[ Question ]

Is Stupidity Expanding? Some Hypotheses.

by David_Gross4 min read15th Oct 202037 comments


FallaciesHeuristics & BiasesGeneral IntelligenceWorld Modeling

To be explained: It feels to me that in recent years, people have gotten stupider, or that stupid has gotten bigger, or that the parts of people that were always stupid have gotten louder, or something like that.

I’ve come up with a suite of hypotheses to explain this (with a little help from my friends). I thought I’d throw them out here to see which ones the wise crowd here think are most likely. Bonus points if you come up with some new ones. Gold stars if you can rule some out based on existing data or can propose tests by which they might be rendered more or less plausible.

The hypotheses come in two broad families: 1) my feeling that stupid is expanding is an illusion or misperception, and 2) stupid is expanding and here is why:

A: I Am Misperceiving an Expanding Stupidity And Here’s Why

  1. I have become more attuned to stupidity for [reasons], so even though there is no more of it than usual, it stands out more to me. (Baader-Meinhof phenomenon)
  2. What used to look like non-stupidity was actually widespread conformity to a common menu of foolishnesses. Today the cultural beacons of respectable idiocy have been overthrown and there is increasing diversity in foolishness. Divergent fools seem more foolish to each other when in fact we’re all just as stupid as we’ve always been.
  3. I’m running in stupider circles than I used to for some reason, while in general things haven’t changed much.
  4. I am the one getting stupider, or was stupid all along, and so I don’t have the cognitive strength to accurately judge the stupidity level around me, and just happen to be thinking it is getting worse because I don’t know any better. (Dunning-Kruger effect)
  5. People aren’t getting any stupider, it’s just that the artificial intelligence of the bots I’m mistaking for people on-line isn’t all that good yet.
  6. They’re not getting stupider; I’m just getting more conceited.
  7. People ordinarily use different modes of thinking in different communications contexts. In some, finding the truth is important and so they use rational intelligence. In others, decorative display, ritual, asserting dominance or submission, displaying tribal allegiances, etc. are more important and so they use modes more appropriate to those things. It’s not that people are getting stupider, but that these non-intelligent forms of communication (a) are more amplified than they used to be, (b) more commonly practiced than they used to be, or (c) are more prominent where I happen to be training my attention.
  8. I am acquiring greater wisdom with age as I ought, but the average age of the typical person I encounter stays the same so they cannot keep up. I’m noticing the contrast increasing but misattributing it. (David Wooderson effect)
  9. People use intelligence for different things in different eras. Just as language, music, art changes over time, so does thinking. I’m just not keeping up, and assuming because kids these days can’t dance the mental Charleston that they can’t dance at all.
  10. We were just as stupid back in the day, and I just don’t remember it that way. (Rosy retrospection)
  11. There is no truth, only power. What I’ve been interpreting as truth and rationality has been my own attempt to align my thinking with the political clique that was in power when I was being educated. What I’m interpreting as rising stupidity has been the collapse in power and status of that clique and the political obsolescence of the variety of “truth” and “rationality” I internalized as a child. Those pomo philosophers were right all along.
  12. Stupidity doesn’t have staying power, relative to non-stupidity: there’s a sort of survival of the fittest in which vast amounts of expressions are being produced all the time, most of which are stupid and fall away, but the ones that aren’t stupid are more likely to survive in memory and to be maintained in the historical record. This biases things to make it appear that the proportion of non-stupid expressions was lower in the past than it really was.
  13. Politics and consumer capitalism are motivated to identify and target stupid people so as to take advantage of them, so they have created systems that encourage stupid people to self-identify and make themselves prominent so that they can be picked off; that I’m noticing this is just a side effect.

