The Route of our Discontent

“There is a considerable overlap between the intelligence of the smartest bears and the dumbest tourists” – US National Park scientist, when asked why it was so extremely difficult to design bear-proof rubbish bins.

The Question

In the last post the question was asked, “How do we attempt to reach ‘understanding’?” especially when we live in so many different but culturally acceptable ‘Understanding Bubbles.’  Perhaps a more realistic form of the question should be, “When we realize there’s ‘misunderstanding,’ why do we immediately stop and get argumentative and self-defensive?”

The original question was posed with respect to an apparent General Behavior Pattern, and how we got to the point of, and continue to participate in, our increasingly polarized political playing field.  This, it seems, is just one particularly polarized and very active bubble of many in our lives.  To try and answer all of this we need to dig a bit deeper.

Be warned, however, that doing this no doubt will open a large can of ‘stuff,’ largely composed of a number of supposed ‘truths’ which will turn out to be more or less “‘politically correct assumptions’ based on lots of incomplete information.”

It turns out there is a lot of incomplete information, but we already knew this (here).  Let’s begin, but this time really at the beginning with a few needed word clarifications.

Part 1: Beginnings


Many often ask, “Why do smart people do dumb things?” which, in most circumstances, seems like a very legitimate question.  But it is misleading and itself seems to need to be tweaked a bit, especially certain words. Let’s poke this bear and see what we come up with.

Intelligence – the mental capability “to acquire and apply knowledge and skills” – Oxford Dictionary.

Intelligent – the characteristic or attribute of possessing said Intelligence.

Stupid – having or showing a great lack of said Intelligence or common sense – also Oxford Dictionary.

Smart – actually observably demonstrating the use of said Intelligence in decisions and actions.

Dumb – temporarily unable or unwilling to speak, as in, ‘struck dumb.’

Oops, here’s a rub: colloquially speaking, dumb is more often used to mean ‘stupid’ and imply a near complete lack of Intelligence as opposed to only temporarily failing to use it.  There is, therefore, often umbrage and misunderstanding when it is used.  What we need to use is,

‘_______’ – temporarily failing to use one’s Intelligence.

And here’s the next rub: There is no word that specifically means this.  As a consequence, there is a grey area where we use an existing word to mean ‘a temporary loss,’ as in, “That was a stupid/dumb idea.”  We need one or possibly two words.  I propose,

Lazy or Complacent – as in “temporarily pleased with but failing to use one or more of one’s given abilities.”  This would then include said Intelligence.

So, our question above could now be more appropriately rephrased,

“Why do intelligent people do stupid things?”  Which is still a very good question.

It is particularly applicable in this currently repeating scenario,

Skeletons Exit Closet| Unwise social media posts have been destroying fledgling political candidates’ careers for almost a decade now, but the evidence in Britain is that the lesson has yet to have been learned.

While we blindly assume our politicians are smart, one wonders if they actually are.

And our opening quote would then be better phrased,

“There is a considerable overlap between the intelligence of the smartest bears and the laziest tourists.”

Which, as we will later see, also remains a rather perceptive observation.

Having chosen to believe that we are among the most intelligent creatures on earth, let’s look at the latest in what “Intelligence” means.

Chapter 1: Intelligence

Where does Intelligence come from, and what actually constitutes our human Intelligence?

As opposed to hair and eye color and other genetic characteristics, Intelligence is not inherited.  Something inherited is determined primarily by one’s genes. However, and this is a big but not normally recognized different fact: Intelligence is heritable.  This means that there is some parental genetic contribution (not well understood), but that additional factors including environment (that is, family upbringing, sub-cultural influences, education, nutrition, etc.) have an influence in developing or slowing its development.  Research shows that “higher-level” cognitive functions, including problem-solving and abstract thought, are about 47% heritable (a near 50/50 mix of genes and environment).  Intelligence, then, can be influenced and developed, with environments being a main contributor.

Most of us are familiar with the dreaded measure called IQ, the single number that somehow is used to completely, and often inadequately and permanently, define us.  What began as a tool in the early 20th century to help identify recruits’ abilities for the military ended up almost defining everyone’s life.  We realize now that it takes a great deal of work to all but eliminate cultural biases from the tests, but we are still shackled with this legacy single number to describe a very complex human being.

