The Modern Survival Guide #81
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone, and from time to time I think of myself as a reasonably smart person. Consequently I tend to think that my ideas have merit, and that my suggestions have good rationales behind them. And if I screw that up, that means I’m not just screwing up my life, I’m also screwing up yours with bad advice. There is great danger to be found in smart people, so I expect you, o reader, to take everything I say with a grain of salt.
This should be a fun one: today we will discuss how smart people often go wrong, and what you can do when that happens. This is often a survival issue because we live in a fairly brutal meritocracy where being “smart” is highly valued and often prioritized over being intelligent.
Let’s start with definitions, so we know what we’re talking about. I’ve written about intelligence before, and I tend to use words like “smart” and “intelligent” in very particular ways. When I say someone is “smart,” I mean that they are capable of rapidly learning and synthesizing knowledge — they are able to pick up the pieces of a puzzle and assemble them quickly. An intelligent person, on the other hand, is a person who can come to a correct conclusion — they can pick up the pieces of a puzzle and assemble them correctly.
Note the difference. Quick does not automatically mean correct. Rapid learning does not mean that correct conclusions are inevitable. Knowledge synthesis is not the same as wisdom. Nonetheless we heavily value smart people in our society for a very good reason: they are a limited resource.
The core problem with smart people is that they know they’re smart. They tend to get a bit arrogant, a bit sure of their own superiority, and consequently they start to think that they are correct more often than not. And once they are operating on this assumption, they start to rationalize things they believe. That’s where it all goes pear-shaped.
Smart People Can Always Rationalize Their Decisions
A smart person is dangerous because, if they’re smart enough and quick enough, they can almost always develop a rationalization for their actions. And that means they are capable of almost anything.
Rationalization occurs when someone believes something to be true and then tries to justify their position after the fact, rather than using evidence to form a conclusion and then basing their position on that conclusion. None of us wants to admit that we’re wrong. It’s not built into the human condition; we’re social animals, and we gain prestige in society by being right. The different between smart people and everyone else is that smart people can more easily delude themselves into believing that they are right, because they have more brainpower to come up with rationalizations. And because smart people are quite often successful, powerful people, they are often in positions to convince others that they are correct, regardless of actual fact.
When we look at the evil in the world, most of it exists because someone came up with a rationalization that justified it. Those people are the dangerous smart folk. Very few people wake up in the morning with pure villainy in mind; most of the really bad things that happen, happen because someone found a way to justify them.
For a modern example, let’s look at the Holocaust. I know, I know, it always comes back to Hitler. But that’s kind of the point: Hitler didn’t rise to power and commit atrocities because the majority of Germans were black-hearted demons inhabiting the bodies of men, he came to power and committed atrocities because he was able to convince other people that he was correct. He was able to turn an entire nation’s policies to the idea that, if they only got rid of the Jews and other undesirables, they would be strong and able to take their “rightful” place in history.
For an even more modern example, check out the rationales that are swirling around right now to defend the way the US is treating migrant children, and illegal migrants in general. It’s not all that different from Germany in 1936, and it’s smooth, slick, and presented in a convincing tone by people who look like they know what they’re talking about. This narrative has convinced a lot of people — even people who are horrified to be compared to Nazis.
And these are just large-scale examples. On the small scale, you probably know someone who specializes in rationalizing their actions — that person who never seems to take blame, who never seems to recognize their mistakes, who is never able to accept that they are wrong. These are the people who mess up projects, derail relationships, and generally act like entitled assholes. Many of us have been that person at some point. I know I have.
This act of rationalizing everything is how smart people screw up not only their own lives, but the lives of everyone around them. On the large scale and the small scale, this has consequences and survival implications. When smart people screw up, or deliberately engage in rationalization of objectively bad decisions, they can create some of the worst possible outcomes.
