“Two things are infinite: the universe and stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”

                                          – Albert  Einstein

That quote is taken from the 2016 book The Stupidity Paradox: The power and pitfalls of functional stupidity at work, by Mats Alvesson and André Spicer (Alvesson is said to be a “management scholar and professor of business administration”, but I’ve also determined that he has a Ph.D in psychology. Unfortunately, there are two André Spicers who might be the second author here so I have to defer on his background for now).
What they have to say about modern workplaces will surprise some people. I’ll let them say it directly – this is how they start the book:

Far from being ‘knowledge intensive’, many of our most well-known chief organizations have become engines of stupidity. We have frequently seen otherwise smart people stop thinking and start doing stupid things. They stop asking questions. They give no reasons for their decisions. They pay no heed to what their actions cause. Instead of complex thought we get flimsy jargon, aggressive assertions or expert tunnel vision. Reflection, careful analysis and independent reflection decay. Idiotic ideas and practices are accepted as quite sane. People may harbour doubts, but their suspicions are cut short. What’s more, they are rewarded for it. The upshot is that a lack of thought has entered …….organizations today.

Anyone who has worked inside even a medium-sized company, and has paid attention to what is really going on, recognizes and welcomes these words. During my 40 year career as an accident/injury investigator, I worked for at least 30 different insurance companies (the last 20 yrs were on temporary contracts), and there wasn’t one of them where this description didn’t fit.

Alvesson and Spicer go on to add that this stupidity is actually functional because it allows people to go forward with their work without procrastinating, or stopping altogether because they’ve realized that they don’t know what they’re doing. It seems that for humans to function collectively, we have do reduce our thinking powers, which can be a problem for young people coming out of school where they may have been trained by good teachers to think. In my book The Shyness Guide, in the part I call “Working Shy in a Non-shy World”, I warn them about this:

Well, I have to warn you that intelligence isn’t very welcome in the workplaces of the early 21st century. ………In most large corporations now, “thinking” means memorizing company procedures. methods and protocols, then adhering to them as closely as possible. Those who stick closest to the company line are considered to be the most intelligent, so they’re the ones who are promoted to be supervisors and managers, who then continue to insist on the same adherence to the rules.

Anyone who doesn’t follow all the rules, especially anyone who shows an inclination to think outside the box, is held in suspicion. Someone like that is considered to be someone who doesn’t understand, who is less intelligent.

Yes, I warn them about entering a dumbed-down world. But when you consider that we live in a gigantic house-of-cards world, threatening to collapse financially, or worse, in nuclear war, don’t we need more intelligence, not less? And, how did we get like this in the first place?

I’m reminded of that research that is rarely discussed, that modern science has preferred not to talk about though it has been well established since the 1970s,  that the human brain has been shrinking for the past 20,000 years (based on the evidence of fossil skulls). In my novel Skol, twenty-third century AI researchers explain the shrinking brain like this:

The accepted theory now is that larger societies did not require larger brains. To control and discipline large groups of people one needed something simpler than the acute sensitivity, strong memory and creativity of hunter-gatherers. What the tribe needed was individuals who could dominate, and others who could submit.

A more social world required more restricted minds and more restricted emotions. …….

That’s my explanation – that with the advent of tribalism we began to decline, even as our over-all knowledge (collecting in books, computers) increased. I’d like to tell you what Alvesson and Spicer have to say about this, but I’ve only begun to read their very interesting book. I’ll have to leave that to a future post.

One thought on “Rescuing Reality | The Stupidity Paradox | why some of us struggle in the workplaces of today

  1. It’s terrifying to realize that human decision making is still very primitive, yet we have at our fingertips weapons or mass destruction and are pushing potentially humanity-eradicating artificial intelligence. Honestly, our decision-making is not much better than it was 2,000 years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

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