B: Expanding Stupidity Is Real and This Explains It

  1. People have given up trying to understand things in this messed-up timeline and are just rolling with it; it’s a sort of intellectual learned helplessness that appears as expanding stupidity.
  2. Stupidity has its fashions, and the latest fashions are more in-your-face than they used to be.
  3. Pharmaceuticals that have become popular in recent decades have cognitive side effects that are difficult to measure in the individual but cause noticeable effects in the aggregate.
  4. It’s real, and it’s probably something in our diet, for example…
  5. It’s real, and it’s probably all that extra CO2 in the atmosphere.
  6. It’s real, and it’s probably toxoplasmosis meow.
  7. It’s real, and it’s probably some other sort of change in our material environment (excluding cultural changes).
  8. Back in the day, when a person had a stupid idea, they would be reluctant to put it forward as their own. Rather, they would wait to see if someone else would voice the idea so they could just agree with it. This used to be relatively rare, but now you just have to google “[my stupid idea]” to find that someone or other has said it first, and then you’re off to the races.
  9. If you have a smart idea, you may also be smart enough to realize that it’s not useful right now / has already been better said / is inappropriate in context. If you have a dumb idea, such thoughts may be less likely to occur to you due to the aura of dumbth that surrounds the dumb idea and repels sensible considerations. Back when expressions of stupidity were mostly ephemeral, this didn’t matter much, but now that they acquire instant permanence and global reach, they appear to swamp everything else.
  10. Stupid choices used to reliably have undesirable results; now there is more of a disconnect where people are shielded from the results of their stupid choices, or even rewarded for them (man lights himself on fire in an easily-forseeable misadventure, becomes YouTube legend). So people may be appearing stupid not as a result of being stupid but as the result of a perverse cost-benefit analysis. People are no dumber than they used to be, but for [reasons] it has become advantageous to display stupidity and so smart people sometimes mimic idiocy so as to reap such advantages. The smarter they are, the quicker they caught on to this and the better mimics they are, so this makes it look as though the smart people are being replaced by morons, when really it’s more a matter of camouflage.
  11. The way we educate children went seriously sideways a while back, and so, yeah, stupid happened.
  12. Newly-popular media and/or its content is somehow directly damaging to mental faculties.
  13. Changes in media/communications technology allow stupid people to be much more prominent than they used to be and/or comparatively muffle smarter people.
  14. Social media dynamics erode reasoning and truth-seeking while rewarding cognitive biases.
  15. The news media were doing a better job than we realized in filtering out crap and contextualizing new information intelligently for us, and as the internet destroyed the business model behind intelligent reporting, we failed to come up with a substitute in time to prevent idiocy from filling the void and it’s too big a job for individuals to do without institutional assistance.


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16 Answers

We've built a bunch of tools for instant mind-to-mind communication, with built in features that amplify communiques that are short, simple and emotional. Over the last ten years an increasingly large fraction of all interpersonal communication has passed through these "dumbpass filter" communication systems. This process has systematically favored memes that are stupid. When everyone around you appears to be stupid, it makes you stupid. Even if you aren't on these communication platforms, your friends are, and their brains are being filled up with finely-honed, evolutionarily optimized stupidity. 

I'd put my money on lowered barriers to entry on the internet and eternal September effects as the primary driver of this. In my experience the people I interact with IRL haven't really gotten any stupider. People can still code or solve business problems just as well as they used to. The massive spike in stupidity seems to have occurred mostly on the internet.

I think this is because of 2 effects that reinforce each other in a vicious cycle.

  1. Barriers to entry on the internet have been reduced. A long time ago you needed technical know how to even operate a computer, then thing got easier but you still needed a PC, and spending any amount of time on the internet was still the domain of nerds. Now anyone with a mobile phone can jump on twitter and participate.

  2. Social media platforms are evolving to promote ever dumber means of communication. If they don't they're out competed by the ones that do. For example, compare a screenshot of the reddit UI back when it started vs now. As another example, the forums of old made it fairly easy to write essays going back and forth arguing with people. Then you'd have things like facebook where you can still have a discussion, but it's more difficult. Now you have TikTok and Instagram, where the highest form of discourse comes down to a tie between a girl dancing with small text popups and an unusually verbose sign meme. You can forget about rational discussion entirely.

So I hypothesize that you end up with this death spiral, where technology lowers barriers to entry, causing people who would otherwise have been to dumb effectively to participate, causing social media companies to further modify their platforms to appeal to the lowest common denominator, causing more idiots to join... and so on and so forth. To top it off, I've found myself and other people I would call "smart" disconnecting from the larger public internet. So you end up with evaporative cooling on top of all the other aforementioned effects.

The end result is what you see today, I'm sure the process is continuing, but I've long ago checked out of the greater public internet and started hanging out in the cozyweb or outside.

Any ideas on quantifying previous levels of ignorance? Test scores don't seem even remotely close to necessarily correlative. Rationality tests and the like would be opt-in, and highly selective of sample. This looks like a fun opportunity for exorbitantly creative experimental design.

