Why People Do Stupid Things

I’ll get to the core point right up front: everyone does what makes sense to them.

I first heard that in a training session that taught about communication styles. One thing that is common to all styles is the fundamental belief that what you are doing is the right thing to do at that moment. Think about that for a moment: sure, you may have intentionally done something you considered ‘wrong’ at some point, but have you ever intentionally done something that you felt was wrong to achieve your goals in that moment?

When actors who play villains are interviewed about the part and their process, usually there’s a comment like “the character doesn’t believe he/she is in the wrong”. Indeed, it has often been said that there are no fundamentally ‘bad’ people – just people who do bad things. Sometimes, their acts are not quite what we would call “evil”; sometimes, we view others’ decisions as “unwise”, or even “stupid”. We think “I would never have done that. Why on earth would they do that?”.

They have reasons. Maybe not good reasons, or reasons we (or society) would agree with, but at that moment there was a compelling motivation to take the action in question. When we get upset at the actions of other people, often we don’t know what their reasons for those actions were.

This is an important consideration. We make assumptions about what a person is thinking and feeling when they cut us off in traffic, call us a name, park their car to take up two spaces, or even attack another person. We don’t know what they’re thinking and feeling. That person who sped up and cut you off might be inconsiderate and uncaring, but they may be distraught because they just heard a loved one was admitted to the hospital. A person who beats up another person might be a hot-headed menace to society, or they might have been threatened, taunted, and ultimately attacked by their victim. There’s a lot we don’t (and often can’t) know about the motivations of other people.

At the end of the day, we all do what makes sense to us. We might look back on those decisions with regret, but at the time, we believed we were behaving appropriately. As you face the challenges of dealing with the questionable behavior of other people, remind yourself that, even if you wouldn’t have done the same things they do, you would have done what you did for the same core reason.