’s in your mind when they really have no idea.
Saying too much. A book about writing bears the excellent title, Nobody Wants To Read Your Shit. People have an overload of inputs and limited time. You have to assume that they would rather be doing many, many other things other than listening to you. We easily forget that, because we’re so focused on transmitting all the things we want to say. When the receiver feels that their time is being wasted they opt out of the communication at the first opportunity - or, if they’re trapped, nurture a simmering grievance against you.
Saying too little. A certain narcissism is built into the structure of human communication. When you’re talking to someone there is at least one thing that’s more salient to you than to them: your thoughts. Although we mentally compensate for the fact that we have better access to our inner states than others do, we find it hard to compensate enough. Psychologists call this the “curse of knowledge”. You say too little and explain yourself poorly because some part of you stubbornly assumes they must already know what you mean. You’re like the actor in a game of charades who can’t believe her teammates could be so dim not to see that you waving your arms around signifies Top Gun.
Talking down. Conversations often include an unspoken contest over relative status. Whether it’s a conversation between colleagues at work, or partners in a relationship, one side can feel patronised or implicitly insulted. More often that not, the offender has no idea. Since people’s doubts and fears do not always manifest themselves in obvious ways we can assume that the conversation is going fine until it’s suddenly it’s not and we have no idea why. That goes back to the asymmetry problem - our innate difficulty in recognising that other people have inner lives as rich as our own. The model we tend to work with is something like this: I am infinitely subtle, complex and hard to read; you are simple and predictable. “I suppose no one truly admits the existence of another person”, sighs the narrator of Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet.
Lack of attention to tone. Tone is the music of communication; it is everything that isn’t explicitly articulated. It is multi-channel: it can manifest itself in the pitch of a voice, in a particular choice of words, in punctuation, in an emoji. We often talk about tone as if it is something superficial, secondary to the substance of the communication - to the message - so we neglect to give it serious thought. We should, because it is paramount. It tells the listener how you want this exchange to feel - playful or urgent or grave. It also conveys a lot of highly compressed information about what you think of me - whether you think I’m stupid, or powerful, or sensitive. When you first start speaking, most people aren’t listening to what you’re saying; they’re listening to your tone and figuring out what it means.
Being boring. To return to where we began, the most frequent cause of a communication failure is that no communication has taken place - and a common reason for that is the communicator fails to say anything interesting, or fails to say it in an interesting way. In general, we care too much about being right and not enough about not being boring.
Everybody knows that really intimate conversation is only possible between two or three. As soon as there are six or seven, collective language begins to dominate.
∆ Simone Weil
Understanding of the self only arises in relationship, in watching yourself in relationship to people, ideas, and things; to trees, the earth, and the world around you and within you. Relationship is the mirror in which the self is revealed. Without self knowledge there is no basis for right thought and action.