Why do we let stupid people make important decisions?

OK, rant mode active, constructively I hope. More and more of my time seems to be wasted by other people’s stupidity, and since life is short and time limited, it annoys me. I think it is getting worse and is undermining what could otherwise be a very pleasant life. We all experience lots of things every day where someone has been empowered to make decisions who really shouldn’t have been, due to either incompetence, bias or even malice. Things often seem to be going backwards, in spite of access to more wealth and better technology. It is one step forwards and one back.

One aspect of the problem is the seemingly ubiquitous replacement of common sense by sets of petty rules and box-ticking, possibly to avoid litigation. Too many abide by rules instead of using their own judgement, and it costs us all dearly in wasted time, sorting out the mess. In an age where people should really be trying to differentiate themselves from machines, it seems many want to behave like robots and discard their human advantages. What should be their ability to judge individual situations on their merits is often discarded. Consequently, their behaviour falls far below a standard that should reasonably be expected, and in doing  so they hold everyone back and prevent quality of life from reaching its full potential. The state is certainly one of the guilty parties here, disincentivising personal initiative and punishing free thinking.

It isn’t just in authority that people just don’t seem to activate their brains a lot of the time though. It applies in shopping and food preparation, where  decades of exposure to bad programming and examples from  advertising, health scares and sell-by dates appears to have brain damaged us and removed much of our natural ability to discern what is good for us or what is safe to eat.

And in an age where we know is quite some detail how the universe works from a physics and chemistry perspective, we know surprisingly little about some of the really important stuff. Surely after 150,000 years, we should have figured out how to bring up kids and educate them, but people still disagree passionately in these areas. Where is all the accumulated wisdom gone? In areas like science, knowledge builds up over time. But not here, where it is really important.

But we are collectively dumb too. There have always been smart people and less smart people, nice people and not so nice. But we often give decision-making powers to idiots instead of ensuring that those things that affect us are designed or decided by people with at least a modicum of competence and sound judgement. Why? When people get to a point where they can do damage with their decisions, we really ought to make sure they are competent beyond the point of simply ticking boxes and blindly following instructions. But we don’t. We just put up with the consequences and occasionally moan.

Planners especially seem unable to learn from their mistakes. For example, in the last few years, we have seen a huge rise in the numbers of traffic lights, in many cases where it was obvious to everyone except the planners that they would make things worse. The planners seemed surprised that they didn’t make things better, and that turning them off temporarily actually improves traffic flows again. Now they will remove many of them again. Money was wasted, along with countless hours of people’s time, and huge frustration resulted, because the wrong people were empowered. And this isn’t the first time planners have collectively made such mistakes, they did it all before with speed bumps, chicanes and other ‘traffic calming’ measures. They make major errors again and again. We all suffer as a result, but no-one ever gets punished for it. Town and road planning sometimes seems to be staffed entirely by idiots, generation after generation. And it certainly isn’t the case that no-one else could do any better. Planners cause problems that almost anyone living in the area would have expected immediately and yet  large amounts of money are wasted on their ideas, time after time. Estates are built that provide little or no infrastructure, expensive ornaments are bought that almost no-one likes, apartment blocks need demolished because no-one wants to live there, cinemas open and close again because they were built in the wrong place. Planning is a huge concentration of applied idiocy. We can’t expect everyone to be geniuses, but we shouldn’t put people in important roles if they aren’t capable enough to do them properly. Doing so is collective stupidity.

Even the private sector is affected, even though stupidity reduces profits, and it isn’t for lack for examples of good practice. Companies seem actively to introduce stupidity. We see many companies annoying their core customers again and again by trying to mislead them with ‘up to’ offers, misleading bulk buy pricing, auto-renew contracts, and deliberately misleading advertising. Many quite deliberately employ obnoxious people on customer service desks who perhaps save pennies for the company by refusing to help at a much greater subsequent cost in lost business. Whatever short term gains any of these achieve are far outweighed by the loss of long term revenue, since annoyed customers will soon look for competitors to move to, taking their cash elsewhere.

I will stop the list here, otherwise it could fill a book easily. We are all familiar with the high level of stupidity ingrained in things we encounter everyday, even though mentioning such daily things quickly gets you grumpy old man status.

The problem isn’t that everyone is stupid – just that more stupid people are allowed to make the decisions now. There always have been stupid people, but we didn’t always put them in charge. In some countries even today, important decisions seem to be made by relatively smart people. And in terms of overall level of stupidity, it sadly does appear to be the case that people are getting worse. More people seem willing now to abide by silly, petty or abitrary rules as if there is some merit in doing so, and more willing to abdicate any personal thinking in favour of ticking boxes and following official guidelines without any use of discretion or judgement. In some cases, it is almost a religion substitute, achieving a sense of being holy by making sure you follow all the rules rigidly, regardless of any sense. In many cases, a moment’s thought would indicate that the rule should not be applied in that situation, or should be interpreted differently. That’s what I really mean by stupid (albeit a bit late to define it), steadfast refusal to apply even a modicum of intelligence to a situation. In a few cases, the person may not have the raw intelligence, but usually they have, they just don’t bother to use it.

If it is true that society as a whole is getting worse, the future will be terrible, in spite of any scientific and technology advances. Then, other people will always mess it up, however good it could be. But somehow we must escape the spiral into such a state.

