Intellectual Apoptosis

Be-Stupid-4-aA few weeks ago, I was invited to give a talk and share a bit of my crazy thoughts on complexity with some of my colleagues. After the talk the most intelligent question was the following:

Would you say that it is our intelligence what prevents us from behaving like starlings in a murmuration?

My answer was obviously yes: as long as everyone wants to contribute his or her particularly intelligent suggestions, fears, hopes, whatever… we cannot act in an automatic mode to provide an instantaneous collective response.

That same day I came across an interesting piece of analysis about stupidity in organizations and it made my day. In “A Stupidity-Based Theory of Organizations”, the authors, Mats Alvesson and André Spicer, propose a new concept and a theoretical explanation for what they think is a pervasive, but largely unacknowledged aspect of organizational life: ‘functional stupidity’:

Functional stupidity is organizationally-supported lack of reflexivity, substantive reasoning, and justification. It entails a refusal to use intellectual resources outside a narrow and ‘safe’ terrain. It can provide a sense of certainty that allows organizations to function smoothly. This can save the organization and its members from the frictions provoked by doubt and reflection.

They disturb the common assumption that contemporary organizations operate mainly through the mobilization of cognitive capacities. Being clever and knowledgeable is fine and necessary, but so is refraining from being reflexive, avoiding asking for justifications for decisions and structures, and minimizing substantive reasoning about values and goals. The denial of cognitive capabilities can actually facilitate organizational functioning.

Stupidity can certainly have negative consequences such as decreased autonomy and organizational mistakes. However, it can also have some significant benefits such as ensuring that organizations function smoothly. Stupidity, therefore, is a mixed blessing for organizations – and for the people in them. It encourages organizational members to refrain from asking difficult questions, and facilitates employees to play along with the dominant norms.

Intelligence and functional stupidity may co-exist. Intelligent people (those who score high on IQ tests, for instance) are not immune to functional stupidity. Cognitive capacities may be limited by relations of power and domination rather than a lack of time or resources, or cognitive fixations.

Stupidity self-management, involves the individual putting aside doubts, critique, and other reflexive concerns and focusing on the more positive aspects of organizational life which are more clearly aligned with understandings and interpretations that are officially sanctioned and actively promoted.

Be-Stupid-11-aFunctional stupidity adds to the already extensive catalogue of known rational limitations and cognitive biases that researches in the fields of psychology, cognitive science and behavioural economics have been hunting around for years to show as evidence against the rational man hypothesis. Yet, it comes with a twist: functional stupidity would not be an intrinsic limitation of cognitive capabilities, but a sort of self-induced or self-imposed one, whereby the individual sacrifices for the benefit of the organization, just like cells in a multicellular organism commit suicide(*) to avoid uncontrolled cell proliferation.

Be a philosopher or be a starling. You cannot be both.


(*) Apoptosis  is the process of programmed cell death that may occur in multicellular organisms. It confers advantages during an organism’s life cycle: between 50 and 70 billion cells die each day due to apoptosis in the average human adult.

Featured Image: Diesel Marketing Campaign “Be Stupid


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