Image by John Hain from Pixabay

The Difference Between Ignorance, Stupidity, Intelligence, and Wisdom.

Unfortunately, it has very little to do with education.

I think it’s been on our minds a lot the last few years. “How could they think that way?” “Don’t they realize that…?” “What on earth were they thinking?

The problem is that we confuse the decision with the person. It’s the corollary of the classic teacher’s response: There are no stupid questions, only stupid people. It follows then, that — what’s that?


Editorial just told me I need to check my sources for that quote.

Fine, I’ll fix it in the rewrite.

It follows that we often confuse the decisions people make with their identity, without context or empathy.

Take “unvaccinated,” for example — that word brings up a lot of anger in people weary of the pandemic, who see the decision to be vaccinated or not as a simple one.

For most, it is a simple decision — but not for all. There are factors like age, health, access, or even just their access to information that can make the decision to get the vaccine more difficult than most of us know.

Here is a taxonomy of decision-making:

Ignorance: It’s easy to spot an ignorant decision: “I don’t understand how this could have happened?

Ignorance is simply a matter of not having enough facts, causing us to stumble into mistakes one after another, wondering how we got there. It’s important to remember we are all ignorant about most things.

“Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn.”- Ben Franklin

Stupidity: It’s a loaded word that is often used abusively, and it doesn’t help to use it in conversations.

Stupid decisions are ones where someone is not ignorant — they realize it’s a mistake — but make the decision anyway.

This is often related to the Dunning-Kruger effect, when people overestimate their capacity to deal with the consequences. Just remember the first rule of Dunning-Kruger club: you never know when you’re in Dunning-Kruger club.

Intelligence: This doesn’t need much explanation, does it? After all, you’re reading this article, you obviously fall into this category!

Except for a harsh truth: the only real difference between a stupid decision and an intelligent one is the outcome.

It’s why we’re so prone to survivorship bias: we see the few successful college dropouts like Steve Jobs or Oprah Winfrey (or me) and think “dropping out of college is obviously the path to success.” Meanwhile, we ignore the people for whom dropping out was a disaster.

Or, for that matter, all the people who earned a degree they don’t use but are now in debt for life (also me).

There is, perhaps, one difference: intelligent decisions are course corrections. People see the mistake coming and find ways to mitigate the consequences.


Just for the record: I’m not about to tell you what wisdom is. I’ve read too many Greek tragedies for that kind of hubris.

Instead, I’ll share what I think wisdom is: making decisions that remove the possibility of mistakes. It’s the difference between strategy and tactics. The best way to win an argument is to not have it in the first place.

Unfortunately, it’s well known that the only path to wisdom is through experience, and to quote Oscar Wilde: “experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.

We are all making these kinds of decisions all the time.

Some decisions can’t be walked back.

They change your identity forever — things like “vaccinated” or “parent” or “murderer” — but not all of them, thank goodness. There is potential for redemption, for growth, for understanding each other’s choices — and for making better decisions.

Nobody is wise all the time, and everybody is ignorant about something. Intelligent decisions often turn out to be…not so much. Stupidity…well, whaddaya gonna do? We’re humans. Stressed and biased and tired and subject to the current chemicals in our brains as well as the world around us.

Maybe we could just start by deciding to be gentle with ourselves, and each other.



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Gray Miller

Gray Miller

Gray is a former Marine dancer grandpa visualist who writes to help adults figure out what they want to be when they grow up.