Why Smart People Do Harmful Things

Why Smart People do Harmful Things

We all do stupid stuff. Some experts even think it’s part of what makes us human. I’m not sure if I should be relieved, smug or unsettled about that!

At any rate, lying, stealing and cheating are among the behaviors experts consider destructive to ourselves and others, as compared to the kinds of hurtful acts committed by other animals. Researchers have gained a wealth of data on these and other damaging human behaviors that provides insight into why a species as intelligent as ours can act in a myriad of cruel, spiteful and self-destructive ways.

While none of the following negative behaviors will surprise you for making the list, we offer insights into these actions, with the hope that raising awareness may help you to curb their unwanted presence in your own life.


Many researchers believe that human violence evolved as a survival instinct.

“Aggressive behavior has evolved in species in which it increases an individual’s survival or reproduction,” according to University of Utah biologist David Carrier. “Humans certainly rank among the most violent of species,” he adds.

The oldest evidence of human combat dates back roughly 10,000 years, as a discovery of more than two dozen skeletons from that time period show indications of blunt force trauma and projectile wounds.

A study published in 2008 in the journal Psychopharmacology revealed that humans appear to crave violence just as they crave food and sex. In the study, the craving for violence in mice was found to elicit groups of brain cells involved in the reward center, and researchers think the finding also applies to the human brain.


There is not a body of conclusive evidence as to why humans lie, but research indicates that it’s common and many times linked to psychological factors.

To put it bluntly, lying is often linked to self-esteem. University of Massachusetts psychologist Robert Feldman has gone on record as saying that lying is, “tied in with self-esteem … as soon as people feel that their self-esteem is threatened, they immediately begin to lie at higher levels.”

Yet, despite the apparent purpose it serves, one study found that lying took 30% longer than simply telling the truth.

Other studies have shown that today employees lie in workplace e-mails with greater frequently than they did with old-fashioned writing.

So, when is a lie a lie? That’s a tricky question, according to Washington and Lee University philosophy professor James E. Mahon. “Certain conditions have to be in place for a statement to rise to the level of a lie,” he states.

“First, a person must make a statement and must believe that the statement is false. Second, the person making the statement must intend for the audience to believe that the statement is true. Anything else falls outside the definition of lying that I have defined.” You may or may not agree with Mahon!

Despite the negative perception we have about lying, some studies have asserted that white lies, said for the right reasons, can actually enhance a relationship.


Some studies reveal that at least half of grade-school children report bullying. There are many reasons that bullying takes place, but there is speculation that the behavior starts at home. One European research study revealed that children who bully others at school are also likely to bully siblings in the home, leading one study author to speculate that such behavior often begins at home.

Researcher Ersilia Menesini summed up her belief by saying, “It is not possible to tell from our study which behavior comes first, but it is likely that if children behave in a certain way at home, bullying a sibling for instance, if this behavior goes unchecked they may take this behavior into school.”

Two separate studies in 2015 showed that being bullied in the teen years doubles the risk of depression in adulthood.

Like violence, bullying may serve a deeper psychological purpose. Oftentimes the desire to gain power and status motivate the bullying of others. Monkeys also engage in bullying behavior, a point that has led some experts to suggest that the behavior may be an artifact of evolution.


It should come as no surprise that some people steal even when they can afford the items being taken. Illustrating this point, a few years back actress Winona Ryder was picked up for shoplifting clothing that she easily could have bought.

Theft can be also motivated by need. I have witnessed people shoplift baby food and diapers, items I assumed at the time were desperately needed. But how to explain why someone steals if they don’t have to? 

Many experts think kleptomania is motivated by wanting a sensation of thrill and/or danger. And it may be more common than we think.

One study of over 40,000 individuals found that over 10% had shoplifted at least once. Another study conducted in 2009 tested the effect of the drug naltrexone on the urge to steal and stealing behavior. Naltrexone can inhibit addictive tendencies by blocking the effect of endogenous opiates in the brain that are thought to be released during staling, subsequently triggering a pleasurable sensation. After analyzing the data, which was published in Biological Psychiatry, the researchers concluded that using naltrexone was associated with a decrease in stealing behavior.

Over time our knowledge of why humans perform destructive behaviors such as those listed above will become more refined leading to better interventions. Until then, if you are troubled by self-destructive behavior, or concerned about a loved one’s hurtful actions, don’t hesitate to seek out professional help. 

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