4 Types of Person (a guide to stupidity)
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4 Types of Person (a guide to stupidity)


You're an idiot. Deal with it.

The longer version.

I've been pondering the chronic over-supply of stupidity, and I've come to a new conclusion.

Stupidity itself is not the problem. Abundant stupidity is inevitable. The problem is the people (like you, for instance) who don't even begin to suspect that they are stupid. People who insist they're God's gift to intellectual discourse. But in reality: as thick as whale blubber.

So here's a matrix to show four different types of people... the cross product of those who think they are smart (or dumb) and those who are actually smart (or dumb).

4 types of person

thinks he is...

is actually


This matrix has four types of people. Stealing an idea from my usability-buddies i've assigned a 'persona' to each quadrant:

  1. Forrest Gump: stupid, but he knows it.
  2. Homer Simpson: is actually dumb, but seems to think he's the cleverest guy alive.
  3. Columbo: is actually smart, but comes across as quite a dope.
  4. Mr Spock: smart, and knows exactly how smart he is.

Here's a pictorial version.

4 types of person

thinks he is...

is actually
forrest gumphomer simpson

detective columbospock

And here's my guess at how common (or rare) each of the four categories are.

(I started with the rule that only 20% of people could be called smart, and then assigned a breakdown after that.)

4 types of person

thinks he is...

is actually


The chief lesson: lots of Homers, very little of everything else. The stupidity vortex is spreading. More on that later.

The goal, interestingly enough, is not to end up in the lower right (Spock) but in the lower left (Columbo).

Why would a smart person (a Spock) decide to put themselves in the third quadrant and become a Columbo? Because they're smart enough to realise that they're really stupid. Stupid for two reasons.

Two things make you stupid

idiocy versus genius

There's two reasons that a smart person should realise they are still, essentially, stupid.

The obvious thing is that no matter how much you know, your knowledge is an insignificant dot compared with the sum total of what can be known. (It's even very small compared with the sum total that other humans currently know.)

But here's the real kicker: every idiot in the world knows at least one or two things you don't know.

I've gone all out and used Powerpoint to create a Venn diagram (at right) to help illustrates this point.

Here we're comparing a genius with an idiot -- and the size of the circles indicates the relative size of their 'knowledge' or wisdom or intellect or some other hard to measure, but easy-to-chat-about concept.

Clearly the genius has greater brain points -- and indeed knows almost everything the idiot knows. But look out genius, because there's still a little sliver of things the idiot knows that you don't know. And this is a humbling thought.

The idiot won't hesitate to grab onto those one or two tiny points and rub your nose in them mercilessly. Trust me on this: I've done it to smart people many times over.

So don't get too cocky there Spock. Chill out, Yoda. Pull your head in, Gandalf.

Stopped Clocks

To remain humble even in the face of blatant stupidity, never forget:

"Even a stopped clock is right twice a day."

Tattoo that on the back of your eyelids.

The real lesson

But the real lesson is this: if you think you're Spock, you're much more likely to actually be Homer Simpson.

Please, dear idiot reader, err on the side of safety and assume that, like me, you are a mental ass hat with much to learn. We'll all be better off.

Final word: How To Get Smart

One final word though, on a more positive note... it might be possible to actually become smart. Imagine that?

I haven't tried this personally, but according to 'Wetware refactorings' which quotes 'Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware' by Andy Hunt:

...in a rich environment with things to learn, observe, and interact with, you will grow plenty of new neurons and new connections between them...

Your working environment needs to be rich in sensory opportunities, or else it will literally cause brain damage.

'Omer van Kloeten' on Sat, 03 Jan 2009 09:43:13 GMT, sez:

There is always more to be learned. Being wise (having knowledge) and being smart (doing something with said knowledge) have nothing to do with one another.

