On Feeling Stupid: An Open Letter to My Fellow Students


Note: This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Behavior Analysis Quarterly, Vol. 1(3).

By Benjamin N. Witts, PhD, BCBA-D

St. Cloud State University


Being a behavior analyst is not an easy job. At least, it’s not an easy job when you want to be a really good behavior analyst. There are many times in our lives where we are faced with challenges that produce a great deal of frustration and upset with ourselves. For many of us, these frustrations are first met when we begin graduate coursework. While we might recall the challenge that was negative reinforcement vs. positive punishment during our undergraduate coursework or on-the-job training, that challenge pales compared to the insurmountable workload that comes with MA and PhD work. We might be required to read during undergraduate courses and regurgitate what was read on a quiz, but now we find ourselves having to understand and apply our coursework. The point is this: transitions are difficult, but they can be wonderful. This editorial comments upon a common experience many students have when they transition from “competent” to “amazing.” During this transition, students might find themselves feeling frustrated, which might in turn lead to feeling stupid.

A Stupid Definition

The Oxford English Dictionary (Stupid, n.d.) offers several definitions for stupid. The one that pertains to the current editorial is as follows: Wanting in or slow of mental perception; lacking ordinary activity of mind; slow-witted, dull. Surely this definition has a derogatory meaning, and for the layperson that is probably true. But in science, feeling stupid, at least as per this definition, is a wonderful thing. When you experience feelings of stupidity, you should embrace them. I would urge you to, as I do, feel happy whenever you feel stupid.

There is a very good reason for embracing one’s feelings of stupidity. Consider the conditions under which we would tact such an emotional response, and realize that those conditions involve an organism who is undergoing change. This change consists of either producing some previously absent response or replacing a response in which you previously engaged. It will be wise for me to clarify these two conditions, and offer a personal example of each.

In the former condition we are faced with a problem as Skinner defined it (see Skinner, 1953). In this case, a problem is an occasion upon which some response (R1) would be produced if available, but currently is not. Such feelings of stupidity under these conditions can come close to emotional responses that tend to occur with frustrating situations, such as with some extinction preparations. Any response that makes R1 possible is considered a solution. The problem, then, is that R1 is not available, which is in some way aversive to the individual. In my earlier research I faced a problem in that I could not execute the correct formulas for obtaining discounting functions, and thus I felt stupid. Having read and reread numerous articles, I could not get the curves to compute properly. The solution consisted of collaborating with a colleague, and R1 (calculating the discounting curves) was then made more likely. After R1 was produced, I no longer felt stupid. It was here that I was finally able to calculate the curves, though it required some assistance.

In the latter condition, we find that previously-produced responses—given the opportunity now—would not be produced in favor of some other response, even if that other response is not responding at all. As an example of response replacement, I work as an assistant professor in a master’s program in applied behavior analysis, and as such I am expected to know a great deal of my subject matter (though expectations and performance don’t necessarily match!). I have written on, supervised projects on, and taught courses on verbal behavior. Thus, when having suggested to a student to work on a thesis regarding thematic and formal prompts in error correction procedures, I found myself struggling with questions of how pictorial prompts work in relation to formal and thematic prompting of vocal-verbal behavior. With much arrogance or ignorance—I’m not sure which—I foolishly ignored the suggestions from her practicum supervisor that the picture prompt is thematic, as I had misread Skinner’s (1953) definition of formal prompts. Somehow I had convinced myself of an alternative definition which led me to state, rather confidently I might add, the pictorial prompt was formal, rather than thematic. Realizing something was not right about my analysis, I sent a post to a listserv (an email discussion group) where many prominent behavior analysts, many my behavioral heroes, proceeded to “educate” me on my ignorance. Educational? Yes. Embarrassing? Absolutely!

So I ended up feeling stupid on two fronts from this episode: 1) in having professed an incorrect definition of formal prompts to my student, and 2) for having believed that I should have the answer because I am the professor. Two mistakes I will never make again.

Of course, I have many more examples I could use here, but I’m afraid they are too numerous and would belabor the point. But they remind me of something I hear often from students and early-career professionals: “I should know that.” But we shouldn’t know anything. We know what we know, and when we don’t know, we should feel stupid (but recall that we should enjoy feeling stupid).

Embracing Stupidity

The young scientist asks, “Why on earth should we want to feel stupid?” and the learned colleague replies, “What a stupid question.” Stupid, in the sense that I am describing it here, relates to an opportunity to transition, to grow, to learn. But feeling stupid is more than just learning; it is a special circumstance related to learning in which one fails to find the change aversive, or at least not so aversive that the change is resisted. The difference between holding to old ways of thinking despite contrary evidence and allowing the change to occur is the difference between being stupid (cf. Goldiamond, 1965) and feeling stupid. He or she who feels stupid evolves.

Feeling stupid, then, is to be pursued. Feeling stupid means you are solving problems and becoming a better scientist and practitioner. Feeling stupid means that you are growing and becoming more than you were yesterday. Feeling stupid, and loving it, safeguards from curmudgeonly ways of thinking and allows us to stand in defiance of our scientific forefathers and say, “You are wrong. And someday, I will be wrong.” Feeling stupid is at the very heart of what it means to be a scientist.

In my title I write that this is a letter to my fellow students. I am, however, no longer a student in the typical sense. But because I can find myself feeling stupid, I consider myself to still be a student. I plan on being a student until I die, and I would encourage my fellow students to join me in retaining that status. We have among us many students in the field, and many of them earned their PhDs before I was even born. Being stupid is perhaps the greatest feeling I have experienced, and I anticipate I will continue feeling stupid for quite some time.


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