Of course, most people have observed these same issues from time to time, even if they don’t bother to blog about them. They are common conversation material. Some people blame the education system, others blame the nanny state, others modern lifestyle. Human nature is partly to blame, and makes its presence felt via all these routes. When people are given an easy path, they tend to take it. If the state provides simple rules and financial incentives to tick appropriate boxes, while punishing mistakes, then personal initiative is deterred. If driving carelessly and inconsiderately but staying below a speed limit leaves you unscathed, whereas briefly exceeding what may well be too low a speed limit is punished more severely than shoplifting, then it is no great surprise that roads are populated by inconsiderate and incompetent drivers who stick to speed limits but cause endless congestion, traffic jams and accidents.

Education too has become very much more a process of learning to tick boxes. Having to push kids through exams that confirm to a rigid syllabus has squeezed out much of the free thinking that society ultimately depends on. Fixed knowledge is already documented well and easily accessible by machine based intelligence. We don’t need people to do work that depends on existing knowledge, computers and robots can do it. We need people who can go easily beyond what they have been told, or we will cease to be able to add real value to anything, which of course is the whole basis of any economy. Again offering rewards for sticking to rules and punishments for free thinking runs counter to this need. Education needs to move away from the rigid syllabus and once again development of thinking skills.

But the core issue is putting people in charge who are not suited to such positions. Part of this is self selection, where people go for jobs that they want to do, even if they are not suited to them, (and may even know they aren’t) and somehow they get through the selection procedure. Part is deliberate placing for party political reasons, even when it is known that the person is unsuitable. Part of the cause of that is poor interviewing, part is luck. The skills needed to win in interviews are not always, or even often, the same as those required to do the job. Appearance and interpersonal skills play too large a part in recruitment, at the expense of other areas of competence. And part is being lucky enough to get asked questions that suit you better then those given to the competitors – luck plays a much bigger part in getting to the top of an organisation than people give credit for. If the timing of the vacancy being advertised means you are up against weaker opponents, you are more likely to get through. And differences between competitors may be very small so tiny differences in interview might make a big career difference. So, given the high degree of randomness and scope for errors built in to such a system, it is sometimes the case that some people get to the top even when there are far more able people in the organisation. So we end up sometimes with less able people in power. So part of the problem is deliberate misplacement, some is luck, some poor judgement or other errors.

But it doesn’t even need these problems. Organisations tend to promote people who think like those above them – people who fit the mould. Once a bias for a particular kind of person or mindset exists in an organisation, it tends to be reinforced, as years of ongoing natural wastage and selection gradually replaces those who don’t fit it. Boards are notoriously bad at this, picking new members just like themselves even when it is obvious that new challenges need new thinking. Once again, we end up with people unsuited to the job in hand, but who accumulate others around them equally unsuited to their roles too.

In order to break the mould, to get to a state of competence, the cycle of reinforcement of poor performance has to be broken. This cannot be implemented by existing structures which have been proven not to work, it has to come from outside, either by regulation or replacement of an entire system.

Maybe we need to end the long term employment expectations we tend to use today. It is often very hard to get rid of someone from a job even if they are obviously unsuited to it. Fixing that would enable a feedback mechanism that could actually work, based on feedback. But feedback from whom? Customer, end users, other stakeholders? It isn’t going to be easy fixing it. We are in a real mess and it will be hard to find solutions that will work, but before we can even start to do that, we need to recognise the problem is genuine and not just a topic for discussion in pubs. I am not sure we are even close to that yet.

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5 responses to “Why do we let stupid people make important decisions?

  1. I agree entirely with what you have written here. Perhaps we are both Grumpy Old Men? As an ex local authority worker I can confirm everything you say above. The place was riddled with people who were shockingly bad at actually doing anything other than impressing folk at meetings. As a creative technical thinker (Software Engineer) I guess I was secretly despised because I speak my mind and believe in telling people news, bad or not because information allows managers to make more accurate decisions. However, I didn’t realise that they didn’t want me telling them the truth about this or that project. They only wanted good news regardless of how true it was! Needless to say I was shunted off into a backwater where they tried to shove me into an infrastructure role. Yes, that is as much as they knew about what I actually do! Either stupidity or malice on their part. I think the latter to be honest…

    Don’t get me started about Town Planners and the like…

  2. Pingback: Capitalism 2.0 | Your guide to the future

  3. Starts in the Forces tends to get out of hand in civvy street.

  4. Every word you’ve written is true, and if the internet was big enough, you could fill it with examples. In the words of Forrest: Stupid is as stupid does.

  5. Hello, first of all, congratulations for such a well and thoroughly written article, secondly I have to abide with your conclussions. As I was reading your article made me remember of my mother’s “advices”, she has always been quite the busybody. -” I heard that in the radio” , -”Somebody told me that”, and “son” on (as fast as i got my own sources of information i implated myself fancy hearing filters), despite she has no medical degree or any titulation that justifies such inmense unproved wisdom. It’s not by chance I come up with this analogy, since human behavior has always been a gregarious one, and (correct me if i’m wrong here) other idiot errors were done by erstwhile idiots in our past history. Family bonds, jerarchy based on power alone, and other human relations will always empower idiots up, among other not so bad things, because idiots are useful for the manipulators, and maybe sometimes for society itself.

    I think our ship is making a 180º change of direction, only that the ship weights 6 E+24 Kg, and oh yes, many parts are going to crumble.

    Those were my little two cents, on the other hand i think that you are completely right at your final point, the system is eating itself, we are killing the golden egg chicken, free thinking, skepticism, and many people stop learning, thinking and listening as long as they have their paycheck by the end of the month.

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