Whenever I had occasion to tell someone I was writing a book on stupidity, the reaction was invariably the samea delayed smile topped off by a slightly nervous laugh. This provided nearly daily confirmation that I was dealing with a taboo topic. There is something shameful about stupidity, and mentioning it in polite company in an inoffensive way was commonly regarded as an awkward form of comic relief. Beyond that, there was often an expression of amused interest that such an off-color topic would merit serious attention.
Originally, the attention wasn't supposed to be so serious. The book was to be light and jocular. It took on more of a serious tone as I came to realize how incredibly important stupidity is. It can be amusing; it certainly is interesting; but whether or not we can afford to continue indulging in our traditional blundering ways is very much in doubt. Stupidity is simply too important to be dismissed as some tragicomic source of humor. Above all, this is a book about people, and it presumes to say something profound about what being human means.
Almost everyone who knows me was implicitly if not too diplomatically appreciative of the fact that I was undertaking the task of explaining stupidity to the literate world. Who better qualified than Ian experienced expert on the topic. In personal, academic and business matters, stupidity has bedeviled my best efforts for years. There is no point denying the obvious: I have a deep, abiding interest in the topic.
Haunting me almost daily during the writing of this book have been vivid memories of my most stupid failures. Again and again I have replayed my most grievous mistakes. Why did I trust her? Why did I believe him? Why didn't I speak up? Why didn't I shut up? None of these personal experiences appears on the following pages even in an indirect sense. All examples presented are drawn from the impersonal public record. However, my motivation was intensely personal. If this book can help save anyone the bewildering confusion I have suffered while trying to make some kind of sense out of what people say and do, then the effort to write it will not have been wasted. My conclusions that not only do things not make sense but that they really should not be expected to may be incorrect, but I do feel compelled to offer these comments in the hope that they will at least generate some serious interest in bridging the sciences and the humanities.
Please bear in mind that the focus of the book is not on the individual elements discussedthe schema, neurotic paradox, positive feedback system, etcbut on the way they work to produce a dysfunctional whole. In this respect, I presume to have unified psychology by showing how the various fields of perception, cognition, learning, etc. relate to each other.
As for the structure of the book, only a few passing remarks are needed. Chapter I is a general overview, with the basic dimensions laid out and basic contentions, which are developed in following chapters, presented for initial consideration. If Chapter I skips a bit from one point to the next, Chapter II is loaded with filler material which should help clarify my case. Perhaps it should have been called "Definitions and Qualifications", as it really is a collection of many ideas and observations which simply must be presented as a matter of laying the groundwork for the arguments that follow.
Chapter III has very little to do directly with stupidity: It is a presentation of the "Schema" as a functional psychic mechanism. This material is presented because one must understand how the schema helps us adapt in order to appreciate how it contributes to maladaptation, which is the subject matter of Chapter IV. Chapter V is a consideration of stupidity in a cultural context. Chapters VI, VII, and VIII deal with stupidity past, present and future respectively.
Although the comments and conclusions presented herein are all very much my own, debts of gratitude are owed to several people who helped along the way. Special thanks go to C. O. Ingamells, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Jamaica, for his faithful and impassioned correspondence on stupidity during the early stages of this book's development. He provided an outline which, while superseded, helped me attain an appreciation for the multifaceted approach needed to make a book. Gratitude is also extended to Mr. William H. McNeil, historian and author. He is one of those rare breeds in the establishment who is self-assured enough to appreciate offbeat ideas. His suggestions that I generally shape up were not always heeded, but they did sober my attitude toward the task at hand.
Finally, respectful gratitude is offered to the resource librarians in Greenport, New York and at Holiday Park in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Over an extended period of time, we played a real life version of "Trivial Pursuit". I was trivial; they pursued, invariably with thorough and satisfying results. There is too little good said in the world, so let it be said of them: They were helpful, they were professional, and they cared.
JFW Orient, NY Oct. 1986.