'lb' on Sat, 03 Jan 2009 09:48:56 GMT, sez:

@omer -- well said, and it makes me laugh because last night i was playing a (new) card game against my wife.

i got really lucky and was dealt a completely awesome hand. (this is a game called 'sequence' which is a card + board game of strategy). Despite my lucky hand, went on to lose terribly.

After i lost, i showed her the cards i had and we talked through how I could've played the game. Straight away i could see how i should've completely destroyed her. it was hilarious how bad i'd played.

i would like to think it was a powerful metaphor for life. really, i think it was just a lucky hand played poorly. ;-)

'Mike Woodhouse' on Sat, 03 Jan 2009 11:30:53 GMT, sez:

Er, that's "Forrest" Gump. And "sliver". As for "decimated", I do not think that means what you think it means. I think Venn diagrams get a big "V".


But apart from that, I agree with the whole thing. I'm currently somewhat privileged to work for a whole bunch of Spocks and Columbos, which makes a change after a 30-year "career" almost entirely managed by Homers.

'dysfunctor' on Sat, 03 Jan 2009 12:01:42 GMT, sez:

Thanks, lb. We all need to be reminded of our own essential dumbness from time-to-time.

I'm wondering: were you inspired by the debate around Jeff Atwood's puzzle about sex ratios?


'Socrates' on Sat, 03 Jan 2009 14:39:02 GMT, sez:

Classic post...

Some of the most dangerous people are the 'dumb' people that think they're smart.

There dumbness prevents them gaining insight into their stupidity nor gauging the magnitude of their ignorance, that otherwise lets us overcome our limitations by sub-contracting out stuff to brainy people.

They are a menace. And 78% is probably spot-on.

'lb' on Sat, 03 Jan 2009 18:39:32 GMT, sez:

@Mike -- fixed ;-) -- and you gut +10 points for reference to the princess bride.

@Socrates -- i meant to track down a socrates reference or two in the columbo space. Originally i had S. there instead of C.!

>were you inspired by the debate around Jeff Atwood's puzzle about sex ratios?
nope, but it is interesting.


'Matthew Martin' on Mon, 05 Jan 2009 10:28:49 GMT, sez:

All I know is reading about conditional probabilities problems and Bayes theorem has convinced me I'm dumb.

'Lester' on Mon, 05 Jan 2009 22:42:04 GMT, sez:

Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former.
Author: Albert Einstein

'MichalT' on Tue, 06 Jan 2009 21:28:18 GMT, sez:

Leaves me wondering :)

'Eric Gunnerson' on Thu, 08 Jan 2009 15:32:24 GMT, sez:

There have been some interesting studies on self-evaluation related to this.

If you take a group of people who have variable amounts of competence in an area, those in the top quarter tend to under-rate how competent they are, probably because they people who are better than they are.

Conversely, the people in the lower quarter consistently overrate their competence, because they aren't good enough in an area to come up with a reasonable evaluation of their competence.

'Sam Sweiti' on Fri, 09 Jan 2009 18:42:53 GMT, sez:

I'll quote Sokrates "The beginning of wisdom is the realisation of how little we know"

'lb' on Sun, 11 Jan 2009 09:42:12 GMT, sez:

@Eric -- thanks. I've just happened across the relevant studies (I smacked my forehead in astonishment, because it's stuff i've read so many times before, i can't believe i'd forgotten the name, and details... but here it is...)

General term: 'the Dunning-Kruger effect'

(see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning-Kruger_effect)

Kruger and Dunning's famous 1999 paper is titled:

'Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments'

@Sam -- thanks for the Socratic wisdom.


'SNagy' on Mon, 12 Jan 2009 09:18:52 GMT, sez:

If Spock is so damn smart, why is he dead?

BTW I've always assumed that 80% of the general population is retarded. This post only confirms it (as well as the statistics in the post...)

'estiengorcock' on Wed, 14 Jan 2009 15:55:44 GMT, sez:

If I'm so smart, why ain't I rich?