In reality we possess multiple intelligences, a number of which are non-overlapping.  The latest theory of multiple intelligences (here) describes eight abilities.  These can be arranged around a wheel,

With this framework one can see that a person can be mathematically gifted but not be able to bang a pot rhythmically, possess superb verbal descriptive abilities but not be able to balance a bank account statement, or be musically creative but not get along with people.  (Under another terminology, Emotional Intelligence or EQ, appears to be a combination of both Intrapersonal and Interpersonal intelligences.)  A person can have varying abilities in each of these eight, which means creating an ‘intelligence profile’ as a single number can be wholly misleading.  And yet, we still do it.

What does this have to do with anything?  Well, besides being the basis on which we build an education system (the only known species to do so), it has broader social impact.  Read on, but have patience.

Chapter 2: Preferred Associations

We are a social species that congregates not only by genetic heritage but also in groups of similar experiences, interests, values, and abilities.  To a degree this represents associating with those people with whom we have a good possibility of sharing positive emotional experiences.  Remember, emotions are what motivate our lives (here). A good analogy is an Elephant (our emotions) and its Rider (our rationality).  The Rider tries to control the Elephant, but sometimes the Elephant wins (The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt).

We organize our lives (and behaviors) to maximize the experience of these positive emotions.

It makes sense that associations that follow along lines of our abilities (which are coupled with our interests) also line up with our individual multiple intelligences.  They form a good part of our Comfort Bubbles, and can often be identical to our Dunbar Bubbles, or Groups – all associations that help create an environment that reinforces our positive emotional experiences.

Chapter 3: Behaviors within Bubbles

There are some behavioral characteristics that appear highly correlated with increasing intelligences (Note: that is intentionally plural here so as to refer to any/all of the eight abilities indicated above.)  Identified by a Research Professor in Cognitive Psychology, these behaviors often include,

    • An appetite for information and knowledge;
    • An ability to quickly understand a situation;
    • Identifying interesting implications and consequences of a situation;
    • Displaying rapid perception, strong learning capacity and problem-solving skills;
    • A broad scope/depth of knowledge;
    • The ability to perceive and appreciate talents and accomplishments of others.

Imagine how a burgeoning ballerina interacts in a class with a master teacher; imagine how you will expect your surgeon to have interacted with teaching surgeons in the operating room while in medical school – even though neither may be able to balance a checkbook or write a work of fiction. Different intelligences, but similar engagement within specific environments.

Coupled with the above behaviors can often be another unusual characteristic:

The ability to hold several possible answers to a given question (or alternatives to a situation) without narrowing down to one answer prematurely.

This is the ability to deliberately think “Yes, And…” as opposed to quickly defaulting to “Either/Or,” something we’ve discussed earlier.  This is known as a high tolerance for ambiguity, and correlates with recognizing that there is always Missing Information.  Think back on the attentiveness of our ballerina and surgeon.

These behaviors are strong indicators, but they neither exclusively nor always appear together.  They are just general trends (remember, some generalizations, like puns, can be good and useful things).

Sidebar: Not satisfied with what a suspect test indicates your IQ is (if indeed anyone ever told you)?  Here’s a suggestion.  First, recall from studies on emotion (here) that voluntarily assuming the appearance of an emotion can actually bring on the physiological experience of the emotion.  So, why not try to practice some of the above behavioral attributes?  I suspect, hypothetically, that this can have an impact on how you think, how you behave, and how you begin to feel smarter.  And that, as a possible consequence, you then become perceived as being smarter.  Which apparently is what Intelligence is.

Chapter 4: Behaviors within Strongholds

From what we observe of human behavior over the course of history, very few if any of the characteristic behaviors listed above (the Behaviors within Bubbles) are observed in people interacting with others outside their own Strongholds.

This does not imply anything about their actual competences in any of the multiple intelligences.  It probably says more about their being lazy, complacent, angry and/or defensive within their Strongholds.

What it does suggest is that they possess a strongly defined common values profile, developed along the lines of Moral Foundations Theory, which has been forged together with their comrades while constructing their Stronghold.  And they defend it.

