Moving on from dumb and dumber

Why do seemingly smart people make dumb mistakes?

Why do seemingly smart, experienced people (not to mention us lesser mortals) make really dumb mistakes from time to time?

Blame our brains. Writing in Australian CIO, Sue Bushell reports on cognitive restructuring consultant (yes, that's a real job title) Donalle Markus, who builds diagnostic tools to help people break their usual patterns of thinking and be more flexible.

Markus believes smart people make dumb mistakes because of the way the brain functions. She says the cerebral cortex functions as a filter, which is built from personal experience. We make assumptions without realising it, enabling us to organise information fast and give it meaning.

Markus says smart people make dumb mistakes because the meaning of something significant has eluded them — it was blocked by the filter.

Markus has designed visual puzzles to “help people literally see what information they are missing and to break through the routine behaviours that limit their ability to deal with uncertainty”.

She says by exercising different parts of your brain, “you can strengthen neural pathways and create new behavioural options”.

Some people end up closing the door on learning from new experiences, perhaps because of past bad experiences. She says such filtering out of information can become a problem. “Success is seductive and once you succeed, the filtering systems that you use are more inclined to help you be successful rather than be effective.”

Once people start taking themselves too seriously or think they're special, they can’t see the whole picture anymore.

“…They just get small glimpses of the much bigger picture”.

Also, if someone thinks they're special, they're less likely to empathise with others and their experiences — and less likely to learn from them.

“'What happened at Enron could never happen here', that special person might tell themselves.”

The first step is to be cognisant of the way you think and look at where you make mistakes, for example in the details, in the big picture, by talking too much, or not enough.

Another step is to look at an issue from another person’s perspective.

“‘Well, what if I was an engineer, how would I see this problem? What if I was in finance, how would I see it? If I was an investor, how would I see it?’”

Markus says that once you recognise your style and that other people think differently, you can look at your communications and think more openly about what other people are saying.

Managers who know how their direct reports take in information can communicate better with them — and get their own points of view across better.

Markus outlines four steps to prevent dumb mistakes. The first is to prepare — pay a lot of attention and get lots of options. Don’t filter out a piece of information because it gets in the way of success (“That’s what happened with the Titanic: Let’s get to the shore early so that we can have a big marketing splash. Let’s not put all the lifeboats and the life jackets in, because it doesn’t look cosmetically attractive”).

Second comes incubation, where neural connections form subconsciously, followed by illumination, where the conscious mind is activated again and the answer seems obvious. Lastly, you need verification — the answer must be challenged and tested against the original objective.

Another expert in the field is Yale psychologist Robert Sternberg. Writing in The Guardian, Karen Gold quotes Sternberg as saying the issue is wisdom — people can be intelligent but unwise.

“What was Bill Clinton thinking when he kept repeating the same mistakes in his personal life? How did the intelligent people in Enron think they would get away with a shell game?"

He says people with highly analytical intelligence (the kind awarded top scores in intelligence tests) often have no idea how to deal with everyday problems. Sternberg says wisdom can and should be taught at university. Interestingly though, it’s hard to get funding for research on wisdom.

“Wisdom is hard to measure, it's hard to teach, for some people it's too pie in the sky."

Lastly, The CEO Refresher has a Top 10 list of reasons why smart people do stupid things.

Mills is a Dunedin writer. Contact her at

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