'dubs' on Wed, 28 Jan 2009 09:56:36 GMT, sez:

Dale Long on 4 types of officer, i think ity can extended outside of the armed forces:

"four basic types of officer: Intelligent/Industrious, Intelligent/Lazy, Stupid/Lazy and Stupid/Industrious. (Not quite Meyers-Briggs, but it works for me.)

Intelligent/Industrious officers were usually made Staff Officers. These people leave no stone unturned, no i undotted nor t uncrossed in the pursuit of Completed Staff Work. Today, these people are the ones who spend endless hours debugging programs, doing detailed statistical analysis or other intricate, detailed and otherwise mind-numbing work. No loose ends for these folks, but they can get a bit nearsighted when it comes to the big picture.

Those officers identified as Intelligent/Lazy, on the other hand, were made commanders. Because they were lazy, these people would achieve their goals with the minimum expenditure of resources and energy they could get away with. Because they were intelligent, they would find a way to meet their goals and objectives effectively on the first try. These people are farsighted, but need the Industrious/Intelligent group to implement what they develop.

Officers identified as Stupid/Lazy were usually shunted off into some inconsequential job as a figurehead where they couldn't do a lot of damage and the real work was done by the senior NCOs.

The truly dangerous people were the Stupid/Industrious ones. Left without adult supervision, these folks charge off and wreak havoc and chaos on a grand scale, blissfully unaware that it would take three times as much effort and energy from the survivors to repair the damage."

'Emad Ibrahim' on Thu, 29 Jan 2009 01:30:14 GMT, sez:

That sounds pretty accurate but being a spock is probably the worst place to be.

Homers will hate you because you are actually smart.

Forrest Gumps will not befriend you because you are "better" than them.

Columbos will think you are an arrogant son of a bitch.

But if you are a forrest gump then everyone will like you and treat you nice either because they feel bad for you or because you are not a threat (except to yourself)...

So if people treat you nice, you are probably stupid.

PS: Have you seen the movie Idiocracy?

'dennis' on Wed, 11 Feb 2009 15:06:35 GMT, sez:

So this is what the programming community has come to. Some guy has a blog, writes that all of his readers are stupid (and never states that he is in the same group) and you freaking sheep take the time to kiss his ass and tell him how right he is? Wow, time for a bunch of you sheep to find a different way to make a living.

'lb' on Wed, 11 Feb 2009 18:15:43 GMT, sez:

>never states that he is in the same group

regular readers are fully aware of how stupid i am.

and -- just to be perfectly clear about this -- i *did* state quite clearly in the article that i am:
>a mental ass hat with much to learn.

you see that dennis?

it turns out that you really are just as much of an idiot as the rest of us.

thus helping add one tiny droplet of further evidence to support the central thesis of the article.

this is fun. playing games with mental ass hats!!

'Mimi' on Sat, 14 Feb 2009 06:45:08 GMT, sez:

Thank you for posting this!!
I completely like this article!

'onur biyik' on Fri, 27 Feb 2009 12:21:36 GMT, sez:

i like the color theme of the charts :)

'Getz' on Sun, 24 May 2009 06:18:35 GMT, sez:

Ron Burk on 'Incompetent Programmers'


He picks on tall people (like Steve Ballmer) too.

'Jeremymia' on Sat, 20 Jun 2009 15:30:10 GMT, sez:

If the logic in this post seemed correct to you, then and only then, should you be worried about your intelligence.

No one has ever defined intelligence as "Knowing everything that people less intelligent than you know, plus more." In fact, intelligence and knowledge aren't even related, except in the idea that knowledge comes easier to someone who is intelligent -- and even that's not always true.

It's fun and all to define intelligence in an arbitrary way and to say "Hey, look, no one fits in my arbitrary definition. Humanity is so dumb!", but we really do have to remember that words DO have meanings already.