Chapter 5: Where We Recognize The General Behavior Pattern, Again

The General Behavior Pattern seems to show up across the board whenever we get two or more people trying to discuss one (or fewer) life topics.  Just fill in the blanks,

We choose to believe by faith that _________________________.  We can support this by ________________________________________.  This is our position.

It starts this way, and if parties are aligned in belief the discussion continues with tea and biscuits.

If, however, there are strong alternative viewpoints and/or “facts,” it continues along a different trajectory,

We are so convinced and so affirmed in this belief that we reject all “information” from outside it.  We will build up our position and defense (the Stronghold) to prevent any further incursions.  And we will take action if necessary to further our position.

We end up with a standoff or battle lines.  Either way, it’s polarized with anger as the dominant emotion.  It’s the consequence of creating Bubbles and building Strongholds.

What happened to bring us to this?  (And what do we do about it?)

Part 2: What Did We Do, or Not Do,To Deserve This?

Somehow between birth and adulthood, something happened.

We recognize (or claim that) Homo Sapiens is one of if not the most Intelligent species on Earth.  We are also recognized to be one of few species whose offspring do not mature into survivable adults until years after birth.  We take nearly twice as long or longer than other primates to mature to self-sufficiency, to become mature physically, emotionally, cognitively (in each of the multiple intelligences), and spiritually.

What did we develop to assist this slow maturation in these areas, especially the multiple intelligences, the sole species to do so?


And what has happened to derail or flub up development in these same areas?

Education … or at least how we have developed it since the ancient Greeks and after Bismarck decided that an educated populace was the secret to a successful and stable nation.

Chapter 1: The Tangible What’s

Once Upon A Time, many years ago, education was primarily focused on the three R’s: Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic.  We had to start somewhere.  This was fine as we progressed through seasons where education ended at the 8th grade (agricultural society; few newspapers), and later at 12th grade (more manufacturing based; with radio and television).  Now we have the expectation if not pressure for everyone to obtain a college education. As a result, a lot of people are going to college and taking on a lot of debt just because that’s what they’re supposed to do, assuming but not truly understanding what they’re supposed to get out of it.

“In an age of information overload, kids need more than the ability to recall facts and parrot popular arguments.  More important is their ability to wade through noise, discern facts, analyze perspectives, and develop their own expertise,” Remembering Lauren Brown (Quartz Daily Brief, November 2, 2019).

Unfortunately, this traditional form of education has a hidden weakness. One cannot extend the same approach for more years and expect exceptionally different outcomes. (Remember, “If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always gotten (here).)

The following thoughts dig a bit deeper than I think most will recognize. And judging by current outcomes and discussions, that’s most everyone.

A clue to the problem is actually hidden in the definition of Intelligence above,

“The mental capability “to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.”“

Typical education focused on ‘stuff’ in one way or another.  The ancient Greeks discussed it face-to-face as written materials were nearly nonexistent.  After Gutenberg, printed materials were still scarce and whatever education was done was accomplished in more face-to-faces (lecture) situations.  We still follow that trend today.

Reading was needed in order to have everyone reach common agreement on the ‘stuff’ in books or other forms of printed communication.  Writing was needed in order to communicate ‘stuff’ in a durable form to someone else.  And arithmetic was needed to count and manage a life dependent upon exchange transactions of material ‘stuff.’

A sketch from an earlier post might be helpful here, with ‘stuff’ now indicated by the word data, of which there is a lot,

Education focused on selecting just a part of all the ‘stuff’ in a particular topic (the ‘filtering’ that the school, teacher, or text author performed), and presenting this ‘information’ to students in an ‘organized’ way (the teaching or lecturing).  What “stuff” was presented was deemed ‘Knowledge.’  While we looked for so-called “critical thinking” abilities, it was still about the “stuff.”  It was how we were taught to think – along the “Lower Education” Red Line.

We presumed ‘Understanding’ was reached if this ‘Knowledge’ was played back successfully via testing.  Grade after grade after grade.

The procedure was applied to everyone in the grade.  Occasionally a teacher would recognize that a student was capable of more and took extra measures.  The same would happen for students who struggled.

