Why Smart People Make Stupid Mistakes

By Madison Taylor
February 28, 2019
girl with glasses looking frustrated

You know this to be true: when someone else makes a mistake, it’s because they’re incompetent, stupid, and should never have been put in their position in the first place. When you make a mistake, it’s because of circumstances beyond your control or a simple slip-up that doesn’t say anything about your competency as a person.

We’re all guilty of thinking along these lines, but the reality is more complicated. Over at Farnam Street, Shane Parrish and Adam Robinson had a fascinating conversation and came up with a different idea of how not to be stupid.

“People think stupidity is the opposite of intelligence,” says Robinson. “In fact, stupidity is the cost of intelligence operating in a complex environment.” He defines stupidity as overlooking or dismissing conspicuously critical information — a problem, to be sure, but something that can happen to anyone given the right circumstances.

Robinson identifies seven factors that lead to stupidity — essentially, seven reasons you’re not noticing something you should have noticed and making different decisions as a result. It doesn’t take all seven for a mistake to occur, but any of them can lead to a stupid decision in different ways.

The seven factors, any of which can overload our attention and lead to stupid mistakes, are as follows:

  • Stress. This one’s obvious, and it’s something all of us encounter on a near-daily basis. When you’re stressed, you’re thinking about something else, not the task that’s right in front of you. That lack of attention leads to mistakes.
  • Rushing or urgency. Being in a hurry makes us inattentive — we leave our phones at home, forget crucial steps in an intricate process, or forget our wallets at the grocery store. But when the stakes are higher, being in a hurry can lead to a catastrophe — forgetting to lock up the store, forgetting to back up data, or forgetting to save an important document can have enormous consequences, and all it takes is for someone to be running late for dinner.
  • Fixation on an outcome. Being too focused on one particular outcome can blind us to mistakes we make along the way. We focus on getting the job done, whether it’s a piece of writing, a big manufacturing process, or a huge batch of data that needs to be processed. If something comes up along the way that we hadn’t planned on, we’re more likely to ignore it because we can’t take our eyes off the end goal.
  • Information overload. Have you ever been driving to a new address that you’ve never been to before? It’s dark and you’re squinting to see the numbers on the houses, so you…turn the radio down? Why? Because the music was in your eyes? Rationally, it doesn’t make sense, but the fact is that too much information coming into your brain — no matter what kind of information — can completely derail your line of thinking.
  • Groupthink or concern for social cohesion. We’ve all been in a meeting and had an idea, or had a response to someone else’s idea, but we bit our tongue. Why? Because we don’t want to be the outlier, and we especially don’t want to be the outlier who’s wrong. There’s something to be said for not ruffling too many feathers, but going along blindly with what everyone else is doing can be a recipe for disaster as well.
  • Being in the presence of an “authority” (including yourself). We’re all familiar with not wanting to question an expert when they say something that doesn’t make sense. After all, they’d know better, right? Not necessarily. Experts make mistakes too — that’s sort of the point. But we’re less familiar with being the expert. Knowing more than anyone else in the room can lead to stupid mistakes too since we might not bother to ask other people for help when we think their lack of expertise means they have nothing to contribute.
  • Being outside your circle of competence. This one is obvious too — sometimes, you simply don’t know what you’re doing. Occasionally, people get thrown into situations they’re just not equipped to handle, and mistakes occur.

Where the rubber meets the road is when these small, simple mistakes compound into something huge. Let’s imagine someone goes to the hospital with a broken arm. They’re in a lot of pain, so the doctor prescribes .5 ccs of fentanyl.

But there’s a problem. The doctor meant .05 ccs of fentanyl — a tenth of what he actually said. This doctor is stressed from lack of sleep, and he’s thinking about a complicated surgery he’s got coming up, not the simple arm fracture in front of him. He’s in a hurry to get this patient out the door so he can move on to more critical patients. The PA doesn’t think that .5 ccs sounds right, but he doesn’t want to question the doctor, so he administers the dose. The patient overdoses and dies.

Sounds far-fetched? Not really. According to Johns Hopkins, hospital error kills 250,000 people every year — not complications from surgery or serious medical conditions, just smart people making stupid mistakes.

In 1998, Yo-Yo Ma, a world famous cellist, left a million-dollar instrument in the trunk of a cab because he’s a smart person who makes stupid mistakes. In 1999, the Mars Climate Orbiter crashed into the red planet because one team was working in imperial units and one was working in metric. None of the thousands of very smart people who worked on it noticed the mistake.

So What Do You Do About It?

Hopefully, you’re never in a situation where your stupid mistakes end in the death of a healthy person or the destruction of a $125-million spacecraft. For most of us, the stakes are never that high. But that doesn’t mean that these things don’t happen, or that we shouldn’t try to avoid them.

In short, the best thing you can do is try harder to pay attention. That may seem like an unsatisfactory answer, but it’s really the best we have. People set reminders for themselves, make lists, and add calendar notifications, but anyone who’s ever turned off an alarm and gone right back to sleep knows that those don’t always work.

The fact is that we’re imperfect animals — our brains can’t always hold everything we need at once. The best we can do is to try to focus on what we’re doing — not letting our minds wander to what’s for dinner or the weird email we just got from an old high school friend — and not to be too hard on ourselves when we do screw up. After all, even the smart ones do it.