Possible A addendum: There is also more information than ever to be cognizant of, so modern basic literacy from primary schooling is increasingly concept-dense, which makes falling behind a larger drop than before. My mother is a 2nd grade teacher, and I would definitely ask her how the frequency of inconsolable kids has shifted, but at that age each student's largest barrier is typically uncomfortable home situations.

I Am Misperceiving an Expanding Stupidity And Here’s Why

"The Social Dilemma" documentary argues that various disinformation, polarization, and alike campaigns are potent weapons against countries (especially democracies), as well they have become dirt cheap with rise of social media. It further points out that there are traces of those already being employed in various countries in last years.

HYPOTHESIS: stupid content (or amplification of it) is mis-attributed to general stupidity that's propaganda instead. Sadly it's contagious and can lead to real stupidity, which at worst will trigger a death-spiral.

Have you gained status or security lately? I have a pattern where I think people are smarter when I am unemployed/low status/professionally insecure. Then when I gain security I think "why would I ask that person; I could have solved it better myself".

I think it's a status regulatino mechanism.

  1. Demographics: intelligence declines significantly with age (that's why the first question in every IQ test is your age, so they can age-adjust it to make you feel less stupid) and the population is getting older.

I guess it depends on what you classify as stupidity, I'd wager the reason is a mix of:

People use intelligence for different things in different eras. Just as language, music, art changes over time, so does thinking. I’m just not keeping up, and assuming because kids these days can’t dance the mental Charleston that they can’t dance at all.


What I’m interpreting as rising stupidity has been the collapse in power and status of that clique and the political obsolescence of the variety of “truth” and “rationality” I internalized as a child. Those pomo philosophers were right all along.

The arguments here are many and long, so let me point of a few:

  1. "Intelligence", as was viewed "back in the day", is associated with a corrupt meritocratic ssystem and thus people don't want to signal it. See "The Tyranny of Merit", I believe it explains this point much better, or for a quicker listen the PEL disucssion with the author.
  2. You are not looking for intelligence, you are looking for "signals" of intelligence that have changed. You'r definition of an "intelligent" person probably requires,  at minimum, the ability to do reasonably complex mental calculations, the ability to write in gramatically correct <their native language>, the ability to write (using a pen), and a college degree (or at leas the ability to sit still and learn in a college style education). But all those 4 skills are made redundant and thus potentially harmful for those who still hang on to them instead of, .e.g: Using a computer which include a spellchecker, using a programing language for complex computational problems, learning in short and efficient bursts from varried sources depending on your immediate interests.  An 18th century puritan would think you are somehwat dumb for not knowing a bit of Greek or Latin and having not read at least one version of the bible in both those language.

As well as:

People ordinarily use different modes of thinking in different communications contexts. In some, finding the truth is important and so they use rational intelligence. In others, decorative display, ritual, asserting dominance or submission, displaying tribal allegiances, etc. are more important and so they use modes more appropriate to those things. It’s not that people are getting stupider, but that these non-intelligent forms of communication (a) are more amplified than they used to be, (b) more commonly practiced than they used to be, or (c) are more prominent where I happen to be training my attention.

E.g. you and I might think a famous yogi guru is stupid, but the yogi guru is healthy, well loved, makes loads of money, seems genuinely happy, works relatively little and enjoys his work. So is the yogi guru stupid or not understanding modern science ? No, he's just manifesting his intelligence towards another fascet of the world that requires a different metaphysical grounding and different epistemology to understand.

It is possible that a set of social incentives that promoted "kosher 20th century western intelligence" as a core value made the market for "kosher 20th-century20th century western intelligence" oversaturated, so what you are observing now is just people branching towards other areas of using their intellect.

Is this stupidity re the 'Economic-Elite'? “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page Each of four theoretical traditions in the study of American politics—which can be characterized as theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, Economic-Elite Domination, and two types of interest-group pluralism, Majoritarian Pluralism and Biased Pluralism—offers different predictions about which sets of actors have how much influence over public policy: average citizens; economic elites; and organized interest groups, mass-based or business-oriented. A great deal of empirical research speaks to the policy influence of one or another set of actors, but until recently it has not been possible to test these contrasting theoretical predictions against each other within a single statistical model. We report on an effort to do so, using a unique data set that includes measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues. Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism. “ https://scholar.princeton.edu/sites/default/files/mgilens/files/gilens_and_page_2014_-testing_theories_of_american_politics.doc.pdf

Market forces have steered new technologies to manifest themselves in harmful ways.