The trouble with rationalization is that it’s tough to spot it for what it is. If you don’t know any better, a good rationalization sounds like a good argument; it may be presented like it has all the logical components to make it seem like a good, well-thought-out idea. But there are usually some tell-tale marks on a rationalization, and here are a few of them:
- Tenuous logic: Rationalization occurs when someone jumps to a conclusion and then tries to justify it, so sometimes you can spot a rationalization by the weak links in the chain of logic. If you can spot a hole in the logic that is quite obvious but seems deliberately unacknowledged, you’re probably watching a rationalization in action.¹
- Bigger implications: Because rationalizations work backwards through the logic chain, an objective look at the logic or premises might reveal large implications that the rationalization ignores. If a conclusion seems to have more parts than are being presented, and the person involved doesn’t want to address them, you’re probably watching a rationalization in action.²
- Overly strong conclusions: Rationalizations require supporting logic, but oftentimes any old logic will do. If you see someone give a long, roundabout, qualified argument and then end on an extremely definite conclusion, you’re probably watching a rationalization in action.³
- Lack of consistency: Because rationalizations are developed to justify particular events, the presenter often fails to apply the logic involved in a consistent fashion. If you see an argument being used to justify one thing, but not to justify a different thing where it fits equally well, you’re probably watching a rationalization in action.⁴
- Resorting to a backup: If someone is proven wrong and then immediately offers a different argument to defend their position, they are quite often only using rationalizations. The key point that separates resorting to a backup from defending one’s argument is that the original argument is immediately dropped and subsequently ignored.⁵
- Opposite results: If someone pushes an idea, the idea is demonstrably proven incorrect, and then they continue to defend or promote the idea, they have stopped thinking and started rationalizing.⁶
Some or all of these points might apply to any given rationalization. The key component in all of this, though, is that you have to be alert. It’s not a good idea to take someone else’s conclusions at face value, particularly when someone’s health, well-being, or money are on the line. Keep in mind that the stronger the incentive for someone to defend their position, the more likely it is that they will resort to rationalization.
Surviving Smart People
The key to a great deal of survival in the modern world is to survive the rationalizations of smart people. You have to be able to recognize when a smart person has ceased to make sense and has started rationalizing poor decisions and bad actions. That means that you have to be intelligent. You don’t have to be “smart” to be intelligent. You do have to be grounded, deliberate, careful, and informed:
- Grounded: A grounded person is in touch with reality. They are capable of determining whether an idea accurately reflects the real world, and calling out ideas which aren’t. They use observation and evidence to inform their decisions, not conjecture or ideology, and they know the difference between an expert and a pundit.⁷
- Deliberate: A deliberate person works through things one step at a time. They do not leap to conclusions. They do not accept half-answers. They put the pieces together bit by bit until they have a complete picture.
- Careful: A careful person watches for mistakes. They evaluate actions, statements, and theories based on the proofs behind them, and actively look for errors.
- Informed: An informed person actively searches for information. They do not accept statements at face value, but rather look to build a holistic view of each situation based on multiple sources of information.
Remember that intelligence is always earned. It takes effort. You can be born smart, but you have to work to become intelligent, and you’re not going to be intelligent about every subject.
Once you have gained some intelligence on a particular issue, the next step is to make a choice — what can you do about the fact that a smart person is screwing up? In general you have a few options:
- Do nothing — If the smart person’s rationalizations only affect them, and they’re not harming you, let them crash and burn on their own accord. In any case where they have rationalized an action so much that they’re not listening to reason, sometimes getting involved won’t do anything good for anyone. Sometimes people need to fail.
- Attempt reason — If the smart person is rationalizing but not totally lost to logic, you can try reasoning with them. This usually falls under the heading of constructive criticism, and I have a separate thing on that. This is a path to try with people you want to see succeed.
- Attempt intervention — An intervention is a forceful display of dominance to attempt to change someone’s mind. Classically this is a situation where you and others collectively confront a person to tell them that they are on the wrong path. It’s pretty much a toss-up whether this works, and depends on how much they respect the group. But sometimes people just need to be shocked into the realization that other people disagree with them.
- Attempt a power grab — A power grab is a play you make to acquire control of someone’s assets or base of support. Power grabs are always viewed as hostile actions, and should not be attempted against people you want to like you. An example might be acquiring power of attorney in an effort to preserve family assets from a relative’s missteps, or supplanting someone on a project team at the office.
