The Psychology of the Breathtakingly Stupid Mistake

Feb 23, 2016

Photo credit: iStock

By David Z. Hambrick

We all make stupid mistakes from time to time. History is replete with examples. Legend has it that the Trojans accepted the Greek’s “gift” of a huge wooden horse, which turned out to be hollow and filled with a crack team of Greek commandos. The Tower of Pisa started to lean even before construction was finished—and is not even the world’s farthest leaning tower. NASA taped over the original recordings of the moon landing, and operatives for Richard Nixon’s re-election committee were caught breaking into a Watergate office, setting in motion the greatest political scandal in U.S. history. More recently, the French government spent $15 billion on a fleet of new trains, only to discover that they were too wide for some 1,300 station platforms.

We readily recognize these incidents as stupid mistakes—epic blunders. On a more mundane level, we invest in get-rich-quick schemes, drive too fast, and make posts on social media that we later regret. But what, exactly, drives our perception of these actions as stupid mistakes, as opposed to bad luck? Their seeming mindlessness? The severity of the consequences? The responsibility of the people involved? Science can help us answer these questions.

In a study just published in the journal Intelligence, using search terms such as “stupid thing to do”, Balazs Aczel and his colleagues compiled a collection of stories describing stupid mistakes from sources such as The Huffington Post and TMZ. One story described a thief who broke into a house and stole a TV and later returned for the remote; another described burglars who intended to steal cell phones but instead stole GPS tracking devices that were turned on and gave police their exact location. The researchers then had a sample of university students rate each story on the responsibility of the people involved, the influence of the situation, the seriousness of the consequences, and other factors.

Analyses of the subjects’ ratings revealed three varieties of stupid mistakes. The first is when a person’s confidence outstrips their skill, as when a Pittsburgh man robbed two banks in broad daylight without wearing a disguise, believing that lemon juice he had rubbed on his face would make him invisible to security cameras. Or, in what is widely regarded as one of the top mascot failures in history, when Wild Wing of the Anaheim Ducks caught himself on fire attempting to leap over a burning wall (cheerleaders pulled him from the flames and he returned to action later in the game, unhurt). “This story of Duck a l’Orange County is no canard. A duck could get fired for this, or at least demoted to the Rotisserie League,” the New York Times reported.


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