No one likes to feel stupid. Most people will justify or make excuses for their actions to avoid this very feeling. But what if I told you, when it comes to learning, looking stupid can actually make you smarter?
When I was living in Italy, I struggled to learn the language. To be honest, when I was a child, I had to go to speech therapy for five years because I couldn’t pronounce over half the sounds of the English language. Therefore, it came as no surprise that speaking Italian was not going to roll off my tongue in the same lyrical ease of others.
It took me dating several Italians and integrating into the culture to improve my language acquisition skills. But the thing that helped me the most was actually counterintuitive; I was not afraid of looking stupid. I was actually eager to practice my Italian on any willing individual.
The fear of looking stupid inhibits people from trying to improve a skill. My American friend in Italy was a testament to this. Her Italian language knowledge was far greater than mine to start, however, she was too concerned on making a mistake that she refused to go out and speak Italian. Since I was starting from the ground up, I figured I had to learn somehow.
From a slew of what was deemed “My Italian Oopsies,” I eventually grasped ahold of the language and actually surpassed the others who were more hesitant of speaking in public. My growth was an exponential curve, compared to others’ linear improvement. All because I was willing to look stupid.
Here is how behavioral psychology supports the concept that looking stupid actually makes you smarter.
Trial and Error Learning
Behavioral psychology tells us that the brain (human and animal) is adept at learning new skills through making mistakes.
Trial and Error Learning was coined after Edward Lee Thorndike’s experiment of placing a cat behind bars with either a pull string or lever to escape to a piece of fish that was waiting outside. Over repetitions, the cat was eventually able to understand the connection and escape from the box to the reward quicker. The more the trials, the fewer the errors.
What could be a reason for the cat’s desire to exit the box, or my willingness to look stupid to learn a language?
Praveen Shrestha on psychestudy.com posits that “Drive is an essential factor that triggers the various conditions for this phenomenon.” He also lists the following as the “Basic Conditions” for Trial and Error Learning:
Trail and Error Learning:
1. Blockade/Barrier in Satisfaction of Drive
This is what stands in the way of getting what you want. In the cat’s case it was the bars in the way of the food. In my case, it was the language barrier.
2. Random Activities
When the solution is unclear, the subject acts in a haphazard manner with no distinction of success. Initially, the cat would scratch and bite the bars to escape. I would say incorrect phrases while learning how to conjugate most commonly used verbs, such as, Siamo cibo qui. (We are food here.) I have never lived this down in the eyes of my friends.
3. Accidental Success
Arrival at the correct response is an accident. The subject is unaware at the time what they are doing or why it is correct, however, the object of desire is achieved. I would correctly say common phrases I had heard in Italian without knowing why they were right or exactly what they meant.
4. Selection of Right Response
After enough trial and error, the solution is isolated. For instance, learning how to use popular idioms or how to properly form a sentence.
5. Fixation of the Right Response
The commitment to repeating the correct response. Such as repeating the same phrase over and over to ensure I understood contextual usage.
My real-life application of this proved to be fruitful.
As I continued to practice key phrases in Italian, I was rewarded with new friends that I could communicate with. By immersing myself in the culture, my brain picked up more words and phrases to implement.
With a mindset of learning and discovering, I was able to actually improve my language learning. But if I had the fear of looking stupid, I would be prevented from improving my Italian because I would never be practicing and getting realtime feedback of my mistakes and errors.
Being afraid of looking stupid means we are attached to the image of looking smart. What keeps us from making errors and learning from them is the fear of losing the idea of what it means for us to be smart.
Habit expert, James Clear, explains loss aversion as “our tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses over acquiring gains.” It is more painful to lose something than it is enjoyable to gain something. This explains why we so dearly clutch to our ideas of our identity. The loss of identity and who we think we are is more painful than discovering a new trait.
When what is at stake to be lost is our own confidence and sense of intelligence, we may exhibit more fear and resistance to anything that will challenge our supposed identity:
"Loss aversion is an expression of fear. This explains why we tend to focus on the negative events (a setback) than the positive ones (making progress). Negative emotions (receiving criticism) have a stronger impact than good ones (receiving praise). As Charles Darwin once said, 'Everyone feels blame more acutely than praise.'"
Source: What Is Loss Aversion?
If looking stupid means losing our security in our intelligence or our abilities, no wonder people fear potential Trial and Error Learning. A person has to become comfortable with losing their idea that they must always be smart or capable.
What also holds people back from learning is the tendency to only seek out experiences that support already held beliefs and keep them in their comfort zone.
Some people have the deep-seeded fear that they are, indeed, stupid. They live their whole lives trying to avoid any evidence that will confirm this fact. Their insecurity prevents them from trying new things and growing.
By not taking the risk and putting themselves out there, they avoid the chance of looking stupid, which would only confirm their belief system. They seek out experiences and ideas that will support their desire to look smart. This is called Confirmation Bias.
Confirmation bias dictates how we approach life and the situations we put ourselves in. Shahram Heshmat Ph.D. explains that our perspective on life will only confirm our reactions and experiences of other people:
"Confirmation bias can also be found in anxious individuals, who view the world as dangerous. For example, a person with low self-esteem is highly sensitive to being ignored by other people, and they constantly monitor for signs that people might not like them."
Or for people who fear their own incompetency, they will only seek out experiences that confirm their intelligence. Therefore, they will not be willing to risk feeling stupid to learn a new skill. On the contrary, those not afraid of looking stupid have a better opportunity to improve their chances through trial and error.
Lessons from Behavioral Psychology
So how can you use behavioral psychology to become smarter? By keeping in mind that it is through our trials and errors that we actually learn how to do something efficiently and effectively.
In order to grow and improve, the following lays out a blueprint to learn and become smarter:
1. Attempt a new skill in many trial-and-error attempts.
2. Be willing to seek out experiences that challenge your confirmation bias.
3. Be willing to look stupid.
With these three things, you’ll be able to increase your chances of learning and, in turn, become smarter.
In bocca al lupo!
Brittany Noelle Roa is an interdisciplinary artist with an MFA in Physical Theatre who uses her art and creativity to heal herself and others. She loves learning about health and wellness so she can optimize her human potential to live a full and happy life.