Why Smart People (Including Farmers) Do Dumb Things

Farmers are among the most innovative and adaptive people in the world. There are many examples of situations where farmers have noticed a benefit to using a new piece of technology or a different management practice and quickly adopted it, whether it’s the move to less tillage, the quick appearance of GPS monitors in tractor cabs, or the reliance on smartphone apps.

At the same time, “because we’ve always done it that way” or “nobody else does it that way, so we won’t either” reasoning lives on in many farm situations, whether we’re talking succession planning, grain marketing or pre-seed weed control. The comfort, familiarity and tradition of doing things the same way wins even in situations where we know there’s a better way of doing it.

Well-known author Malcolm Gladwell has recently launched a new podcast series called “Revisionist History.” I recommend subscribing to it if you’re a podcast listener. As in his books, he tries to interpret and explain human behaviour through stories, and in a way we might not have thought of before.

In “The Big Man Can’t Shoot,” (included below) Gladwell focuses on NBA legend Wilt Chamberlain and how free-throw shooting was really his only major flaw on the basketball court, until he tried a different technique: taking free-throw shots underhand. He went from a 40 percent shooting percentage to over 60 percent. From bad to okay. In 1962, the night Chamberlain set the single game point record with 100 points, he made 28 of 32 free throws, also the most by any player in a single game in NBA history. Shooting underhand.

But then for some inexplicable reason, he switched back to shooting free throws overhand. And we still see virtually all NBA players taking free-throws overhand, despite evidence that underhand is easier to learn and more accurate.

What Gladwell’s really discussing is why otherwise smart, capable people do dumb things.

I couldn’t help but think of how this same thing happens on our farm, and probably on other farms. It’s different for every operation, but I know there are areas where we refuse to change, or we revert to old practices, even when there’s evidence we should try something different. We’re so into the game and how we’ve always done it.

So why don’t good ideas always catch on, in basketball or farming?

Gladwell refers to research by sociologist Mark Granovetter in the 70s. Granovetter found people’s beliefs and actions don’t always align. They might believe something is right but they do something different. (Sound familiar?) That’s because a personal “threshold” must be passed before someone is willing to carry out a certain action, Granovetter explains. It usually takes a certain number of people — and the right type of people — doing something before we will give it a try. The people around us influence whether or not we try a new idea.

Take Randy Dowdy for example. He didn’t have an older generation in his family telling him ‘that’s not how we do things’ when he broke the set the world record for corn yield in 2014, just six years after he started farming.

“The biggest problem with farmers is they’ve been doing it for a long time…It’s hard to argue with a farmer who’s been successful, paid for farms, paid for kids’ college educations and paid for ground,” said Dowdy in this interview with Bern Tobin back in January. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

Farmers, I’d argue, have a lower threshold than many people when it comes to trying something new. There’s a reason so many inventions and innovations take place at the farm level. There’s a pride in being independent and solving problems, finding our own way, especially in challenging financial circumstances.

But like Wilt Chamberlain, there’s always something we can be better at. And we might be the only thing stopping us from doing that something a better way.

Check out “The Big Man Can’t Shoot” from Malcolm Gladwell:

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