But the net result that was reinforced was, “Memorize ‘stuff’ and play it back.”  Research has subsequently shown that over 50% of what was ‘learned’ can be lost/forgotten within days, and over 90% lost within weeks.  Yet this has become our limited understanding of ‘Knowledge.’

When teaching college, my classrooms always had about 50% of the students who were locked into the Memorize and Play Back mode based upon their K-12 experiences.  Some in every class requested a “Study Guide” of exactly what would be on the tests (I made a list of chapter subheadings.  They were oblivious but happy).  I also experienced a smaller percentage of students who would state, “Why do I have to study and learn this, I’ll never use it.”

The broader issue became clear.  While there is indeed a need for certain information to be memorized (like the alphabet and addition and multiplication tables, for example), more important objectives were, for various reasons, missing.  This Lower Education approach was not wrong; it was just incomplete.  Some reasons for this could be due to variations in student’s inherent capabilities, their non-education environments, their expectations and/or ‘goals,’ as well as with teachers’ and the system’s expectations and ‘goals.’

Because certain objectives were missing, the various abilities of every student’s multiple intelligences were (are) going underdeveloped.  And for quite a few students the education environment helped de-emphasized (taught out/squashed) their intrinsic motivation, their curiosity, and their self-actualization.  Which is unfortunate because research indicates that highly motivated kids have a greater advantage in life than kids with a high IQ (here).

We ended up generating a self-fulfilling prophecy,

If you keep teaching young dogs, “You can’t teach old dogs new tricks,” they’ll be convinced of it before they’re old.

Chapter 2: The Intangible How’s

Knowledge, we must realize, includes much more than data, facts and skills. Look at this sketch, also from an earlier post,

I would propose that the often missing component, the important and key intangible objectives to learn and develop are the “Higher Education” Processes along the Green Line above, the “How’s” of taking all the ‘stuff’ in the world and narrowing it down to something useful,

Filter, then Organize, then Process, then Practice, Apply, Use.

One would hope that non-educational environments (family, subculture, community) would contribute to development along the Green Line (after all, it’s heritable).  But if these environments do not already possess it, recognize it, and encourage it, it will be difficult.  John Maxwell’s “Law of the Lid” (The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership) says that if you are only a 5 as a leader on a scale of 1-10, you will only be able to develop another leader to the same level 5, perhaps a 6.  You will not be able to raise up a level 9 or a 10 leader.  The same is practically true for the Green Line; development has to come from a different environment, one that possesses it, recognizes it, and develops it.  That environment, we thought and still think, should be education.  But, as above, it currently is not wrong, just in most instances incomplete.

Chapter 3: Back to the Question

Now we are at a place where we can revisit our earlier question, “How do we attempt to reach ‘understanding’?”

I referred to the above as Processes because, for example, it is not enough to learn filter (i.e., Google), but to learn the “Higher” process of finding the right filter and applying it (i.e., asking Google the right question formed the best way).  It is not enough to learn one form of organizing, but to recognize the process of organizing and reorganizing may lead to a breakthrough.  It asks, “Does this particular form of organization provide an explanation for where we started; what was?  Is it useful to try and put into practice and predict what will be?”  Even better, did the successful process of applying the steps in some arena end up reinforcing the overall process approach itself, so that it could be transferred and applied in unrelated areas?

If not, we’re just back to just memorizing one approach, a recipe, which can be forgotten quickly.  And we end up with 43% of college graduates that work in under-paying jobs that don’t require a degree (here) because they paid a lot of money to Memorize and Play Back and didn’t develop the higher-level skills.  Or resisted learning them, because they didn’t “know.”

Chapter 4: The Other How

Besides the What’s and Intangible How’s above there is the Other How, part of a new non-educational cultural environment.  Where once the ancient Greeks sat together in small groups and talked, where higher education became based upon the original face-to-face tutor concept from the Middle Ages that became the modern University (ca. 1100s), and K-12 education developed from that into the classroom with teacher, each environment was characterized by a teacher-coach-mentor present to handle discussion and feedback.

With the advent of radio and television we experienced news and information filtered most often by professionals who had established and depended upon their credibility and trust.

But with the development of the Internet and social media, there is no longer any adequate filtering, especially for the majority of the population who hadn’t learned proper filtering in the first place.

