President's Column

The former top officers of Enron, Arthur Andersen, WorldCom and other corporations that have succumbed to egregious scandals are nothing if not smart and well-educated. Similarly, some of our smartest and most knowledgeable politicians have brought about their own downfalls through ugly scandals. Why can smart people be so foolish? And what do psychologists have to offer to prevent or correct such behavior?

Smart people who are foolish tend to show one or more of four fallacies in their thinking (Sternberg, 2002):

  • The egocentrism fallacy. They think it's all about them. In planning their actions, they take into account their own interests, but no one else's.

  • The omniscience fallacy. They may indeed know a lot about something. However, they start to think they know everything about everything.

  • The omnipotence fallacy. They think that they are all-powerful--that they can do whatever they want.

  • The invulnerability fallacy. They think they can get away with whatever they do--that they will not be caught, or that even if they are, they will be able to get themselves out of any fix.

Smart people may be particularly susceptible to these fallacies because, at least in some of our societies, they have been so rewarded for their intelligence that they lose sight of their humanity.

Schools need to pay more attention not just to what students know, but to how they use what they know. Intelligence and knowledge are not enough. At the extreme, many of today's terrorists are smart and well-educated, but are using their intelligence and education toward reprehensible ends. Schools should develop students who are not only smart and knowledgeable, but also wise. Wisdom is the use of one's intelligence and creativity toward a common good through balancing one's own interests, other people's interests and infusing moral and ethical values.

Some people might believe that the introduction of values renders wisdom somehow a "relativistic" construct, but there are certain values that seem to be universal across the world's great religions and ethical systems, such as sincerity, honesty, compassion, reciprocity and courage.

Together with my colleagues Cynthia Belar and Rena Subotnik in APA's Education Directorate, I have formed and met with a presidential task force on education. This task force has proposed a number of attributes that schools should develop to teach wisdom. These attributes--reasoning, resilience and responsibility--can be summarized as "the other three Rs," that is, the three Rs beyond reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic.

In this column, I focus on responsibility--which includes the wisdom to be responsible for others and institutions as well as oneself. We have no argument with holding schools accountable. Quite the contrary. But many of the tests that are now being used in the accountability movement are extremely narrow in what they measure. Our concern is that the current emphasis on narrow accountability may inadvertently straitjacket teachers and schools in what and how they teach, and implicitly devalue wisdom and the responsibility that is concomitant with it because these constructs are not measured on the tests.

In our own work at the Center for the Psychology of Abilities, Competencies and Expertise at Yale, we teach for wisdom within already existing curricula so that teachers need not teach yet another course. We emphasize the importance of understanding issues from other points of view. What one group in U.S. history might call "American settlers," another group might call "foreign invaders." Wisdom and responsibility should be taught to children so that they will not get in the habit of thinking foolishly and of considering only their own interests. It's something we all can and should acquire throughout our lifetimes.

In last month's column, I talked about the need for psychologists, as a profession, to unify. When we think only of the interests of our own narrowly defined group of professional colleagues, rather than of the interests of all of us as psychologists, we are thinking foolishly. Wisdom and responsibility are important for us all. If we work together toward overarching common goals, we will discover that a rising tide raises all ships, and we all will benefit.

This column is the first of a three-part series on "the other three Rs."

Further Reading


  • Sternberg, R.J. (1998). A balance theory of wisdom. Review of General Psychology, 2, 347-365.

  • Sternberg, R.J. (2001). Why schools should teach for wisdom: The balance theory of wisdom in educational settings. Educational Psychologist, 36(4), 227-245.

  • Sternberg, R.J. (Ed.). (2002). Why smart people can be so stupid. New Haven: Yale University Press.