Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 19, Issue 30;   July 24, 2019: The Stupidity Attribution Error

The Stupidity Attribution Error


In workplace debates, we sometimes conclude erroneously that only stupidity can explain why our debate partners fail to grasp the elegance or importance of our arguments. There are many other possibilities.
Domestic turkeys. The turkey has become known for lack of intelligence.

Domestic turkeys. The turkey has become known for lack of intelligence. Contrary to popular belief, turkeys are not as stupid as the stereotype. But they are close.

When we try to understand why others do what they do, we engage in a kind of thought activity called attribution. Briefly, attribution is the process of identifying a cause — or more rarely, causes — for the behavior of another. For example, when several people laugh together, we would typically attribute that behavior to a cause such as their having heard something funny, as might have occurred if someone else had told them a joke. Other causes are possible, of course. For example, they might be engaged in a conspiracy to make another person feel excluded. Read more about attribution.

Attribution is a thought process that is both frequently used and essential for social interaction. Mistakes are common, too. People who work together solving difficult problems are especially vulnerable to making one particular kind of attribution error that I like to call the Stupidity Attribution Error. It's actually a special case of the Fundamental Attribution Error. (See "The Fundamental Attribution Error," Point Lookout for May 5, 2004, for more)

Here's how it works. In an extended debate about potential solutions to a difficult problem, one of the participants — I'll call her Jordan — proposes an elegant candidate solution. It happens that understanding why Jordan's proposed solution is worthy of detailed consideration requires some background that many of the other participants lack. After struggling for almost an hour to understand Jordan's proposal, the group decides to set it aside and consider alternatives that are less controversial. By that point in the discussion, Jordan is frustrated and angry. She thinks to herself, "These people are idiots. They rejected my idea because they're too stupid to understand it." Her conclusion is incorrect because she doesn't realize that many of the other participants lack the background needed to understand her idea.

In knowledge work, To commit the Stupidity Attribution
Error is to choose incorrectly to
attribute to stupidity the decision
of others to adopt or fail to adopt
a proposed solution to a problem
to commit the Stupidity Attribution Error is to choose incorrectly to attribute to stupidity the decision of others to adopt or fail to adopt a proposed solution to a problem, or to adopt or fail to adopt a concept as part of their ongoing deliberations. In choosing to attribute their decision to stupidity in preference to any number of alternative possible attributions, we expose ourselves to risk of error when we fail to consider those alternatives.

Before listing some of those alternatives, we must distinguish them from "stupidity." In everyday parlance, stupidity is slow-wittedness. It is a lack of intelligence that limits the ability to think clearly and to reason to conclusions on the basis of evidence. With that definition of stupidity in mind, let's consider some alternative reasons why someone might make what we consider a wrong-headed decision. In what follows, I'll use the name Albert to refer to the person whom Jordan regards as "stupid."

Ignorance is the state of being unaware. It's possible that Albert fails to find Jordan's arguments persuasive because he lacks knowledge that's required to understand Jordan's arguments. Or possibly Albert cannot weigh Jordan's points appropriately because he lacks the knowledge needed to do so.
If we could provide Albert with the missing knowledge, he might be fully capable of grasping Jordan's ideas. But we don't always know what knowledge is missing. Even if we do know, Albert might not be willing to accept it, especially if it's forced upon him in a disrespectful or condescending manner.
In terms of its effects, being misinformed is similar to being ignorant. Misinformation can lead Albert to evaluate Jordan's arguments incorrectly. But in some ways, misinformation can be more destructive of group interaction, because providing the correct information isn't always sufficient to motivate the misinformed to alter their decisions or judgments.
As with ignorance, we don't always know what misinformation needs correcting. And providing correct information might not be sufficient — invalidating the misinformation might also be necessary. In the moment, that can be difficult.
Some people are unable to deal with certain issues rationally. For example, race bias, gender bias, or other social biases can distort assessments of performance or capability. (See "The Ultimate Attribution Error at Work," Point Lookout for February 21, 2018, for more) Some feel compelled to bully or harass subordinates. Worse, perhaps, are those who feel compelled to abuse organizational authority to bully or harass others or to gain personal advantage — economic or otherwise.
Using reasoned argument to adjust the attitudes or behavior of such people is rarely effective. But it's plainly incorrect to conclude that these people are "stupid" solely on the basis that their compulsions make them immune to rational argument.
In some debate situations, the person who actually decides the issue in question isn't a participant in the debate. For example, Albert's supervisor, Super-Albert, might have instructed him not to agree to any of Jordan's proposals. And further, Super-Albert might have told Albert to "be creative" about the reasons for the positions he takes, so as to conceal the fact that he has been directed to reject Jordan's work. "Directed" might actually be a misleading term if Albert understands Super-Albert to be threatening him with termination or disciplinary action if he deviates from Super-Albert's plan.
Even when coercion is at the root of what seems to be irrational behavior, we don't always have evidence that coercion is a factor. And frequently, coerced individuals are reluctant to disclose the coercion. Some experience shame about being coerced. Others fear — reasonably — that disclosing the coercion could have even more severe consequences than violating the original directive would have.

There are many more possible alternatives to stupidity as explanations for someone's apparent inability to grasp the truth in an argument. One alternative worthy of special mention is a lack of critical thinking skills (See "Critical Thinking and Midnight Pizza," Point Lookout for April 23, 2003). Critical thinking is the process of drawing sound inferences based on evidence and principles. To think critically requires discipline. More important, critical thinking requires strict avoidance of the traps and tricks that are so common in casual debate, such as Rhetorical Fallacies, deception, self-deception, entrapment, or withholding information. Someone who lacks critical thinking skills, or who chooses not to apply them, might appear to be slow-witted. But to repeatedly attribute to stupidity a failure to apply critical thinking skills could be perhaps the best example of the stupidity attribution error. Go to top Top  Next issue: More Things I've Learned Along the Way: IV  Next Issue

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