With respect to food, there's an old saying "you are what you eat." In recent decades, what we've been eating is less and less healthy, as marketers, food scientists, agri-businesses, restaurants, etc have led to us to consume low-quality food that has high-profit for companies.

With respect to media, we are consuming more low-quality info. We used to have to seek out info, which we would have to pay for and which used to be better curated. But now we are constantly deluged by free info that is crafted to make us fearful and angry, which are emotional states that make it difficult to be rational.

As technology advances, there needs to be concomitant advances in statesmanship of leaders and education of the people. But corporate profitability is in the driver's seat, which is diminishing statesmanship and education.

I suspect all or almost all of these play a role, but I'd also add that the world asks us to make a lot more choices now than in the past, period. We have more options in every area of our lives, our choices are less socially constrained than they used to be, and we have vastly more access to information sources for making choices, but the amount of brainpower and willpower we have access to in order to process that info and divide up among all the choices hasn't changed.

With the advance of science we now have many more intelligent specialists who have decomposed the world into contending and non-coherent fields and subfields. Since the problems we face inevitably overlap field boundaries, our best attempts to deal with the problems crash against this incoherence, and appear stupid. Our less-than-best attempts miss the incoherence by muddling fields together, and will appear to be stupider. Our worst attempts happen when specialists proclaim their local expertise as a general solution to our problems, and are stupidest of all.

We are stupider now due to the particular way we are smart.

I think nearly all of the 'effects' you listed exist and many are significant.

Another effect might be an inflated threshold for 'smarter-than-stupid'. I imagine this might be due to 'myopic cost accounting', i.e. a set of purchases or expenditures might all, individually, be sensible and justified, in aggregate they exceed the relevant budget. There are more and more things we're 'expected' to know, and remember in appropriate contexts. Individually, each of those expectations seems sensible, but in aggregate it's impossible to know and remember all of them. And then, via all of the biased 'selection' mechanisms at our disposal, almost everyone is judged poorly against an unfair standard.

[Is there an existing term or phrase for what I named 'myopic cost accounting'?]

Hi David,

I believe stupidity is not expanding, instead we are expanding.

Stupidity is probably a (universal) constant, but, we feel otherwise because the number of humans is increasing planetary-wise, and because of the ease and accessibility of global traveling, we are surrounded by a higher density of humans.

As a thought experiment, imagine you could time travel and randomly sample for stupidity in a circle of 100 meters around yourself: you will certainly find more humans now (and therefore, more stupids) than 40 years ago, and consequently you may think there is more stupidity, in reality its just a consequence of the 45% population increase and massive traveling increase in this timespan.

One way to double-check this is asking ourself, now that there is a pandemic and less people are around, do we still feel that stupidity is expanding? 

I could be wrong of course (and/or coming stupid).


PS -- Sadly we haven't invented time travel yet, because either we are too stupid or maybe because stupidity has a built-in self preservation safety measure that prevents us to do so (as we would certainly accelerate our extinction -- of both stupids and non-stupids --  if we actually could time travel). 

Bad neural nets worked okay under the training set. With a distributional shift, you could see the weaknesses of their models.

I think most beliefs are the mode of what a person hears. You ask me whether someone is for or against abortion, I'll ask you what their parents and friends believe, then I'll bet on the most common belief within that group. So when "the Earth is flat" enters the conversation, and people's reason for believing the Earth isn't flat is basically "It's the only statement I've heard on the topic", they might not have a robust way to determine what is true. Most people can't state necessary conditions for evolution in an arbitrary system. I'd wager most people who believe in evolution can't explain why monkeys still exist.

So when the rug of apparent consensus is pulled out from under the feet of everyone, quite a few will fall over.

I Am Misperceiving an Expanding Stupidity And Here’s Why

I'm assuming that stupid people are louder and more expressive than rational people. Because the less you know, the more certain you are of being correct, they tend to be very passionate about their own views. On the other hand, the more you know, the more you know that there is more to know, so you are less certain of being correct and less passionate about your views.

Combine this with "exponential megaphones" (e.g. internet in general, especially social media) and you have a death spiral of stupid, angry people filling the majority of online social spaces.