The Internet speeded up the flow of unfiltered information.  With no instinct or useable skills for filtering, we become complacent and only accept what agrees with our Bubble or Stronghold, continue to feed the echo chamber and reject in anger what and who lies outside it. A newly publish analysis following along the same lines is, The Dark Psychology of Social Media.

In other words, we have led ourselves into our partisan politics and Strongholds, whatever the specific agenda, over the course of time by being lazy and creating justifications for these Strongholds, justifications which are now being amplified by Internet “flooding” and the lack of a “filtering infrastructure” (and mindset).

These, I think, are major factors in how we got here, along the Route of our Discontent, to The Root of our Politics

By staking a claim to exercise our democratic right to form an opinion but ignoring a greater responsibility when expressing it unfiltered, we fail to recognize a huge consequence: American democracy is under siege from many quarters.  Recent articles include Democracy is faltering, America is Living James Madison’s Nightmare, and most recently, How America Ends.

Beside ourselves, additional contributors to this vicious cycle are: Politicians and their rhetoric.  Why does this cycle continue?  Possibly for two reasons.  First, recall the updated saying,

People who can, Do;
People who can’t, Teach;
People who can’t teach, go into Administration;
People who can’t administer, go into Politics.

Basically, it leads us to ask a question about them: are they ‘stupid’ (lacking Intelligence), or just ‘lazy and complacent’ (failing to use it). Or perhaps it’s more subtle for a second reason: maybe they are just ‘smart’ enough to believe all the people they are trying to influence for their Stronghold (you and me) are just more lazy and complacent than they are.

Chapter 5: Course Corrections – What Can We Do About It?

We have to start somewhere and not wait, especially for politicians.  First, we as individuals have to recognize and accept the new nature of information in today’s world.  More is not better.  Next, also as individuals, we can intentionally choose to change the way we think and learn and become adept in the above Processes in our areas of strength, create an expectation for them in our non-educational environments (i.e., homes, sub-cultures), and pass it to others.  Then we can all more readily navigate a changing world and its changing expectations.  Consider starting to think that

    • Accepting that the world is not Zero-Sum is a great leap forward;
    • Learning that these four Process steps exist is also a great leap forward;
    • Studying science and math (STEM) helps to see the Processes at work, especially where they lead to (typically) only one answer; but that
    • Studying all branches of Liberal Arts is needed to expose us to a world in which there is rarely only one answer,
      • Because now there are Homo Sapiens involved. How did people in history think, plan, and navigate?
      • Because embedded in History are not only the What’s, but more importantly, the How’s – what worked and what didn’t.
    • Learning to practice these processes is Learning How To Learn How To Learn (also possibly known as Figuring Out How To Figure Out How To Figure It Out);
    • Getting comfortable with these processes makes life one long graduate school, in which learning becomes a life long activity, not a painful workout;
    • Change becomes a common occurrence that we manage for personal, social and cultural growth, not something that we have to endure;
    • We can navigate the changing terrain along life’s journey, by accepting our Bubbles as just a temporary campsite and not stopping to build Strongholds short of the goal.

But if there’s doubt it can be done on our own, take hope,

4,000 wild black bears
Sometimes living in a mountain town means nature comes to your street in the form of a 200-pound hungry bear drawn to the smells of garbage and birdseed.  Asheville, North Carolina’s human population has grown nearly 40 percent in the past two decades, but long-term conservation efforts have also increased the wild black bear population to more than 4,000 in the surrounding mountain region.  Researchers plan to teach residents (Blog: the lazy ones) how to secure garbage in bear-proof containers, clean barbecue grills and restrict the usage of bird feeders.  [Wall Street Journal]

Ordinary people focus on the Outcome.  Extraordinary people focus on the Process.

Everybody can become more extraordinary in something because we already are extraordinary at something.  We keep telling ourselves that.  Now, as individuals, we need to adapt and do it.


About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
This entry was posted in 00: Bubbles, 05: People, 06: Incomplete Information, 07: Getting It, 08: Observing, Listening, Learning, 09: Doing, 11: Growth, 12: Character, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture, 17: Choice, Lessons from History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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