I tend to lean left politically. A number of my extended family and friends/colleagues/acquaintances lean right and have, in my perception, begun expressing more and more overtly stupid viewpoints in recent years. I know I'm not alone in this. As America has become more politically and socially polarized, those on opposite sides of the spectrums have looked at each other in disbelief and wondered how they could be so stupid.

Others have been pondering stupidity recently, too. A blog post titled "Is Stupidity Expanding? Some Hypotheses" explores possibilities for why the author perceives stupidity to be on the rise. It was discussed extensively on Hacker News. A recent Tedium article detailing the Internet's Eternal Septembers names tribalism as a reason for perceiving others as stupid.

The above sources indicate that it's important to reflect on why we reach for stupidity as an explanation of others' questionable beliefs and behaviors. I agree. I'd prefer not to scuttle my own relationships, for instance, on the dismissal of others as plainly stupid. Understanding our own perceptions is a huge part of achieving objectively better outcomes. But I do think there's something missing from these discussions: a useful definition of stupidity. Certainly some of what we call stupid truly is and deserves to be identified as such. But couldn't stupidity be mistaken for something else? If so, what? And so what?

Here's my framework for defining stupidity and gauging what's worthy of the label.

Stupidity's family tree

Everything starts with ignorance. Everyone is ignorant to some degree, it's impossible not to be. Ignorance of an idea/topic/process/whatever simply means not having been exposed to it. It could also mean having been exposed but prevented from recognizing it. Reasons for this include distraction and a lack of prerequisite knowledge/experience.

Recognition is the point when one becomes aware of their ignorance. Ignorance doesn't need to be fully shed at this point, it's only necessary to have a sense that something isn't known or that what is known may be wrong or incomplete.

Knowledge/experience is required to transition away from ignorance. Once knowledge/experience is internalized it helps one understand the nature and degree of their prior ignorance.

Impact is the result of acquired knowledge/experience on a situation. It can manifest itself as the actions one takes or the ideas they promote. Impact can be felt by the individual and/or by others.

The above concepts are the parents in stupidity's family tree; the combination of their DNA is what begets stupidity and its siblings. We can express their relationship to themselves and to their children like this:

A diagram showing the relationships between stupidity and related concepts

Now let's take a closer look at the children.

A mistake is the expression of unintentional impact. It could be positive or negative. The possession of knowledge/experience doesn't necessarily prevent mistakes. Dropping the child analogy for a second, everybody makes an oopsie sometimes.

Mistakes can also come from the impact of one's ignorance. If recognition of ignorance and the acquisition of knowledge/experience don't contribute DNA, leaving ignorance and impact to get busy on their own, that's a mistake. Note that such mistakes aren't always bad; there is such a thing as a happy accident.

Wisdom is the expression of intentional positive impact. Wisdom is ideally the child you get when all of the parents contribute DNA. The best possible result of shedding ignorance is wisdom.

Stupidity is the expression of intentional negative impact on the individual. Sometimes people know better but they knowingly do the wrong thing anyway.

Like a mistake, stupidity doesn't require all of the parents' DNA to be born. The impact of ignorance, if one has recognized their ignorance, is stupid. This type of stupidity is the equivalent of putting your fingers in your ears and calling out "I can't hear yooouuu!"

The worst child is evil. Evil is the expression of intentional negative impact on others. Using knowledge/experience to do wrong to others, whether for pleasure or for profit, is evil.

Applying the framework

Now that we have a framework for identifying stupidity and differentiating it from its siblings, let's apply it. Consider the scenario of someone hosting a dinner party. It's a pretty innocuous one to be sure, but it's fairly clear-cut.

Ahead of the party, the host suggests a menu with a steak entree to her guests. At this point, the host is ignorant; she does not know if any of her guests will take issue with the menu. When one guest indicates that he has a dietary restriction and that the menu will pose a problem, the host experiences recognition of her ignorance. Knowing that there is something about her plan that needs to be corrected, she follows up with the guest and is told that he's vegetarian. The host now has knowledge of her guest's need and is ready to make an impact by revising the menu.

Here are some possible impacts:

  • A wise action would be to offer an alternative entree to the guest.
  • If the host is distracted by the party logistics and forgets to account for her guest's need, she will have made a mistake.
  • If the host does not plan for the guest's need and finds herself scrambling on the night of the party to come up with an alternative, she will have acted stupidly.
  • Ignoring the guest's need and serving him steak anyway would be a bit evil.

There are some other possibilities, too. What if the host hadn't bothered to share her menu plans with the guests ahead of time? In that case, serving the guests without any knowledge of their dietary restrictions would have been a misteak (see what I did there? XD ). Or what if the host had neglected to follow up with the guest who indicated he has a dietary restriction? That would have been stupid.

The bottom line

To sum everything up, gaining knowledge/experience can correct ignorance once it's been recognized. The impact of one's actions as related to their knowledge/experience (or lack thereof) can be labeled as either a mistake, wisdom, stupidity, or evil.

Note that I don't mean to suggest that someone can move from being wholly ignorant to wholly knowledgeable. Nor should someone be considered wholly mistaken, wise, stupid, or evil. The transition from ignorance to knowledge/experience as shown above is topic-based, and specific actions that make an impact can be qualified as mistakes, wise, stupid, or evil. People are complex. They know lots of things and they don't know lots of things. The labels we place on actions shouldn't necessarily apply to the person who commits them, though I think they could get close if analyzed cumulatively.

When labeling an action, we also need to understand that not all contributing factors are cut and dry. As much objectivity as possible should be applied to the determination of ignorance, recognition, and knowledge/experience, but some subjectivity is likely to creep in. This is especially true of more nuanced realms like politics.

The spectrum of impact: wisdom - mistake - stupidity - evil

To account for subjectivity, we should think about stupidity and its siblings as existing on the spectrum above rather than being islands unto themselves. This way, we can acknowledge that some actions are partially wise, partially mistaken, etc.

For this framework to be truly useful we also need to consider that not all types of impact carry the same weight. Some are more intense than others. For instance, I noted that our dinner party host knowingly serving steak to the vegetarian guest would be a bit evil. But what if the guest's dietary restriction was based on an allergy, and the host knowingly served food that would trigger the allergy? The intensity of that evil impact would surely be higher. It would be higher still if the presence of the allergen in the food was not obvious to the guest.

Like impact, intensity should be mapped on a spectrum. The ends of the spectrum are simply high and low, with the additional consideration of whether the impact is positive or negative. Putting the two together, we can place actions on a graph that shows both their impact and intensity like this:

A graph of impact and its intensity (X-axis is impact, Y-axis is intensity, accounting for both positive and negative)

Finally, when graphing a set of actions it's important to define a baseline for impact intensity. Impact can be measured in different ways, and a lack of criteria and scale for judging intensity would weaken a broader analysis.

Where do we go from here?

As an individual, I think the use of this framework can help provide some perspective when you feel the knee-jerk reaction to label someone or something as stupid. Maybe it can even facilitate some dialogue where it would otherwise be sorely lacking.

Where things could get really interesting is if this framework were applied at scale to politics. I'd like to think it could augment the work done by organizations like FactCheck.org to profile politicians by cumulatively assessing the impact of their actions.

I, for one, would like to see Donald Trump's data points.