When Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes


We all have had an associate who, besides being a fundamentally smart person, consistently makes poor choices or tries to cover up a poor choice by not completely telling the truth.   

Adam Robinson, chess master and Princeton Review founder, has identified seven factors that make smart people act stupidly. You’ll recognize some of them—being in a rush, for example—and learning about the others will help you avoid more stupid mistakes.

The seven factors, Robinson says in an interview on The Knowledge Project, are as follows:

  • Being outside of your circle of competence

  • Stress

  • Rushing or urgency

  • Fixation on an outcome

  • Information overload

  • Groupthink or concern for social cohesion

  • Being in the presence of an “authority” (including yourself)

In the interview, Robinson discusses some great examples, such as four different celebrity musicians leaving their million-dollar instruments in a cab or on a train. When you put your sweater on inside-out or delete the department’s most important spreadsheet, you are exactly like Yo-Yo Ma leaving his cello in a cab.

If you catch people making the same mistake multiple times, it’s not because they’re not intelligent. It’s probably because they have a recurring case of one or more of these seven factors. To prevent the mistakes from happening again, you may need to help them address the root cause in a face-to-face meeting.

Maybe they’re getting into fender benders because they talk on the phone when you drive (information overload), and because they leave home too late (urgency); maybe they’re only behind on deadlines because you’re taking on too much work, because they don’t want to say no in meetings (social cohesion) because they’re worried about getting fired (stress). So the secret to better driving might be waking up earlier, and the secret to meeting deadlines might be shoring up their feeling of job security, by talking with them about expectations.

Time management doesn’t just affect what gets done, but how well it gets done. Meditation lowers stress directly, but it also reduces the mistake-making that produces stress. Monotasking doesn’t just speed up a task, it increases your accuracy.

Addressing all seven causes isn’t a quick fix. But if you’ve tried quick fixes and they aren’t sticking, check for these seven causes. You might find more than one. Work on those causes, so no one mistakes the associate for someone that doesn’t want to do a good job.