'Don2' on Sat, 20 Jun 2009 22:29:01 GMT, sez:


The article doesn't mention intelligence. Not even once. So it doesn't attempt to define intelligence in an arbitrary way.

'Jeremymia' on Tue, 23 Jun 2009 13:15:51 GMT, sez:

Most people would consider "smart" and "intelligent" to mean roughly the same thing -- if you don't agree, then just replace every time I said "intelligent" with "smart", and the point stands.

I was pretty annoyed when I first read this post, because I can't stand the fact that we as a culture (or perhaps as a species?) are so quick to say that everyone around us is stupid. I suspect that people do this because of a combination of confirmation bias (We ignore evidence that doesn't support something we already believe) and actor-observer bias (if someone else makes a mistake, it's because of who they are. If we make a mistake, it's because of external factors.) Both of these are key for being happy, but they also get in the way of truth.

The fact that "Even an idiot knows one or two things that you don't" isn't humbling to me, and it shouldn't be to anyone else, unless you have a massively oversized ego. We live in a highly specialized world and intelligence is only one of the many virtues one can have. I bet many smart people would be absolutely incapable of baking a cake, no matter how hard they tried. Plus, haven't you ever noticed that the REALLY smart people have trouble with the day-to-day stuff? What seems simply to 99% of people becomes a massive challenge when an abstract thinker has to deal with it. It seems pretty likely to me that "idiots" have a whole lot of knowledge that smart people don't.

But enough speculation. I just want to point this out: The percentages that the author provides are not based on much of anything. He basically began by saying "I think 80% of people are dumb." (Actually, he said 'only 20% of people are smart', but in this "model" one can only be smart or dumb.) We have to admit that is pretty silly -- would you REALLY consider 4/5ths of the people that you know to be dumb?

Try to spend a little time critically analyzing other people in your daily life and seeing if, on the whole, they aren't basically competent. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Damn it, when did I become the cheering section for humanity?

'lb' on Tue, 23 Jun 2009 22:58:25 GMT, sez:

Excellent response to Don2's jab. This is one of the best comments I've read on a blog. I thank you!

>when did I become the cheering section for humanity?

Ha ha! I'm glad someone is standing up those bozos! ;-)

I like your points about the error in the way I treated smartness as "the amount of things you know". My definition misses the mark. But even with a more appropriate definition, and even allowing for the concept of specialization, I think I can make the same basic point.

Say you're a specialist at cake baking, and someone else is not. Then within that context I (perhaps harshly) call the non-specialist an idiot. Let's just accept this for the moment.

What I'm saying is that the non-specialist will occasionally, every now and then, be able to show the specialist a thing or two -EVEN within that field of specialty.

So the non-cake-baker (the cake-idiot), walking past, could make some casual comment, or point out a flaw, which the specialist, with all their smug cake-baking wisdom will be floored by. The cake-idiot will give themselves a pat on the back and say "well there you go, aren't I clever."

For this reason, the cake-specialist has to see that even in their area of expertise, "idiots" don't need be treated as such. And the cake genius is fallible even in their speciality.

And yeh the 80% figure was completely arbitrary. I feel it was too generous, but we'll just have to agree to disagree on that one. ;-).

The figure itself doesn't matter really -- just easier to describe when numbers were attached. The point is that the number of homers is disproportionate.

This is better described by the Dunning-Kruger effect. Dunning and Kruger manage to get their point across without insulting humanity.

Thanks again for a thoughtful comment! Very much appreciated. I was losing faith in the interwebs.


'Genius' on Tue, 01 Dec 2009 04:40:36 GMT, sez:

hahaha this was written by a Homer Simpson--Forrest Gump crossbreed!! However I find the four types of people completely interesting! I'm categorizing all of my friends as variations of each in different magnitudes. Interesting notion to stumble upon.

'Chris Duffy' on Sat, 07 Jul 2012 07:28:31 GMT, sez:

haha I think I might be 'Homer' for writing this comment lol ooops... I mean Doh!


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