How functional stupidity promotes current crises

The biosphere and human society is experiencing a socio-economic [1] and socio-ecologic  [1, 2] crisis with potentially catastrophic consequences for humankind and the biosphere in total at a scale which requires urgent (in terms of years), massive (in terms of a reduction of consumption of a factor of 4 in highly-industrialized countries like Sweden [4]) and global (involving poor and rich countries) action.

A common pattern is the flow of vital resources from weaker to stronger entities, while breaking the feedback cycles which would normally re-establish a balance over time:

  • poor to rich humans
  • future generations (children) to current generations (ie adults)
  • animals and plants to humans
  • etc

I would like to argue that this pattern is rooted in human cognition, who perceives himself/herself as an entity limited in time and space with varying degrees of inclusiveness, which may comprise the immediate family, ethnic group, nation, etc (cf Kohlberg’s stages of moral development [5]). From a cognitive perspective, I assume that most humans are able to acknowledge that many ongoing processes are or will be detrimental in the long-term perspective if not to themselves, so to their offspring. In contrast, current developments to cure these highly destructive processes seem tiny and inappropriate to avoid catastrophic scenarios in the future. I would like to argue that the solution to this crisis does not only rely on conducting relevant research and applying sustainable technology, which in principle is available in many areas, but on cognitive and emotional-motivational patterns, which were functional in the evolution of current humans, but highly dysfunctional in the current situation.

The most important factor is the social instinct of humans to belong to a social group and obtain a maximum social status within the group to improve survival and procreation. The positive reinforcement by social interaction is so strong that the physical reality (or beliefs about the reality) is distorted, which can lead to striking inconsistencies which are more likely to  be perceived  by  outsiders or new joiners of a specific social group. Technical terms which have been coined for this phenomenon are “group think” [6] or “functional stupidity” [7]. For example, travelling to exotic places is a status symbol (“trophy”), which is very likely to enhance the social status or at least provide attention, interest and positive feedback in most social groups. However, in current times a resource-intensive, long-distance, short-term flight, e.g. a 4-day trip from Europe to the USA, will have a very negative impact on the climate. Although most people will be aware of this fact, they will in many situations provide positive reinforcement (“How nice!”, “Do you have some pictures?”, Social media “likes”), which stand in a stark contrast to the knowledge and maybe attitudes they may have, to maintain positive social relationships.

Without extending this thought in more depth, I would therefore like to conclude that it is of utmost importance to support the necessary behavioral changes in humans by providing consistent and immediate positive feedback for sustainable behavior (“Great!”, “Interesting!”) and withdraw positive feedback for non-sustainable statements or actions (eg silence). One may even argue that negative feedback may be recommended, which may be expressed in various forms, e.g. more indirect “How did you compensate your carbondioxide emissions?” or more direct “You know, the emissions which you have caused damage our climate.” as You-messages (see previous) or as Me-message (“Oh, I usually try to compensate my carbon emissions via this smart website.”, “Although these trips are exciting, I try to avoid them to protect the climate.”). Personally, I would recommend to use mild, indirect, self-centered but frequent feedback to elicit changes in attitude and behaviour to remain within the relevant social group and to allow continuous influence.

In this context, I would also like to paraphrase a comment by Tim DeChristopher [8], a leading environmental activist, who once posted his frustration about the environmental movement, who often blamed and abused other people with less environment-oriented values, leading to a negative, aggressive climate. He, therefore, recommended a book named “Conflict is not abuse” [9], which argues against using blaming and harming others, but to take accountability and change one’s self-concept, instead of rationalizing exposing others to one’s negative feelings.  I can only strongly support his views, because to solve the current crises every hand is needed and environmentalists have to be highly inclusive while pursuing their objectives. Mutual support and encouragement will be the basis of future changes in behaviour.


[1] Centre for Opportunity and Quality (2017-01-26). Understanding the socio-economic divide in Europe [Background Report]. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. [PDF]

[2] Steffen, W., Rockström, J., Richardson, K., Lenton, T. M., Folke, C., Liverman, D., … Schellnhuber, H. J. (2018). Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(33), 8252–8259. [PDF]

[3] Ceballos, G., Ehrlich, P. R., & Dirzo, R. (2017). Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signaled by vertebrate population losses and declines. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(30), E6089–E6096. [PDF]




[7] Alvesson, M. & (2016). The Stupidity Paradox: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work. Profile Books.


[9] Schulman, S. (2016). Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair. Arsenal Pulp Press.

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