A scene from popular television series, The Big Bang Theory. Smart minds dumb acts
THE BIG BANG THEORY, Photo by Sonja Flemming/CBS via Getty Images)

Does intelligence equate to flawless decision-making and impeccable judgment? In a world where intelligence and competence are highly prized, the occurrence of “dumb acts of smart people” may seem perplexing. But have you ever wondered why highly intelligent individuals sometimes make surprisingly foolish decisions?

Smart individuals, while excelling at complex tasks, often struggle with mundane daily responsibilities due to their overthinking nature. Because their minds are so well-trained to solve complicated problems, they overcomplicate even the simplest things.

In this article, we will explore the psychology behind why intelligent individuals sometimes act foolish.

The Dumb Acts of Smart People

An experienced executive renowned for their strategic and analytical skills leads a high-stakes project with confidence. However, they overlook critical details in the project plan, resulting in costly delays, missed deadlines, and a tarnished reputation. How could a leader of such intellect and experience make such a fundamental error?

Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon characterized by the desire for conformity and consensus. Intelligent teams, driven by a shared goal and a sense of camaraderie, may make irrational decisions by suppressing dissenting views and ignoring alternative perspectives. How can organizations guard against the pitfalls of groupthink and foster a culture of open dialogue and constructive dissent?

People enthusiastically participate in leadership development workshops that aren’t out of place in a preschool class. Or the executives pay more attention to overhead slides than careful analysis. Or the headteachers who are more interested in creating strategies than educating students are all signs of dumb acts of brilliant minds.

While intelligence enables individuals to process information rapidly, analyze complex data, and devise innovative solutions, it does not immunize them from cognitive biases, emotional impulses, or lapses in judgment.

High IQ scores don’t guarantee intelligence as it goes beyond cognitive abilities.

Why Smart People do Dumb Acts?

In the television series “Succession,” the character of Logan Roy portrays the “smartest person in the room” syndrome. Roy is a media mogul with exceptional intelligence and business acumen. However, his authoritarian leadership style and his unchecked ego led to a series of disastrous decisions. Despite his advisors’ counsel, Roy refuses to acknowledge his limitations, which jeopardizes his empire’s future.

The occurrence of dumb acts of smart minds can be attributed to a myriad of psychological factors, chief among them being cognitive biases. These biases, rooted in evolutionary psychology, serve as mental shortcuts that enable individuals to process information quickly but can also lead to systematic errors in judgment.

#1. Cognitive Biases

Even the brightest minds are susceptible to cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias, overconfidence bias, and anchoring bias. These biases distort perception and decision-making, leading individuals to make suboptimal choices despite their intelligence. One of the most powerful is self-serving bias, where individuals tend to think they are better than others. If you ask people about their skills, most believe they are above average. However, not everyone can be above average!

#2. Hubris and Overconfidence

Success and accolades can breed a sense of overconfidence and hubris, causing individuals to overestimate their abilities and underestimate risks. This can lead to a false sense of security and a reluctance to seek out alternative viewpoints or consider potential pitfalls.

#3. Pressure to Perform

Success is equated with intelligence and competence in high-stakes environments. Individuals may feel pressure to maintain their status as high achievers. Being smart can also upset people, and asking tough questions can quickly make them unpopular. This pressure can lead to a willingness to take risks, cut corners, or ignore warning signs to uphold their reputation, even if it means making rash or ill-advised decisions.

#4. Lack of Feedback or Accountability

Certain organizations operate in environments where dissenting opinions are discouraged. In such cases, even intelligent individuals also dismiss critical feedback. This lack of input or accountability can create echo chambers where flawed assumptions go unchallenged, leading to flawed decision-making. For example, a brilliant scientist may become overly attached to their theories or hypotheses so much that, at times, they dismiss any conflicting evidence or alternative viewpoints and cling stubbornly to their initial beliefs, hindering scientific progress and innovation.

#5. Complexity and Uncertainty

Many decisions in professional settings involve inherent complexity and uncertainty. Even the most competent individuals may struggle to navigate ambiguous situations or predict outcomes accurately, leading to errors in judgment or flawed decision-making processes. For example, when an investment analyst follows a herd mentality instead of independent analysis, it results in missed investment opportunities, or a manager overlooks critical details in project planning, causing costly delays.

#6. Emotional Influences

Emotions can also play a significant role in decision-making, even among knowledgeable individuals. Fear, ego, and the desire for recognition or validation can cloud judgment and lead to impulsive or irrational decisions. For example, talented artists who have poured their heart and soul into a particular creative project may struggle to accept constructive criticism or feedback.

The Harvard Business Review reports that groupthink, a phenomenon where individuals prioritize consensus over critical thinking, occurs in over 70% of organizational decision-making processes.

#7. Fear of Failure

Despite their intelligence, bright individuals may fear failure, leading to risk aversion or hesitation when making decisions. This fear may stem from a desire to maintain their reputation or status, causing them to prioritize avoiding failure over taking calculated risks. For example, a brilliant entrepreneur may have a ground-breaking idea for a new product but hesitate to pursue it due to a fear of failure.

Navigating the Paradox With Self-Awareness

It is essential to recognize that the mistakes made by intelligent individuals should not be viewed solely with condemnation or ridicule. Instead, we can learn from these incidents and use them as cautionary tales. This highlights the significance of having humility, self-awareness, and continuous learning.

If we acknowledge our fallibility and adopt a growth mindset, we can develop resilience when faced with failure and reduce the likelihood of repeating past mistakes by embracing continuous learning.

It is essential to value intellectual humility over arrogance. Doing so can help create an environment that promotes innovation, creativity, and ethical decision-making.

Moreover, embracing diversity of thought and encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration can lead to positive outcomes.

Increase self-awareness by practicing mindfulness and self-reflection. Ask yourself, “What factors influenced my decision-making?” and “What could I have done differently?” Use decision-making models such as Six Thinking Hats or Eisenhower matrix frameworks to mitigate cognitive biases.

Next time, when I criticize myself and ask, “Why are you so stupid?” I will remember that it may be because my own idiocy came with a payoff.

Surbhi Mahnot

Surbhi Mahnot

Surbhi Mahnot is the owner of this blog. She has work experience of almost 10 years in the IT industry in varied roles. At present, she is working full-time on this blog. She is passionate about the importance of personal growth in individual and work life, which reflects in her writing too. Travelling, reading, and shopping are her core interest besides work.