- Communicate the truth — Oftentimes the only option we have with smart people who are making dangerous rationalizations is to spread the truth. In this case you are not directly opposing the person, but rather addressing a larger audience. The goal is not to sway the smart person to your side, but rather to contain their influence by limiting the spread of their ideas by addressing the audience. Most social media debates take this form.
- Organize opposition — If the smart person is a powerful figure (a business leader, priest, politician, etc.) they are likely not at home to sweet reason or available for interventions. They likely have their own support base to further their cause, and are not in your sphere of influence for a power grab. The only thing left to do, if you feel their choices are directly impacting you, is to organize opposition or join an organization opposing them. This is how you get political parties and organizations.
Ultimately, there are going to be some smart people in your life who are going to make exactly the wrong decision at a key moment. It’s important to recognize the difference between someone who screws up and someone who is rationalizing a poor decision. The key point here is simple: do they accept responsibility? If yes, they may be at home to logic and rational debate. If not, they’re not. It’s usually that simple.
Ending on Introspection
It’s not a lie to say that the modern world requires smart people; we very deliberately foster them, train them, and point them at challenges that face our communities. They’re the necessary starting point of innovation and progress. So it’s very easy to toot your own horn if you’ve come up through the schools at the top of your class and succeeded in life based on natural talent.
But as always, I encourage introspection. Being smart is like being naturally athletic; it’s not having the quality that makes it useful, it’s using it correctly. If you consider yourself a smart person, that means that you take on obligations — you need to second-guess yourself more often. You need to ask other people for their opinions. You need to work on being humble and centered in your life. The alternative is to become a rationalizer, and that doesn’t help anyone.
Smart people developed the scientific method, expounded on philosophies of life, and built the fabric of our society. Smart people also are responsible for tearing down the scientific method, promoting terrible ideologies, and working to harm our society. Sometimes these are the same people. So keep an eye on smart people — especially if you think you are one.
¹The “illegal immigrants bring crime” argument is applicable here: if illegal immigrants are entering the country illegally, it must be because they can’t get in legally and are therefore criminals and spreading crime wherever they land. This argument does not hold up under close logic — US immigration policies and demand for labor are not considered, both of which drive illegal immigration, not to mention that illegal immigrants as a demographic are very law-abiding once they get into the country — and so represents a tenuous logical chain.
²A lot of anti-Muslim arguments follow this pattern, for example. “Every Muslim is against Western civilization, so we need to restrict Muslims to counter radical Islamic terrorism,” sounds plausible to people who aren’t thinking through the implications. There are about 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. If all of them were really dedicated to the downfall of Western civilization, we wouldn’t be worrying about terrorists, we’d be fighting World War III.
³A good example is a discussion with someone in an abusive relationship who’s trying to defend their partner. “He’s not such a bad guy, he once gave to charity and sometimes he pets cats. Plus this one time he said a nice thing to an old woman on the bus. I know he beats me sometimes, but it’s only when I deserve it and he’s such a good worker. He’s really a good person!” None of those arguments make the abuser a good person.
⁴A major example of lack of consistency is Congress’s attitude towards fiscal responsibility. When one party is in power, the opposition always says their fiscal decisions are awful because they’re ignoring the national debt. Then they get power, and suddenly the debt isn’t such a big deal.
⁵A lot of anti-global warming arguments are resorts to backups. “Yeah, the planet is warming, and yeah the CO2 emissions are really high, but didn’t you know we’re moving closer to the sun? And even when we aren’t, CO2 emissions help plants!”
⁶Again with fiscal policy, this whole idea that if you lower taxes the resulting economic upswing will make up for the revenue loss is one giant example of opposite results. We all ought to have figured out long ago that this doesn’t work and isn’t backed by any evidence. Therefore any policy which relies on this kind of voodoo economic thinking is purely employing rationalization.
⁷An expert is someone who has specific training in their field, has spent their career working in that field, and is respected in that field by their peers. A pundit is a TV or radio personality who peddles opinions, and who knows how to sound like they’re intelligent without actually being an expert.