In search of stupidity

Originally published 2004 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


Why are people so stupid?

By "people", here, I don't mean the great mass of folk who, unlike us, lack perfect knowledge of all important things. Like what CAS latency is, and how low to aim for the maximum chance of a sustained-fire headshot from the Counter-Strike MP5.

No, I mean all of us. Me, you, him over there, your Member of Parliament, Stephen Hawking and Gore Vidal. We all do cretinous things, at least some of the time.

The issue of intelligence, human, frequent lack of, is one of considerable interest to us geeks. Our brushes with boneheadedness extend beyond one-finger-saluting people who change lanes without indicating and, occasionally, scamming those people. We're frequently using, or even creating, very complex systems which are intended to let humans do things more easily. And systems that assume the user will be clever all the time are, famously, likely to be fragile and/or surprisingly difficult to use.

Anyone who's written a shopping-cart application will have had to guard not just against wiseacres who try to order minus-100 CPUs and be sent a cheque, but also against people who type their numbers in letters, or seem to want to buy fractional quantities of motherboards.

Anyone who's designed a cable connector, or just used a lot of them, knows that for best results connectors should be very positively keyed, very dissimilar from every other kind of plug, and very tolerant of strange things happening to them. Connectors as regrettably similar as HD15 "VGA" and DB9 serial will be forced together by some of the people, some of the time. Even hard-drive power connectors can, with sufficient enthusiasm on the part of the user, be inserted backwards.

Anyone who's received those antivirus-software bounce messages that tell you that someone somewhere sent virus-mail that happened to have your address in the "From" field will wonder why that software, in this day and age, can send such bounces. And why on earth the administrator of that system turned that option on.

Clever people do dumb things all the time. Everybody screws up when they're doing things they don't know much about, of course, but people also suffer occasional brain-fade even when they're operating within their field of expertise.

Exactly how and why this happens is now a serious field of study, where psychology, ergonomics and game theory collide.

Game theory started out as the study of the best choices to make in various strategic situations. This includes things like big business and international diplomacy. We're not just talking backgammon and the Prisoner's Dilemma here.

An early criticism of pure, basic game theory was that it didn't apply well to the real world. That's because real people don't act like the capitalist superbrains in Ayn Rand books. Real people don't judge relative risks well, don't research their decisions, are easily persuaded by faulty logic (especially when they think a decision doesn't matter much), get tired, drunk and distracted, and sometimes just plain don't bother to think about things.

Lots of game-theorists today are working hard on figuring out why people so often make lousy decisions. The results of this work are finally starting to give us real predictive power over things like stock-market bubbles (and other forms of gambling...), riots, and mass hallucinations. We're still a long way away from Isaac Asimov's "psychohistory", but it's looking a lot less ludicrous today than it did 20 years ago.

Back in the warmed-by-PCs home of the typical geek, a simpler understanding of human goofiness can bear fruit in all sorts of ways. You don't need a deep comprehension of the exact ways in which normal, intelligent people can seem totally imbecilic, but being mindful of the fact that it happens - and that you're not immune - is a helpful thing, even when all it does is make the world less confusing.

Why do people waste their team's time by hovering valuable, vulnerable Raptors around the top of the central tower on Torlan? OK, maybe because it's just fun to use the Redeemer that spawns up there, but more likely because they've misjudged the risk-to-benefit ratio of this tactic, versus using Raptors for more prosaic tasks or just grovelling around on the ground with the rest of us.

Why should you make regular backups? Partly to guard against hard drive failure and similar betrayal-by-hardware, but mainly because sooner or later you are going to confidently instruct your PC to destroy your data. Even if you have to click more than one "Yes, I'm Sure" button to attain this goal.

Why do last minute "sniping" bids work on eBay? Shouldn't everybody just bid the amount they're willing to pay, whenever they like?

Well, yes, they should, and if we all had encyclopaedic positronic brains then we probably all would. But the game theory tied up in this goes on for page after page; it's based around the fact that people aren't sure what many things are worth, especially based on the imperfect information about things that's provided by many eBay sellers. When you bid early, especially if you've got lots of feedback, you push up ignorant buyers' valuation of the item, and make things harder for yourself. Hence, sniping.

When you spend a lot of time with the relentless, if at times unfathomable, logic of computers, the behaviour of mere humans can seem like a cryptographically sound random number source.

Dig a little deeper, though, and psychological pay dirt awaits.

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