Review: The Psychology of Stupidity

A friend recently asked me to review Jean-Francois Marmion’s book, The Psychology of Stupidity, for her radio show Book Choice (that’s the podcast link – my bit starts at 39m50s, and it is also embedded below).

As it happened, I was reading the book in any case, so happily agreed to provide the requested 3 minutes of audio commentary. For those who prefer reading to listening, the (fuller) text is posted after the audio.

Audio clip of a review of “The Psychology of Stupidity”.

Jean-Francois Marmion is a French psychologist who published Psychologie de la connerie in 2018, and the book is now available in English translation (Penguin Books, 2020).

A title like The Psychology of Stupidity already rings warning bells in its presumptive smugness. And, it turns out that much of what is described as “stupidity” here is in fact ordinary cognitive biases that we are all guilty of, here described by authors who write as if they are invulnerable to these flaws themselves.

The book is a thinly-disguised broadside against people who don’t share the same intellectual bent as the editor (and many of the authors), and particularly against Trump supporters (a recurring theme).

And while I don’t agree with the conclusions reached by Trump supporters, calling them things like “stupid” is unlikely to make any of them question those conclusions, or even be open to hearing the arguments presented in this book.

The book is terribly edited. It has no flow or coherence, moving from chapters abusing the “stupid”, to reflections on cognition and human psychology, with no clear linkages between the two.

I absolutely hated it, partly because I can see why some people will love it. And, those people are exactly the ones who should not have their polarised “idiots vs. the rest of us” thinking reinforced in this way.

There’s enough of a veneer of intellectual sophistication in the book that those who want to be uncharitable towards other people’s views will be able to regard it as academic support for caricaturing opponents, rather than engaging with them.

It’s a book borne out of a time and culture in which a huckster like Jordan Peterson is regarded as an intellectual, and in which people who are allowed to do dangerous things like drive cars and own guns feel so alienated and insulted by a variously-defined “elite” that they end up electing Donald Trump as US President.

The book is really just strange, quite madly incoherent, and sometimes quite uncomfortable to read because of its abusive tone. Furthermore, some of the contributions get things wrong on occasion, for example in how they reinforce common misunderstandings of psychological research (such as the Dunning-Kruger effect), and then, the book is internally inconsistent in that other contributions get those same things right.

Then, alongside the smug and sneering essays discussing “stupidity”, the book also features some restrained and more intellectual contributions from authors like Daniel Kahneman, Antonio Damasio, and Alison Gopnik.

Their inclusion doesn’t help to address the main problem, namely that the concepts in psychology and critical thinking presented here are framed as being useful mostly to identify the “stupid”, so the book ends up being a whirlwind tour of theory that is constructed in such a way that it won’t teach people much, and will largely serve to confirm existing biases.

For the most part, the book seems to be a vanity project for Jean-Francois Marmion, who is the author of around a third of the essays it contains.

A summary of my review is that I hate it, because it’s a terrible book that addresses important topics that deserve more serious attention, and because many people might love it – which is part of the problem, in that they will do so because it gives them license to be smug.

And because the book is neither intellectually challenging, nor entirely accurate with regard to theory, and not motivated by a desire to improve public reasoning or discourse, rather than to simply belittle those who don’t conform to a certain intellectual type.

Furthermore, I can’t understand why people such as Kahneman agreed to contribute to this. It’s not going to teach curious and impartial readers much, and because of its contemptuous approach to people who ostensibly are “stupid”, I imagine many readers won’t even finish it.

Its main outcome will be to provide further one-liners and supposed logical refutations for the sorts of people who spend their time on social media denouncing bogeymen like wokeness, critical race theory or Cultural Marxism. But it won’t make anyone think, which is, ultimately, a key reason for the existence of a non-fiction book.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.