10 Really Smart People Who Did Really Dumb Things

CIA director Gen. Davis Petraeus poses with his biographer Paula Broadwell, with whom he had an extra-marital affair that was discovered through an e-mail trail. See more historical couples pictures.
ISAF via Getty Images

Do you have a friend who's super smart, but when it comes to street smarts he's ... let's say "lacking"? Even the smartest people pull dumb moves sometimes, and for some reason it's extra surprising and disappointing when a smart person screws up. How could that president or general carry on an affair knowing it could easily get out? How did that company CEO think he could embezzle millions and no one would find out?

The truth is that book smarts or business savvy don't make a person perfect. Or streetwise. In fact, smart people seem prone to spectacular lapses in judgment more so than "average" people.


Why? One study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology gave logic problems to people to solve and found that smart people tended to make more mistakes than those of average intellect, because smart people were more likely to take shortcuts or make assumptions due to overconfidence. This is called the bias blind spot [source: West et al].

Of course, overconfidence isn't the only road to a dumb decision. Many of the dumb choices you'll see on this list were motivated by greed, pride, stress, and even sheer laziness. Let's look at 10 memorable moments of "what were you thinking?"

10: Bill Clinton Has Affair with Intern, Lies Under Oath About it

President Bill Clinton pauses as he apologizes to the U.S. on Dec. 11, 1998 for his conduct in the Monica Lewinsky affair.
Rex Banner/Getty Images

After serving two terms in the U.S.'s highest office, President Bill Clinton started the Clinton Foundation to address some of the most pressing issues affecting the world today, from childhood obesity and climate change to global health. So, how did such a charitable and intelligent guy become part of one of the most notorious presidential sex scandals?

In 1999, President Clinton faced impeachment after details of an affair with 21-year-old intern Monica Lewinsky. While the affair itself was a pretty dumb move -- if you're going to have an affair, maybe don't choose someone that works for you -- the even dumber thing Clinton did was lie under oath.


The affair came to light in 1998 as part of a sexual harassment investigation filed by Paula Jones against Clinton [source: Linder]. In January 1998, Clinton was questioned about it formally by Jones's lawyers and lied under oath, saying the affair with Lewinsky never happened. Who can forget Clinton wagging his finger at the press and saying, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky"? He stuck to that lie until that August when her infamous blue dress -- stained with Clinton's semen -- came to light. Clinton later said they "only" had oral sex so he had not lied when he said they did not have sexual relations.

If Clinton hadn't lied under oath about his affair with Lewinsky, there would have been much less fodder for an impeachment case later on, but Clinton was acting out of fear and stress that the revelation would hurt his political career [source: Linder].

Whether it did is debatable. While Clinton was found not guilty in his impeachment trial, some say the whole ordeal damaged the mystique of the presidency [source: Linder]. However, Clinton's other acts as president -- like ending the war in Bosnia and balancing the federal budget -- helped save his reputation. In fact, he left office with the highest approval rating of any postwar president [source: American Experience].

9: Gary Hart Dares the Media to Follow Him Around

The famous photo of Gary Hart wearing an unfortunately named "Monkey Business" T-shirt (the name of his boat) with mistress Donna Rice on his lap.
National Enquirer/Getty Images

Gary Hart was a married politician, lawyer, author, and college professor whose hubris led him to making an incredibly dumb move: provoking the media.

Hart's pitfall -- besides having an affair with a model named Donna Rice while running for office -- was assuming that he was smarter than reporters. Hart must have thought that he could count on absolute discretion from Rice and everyone else who knew about the relationship. And with his background he should have known better.


Hart was a campaign manager-turned-politician, and in 1987, the favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination [source: Currie]. Reporters suspected an affair between Hart and Rice, but it was Hart's arrogance that did him in. When rumors surfaced that he was cheating on his wife, rather than dodging the questions or coming clean, Hart adamantly denied the rumors, and dared the media to follow him around. ("You'll be bored," was his actual comment.)

Surprise! Reporters did just that, and that same day, they spotted Rice leaving Hart's house. Then they discovered that Hart had taken a romantic cruise with Rice, on a boat called -- no, seriously -- "Monkey Business." Then, reporters began hounding Rice's close friend (and "Monkey Business" shipmate) Lynn Armandt about the relationship. Armandt dodged reporters for weeks before she finally caved and confessed to knowing first-hand about the Hart-Rice affair [source: Green]. From the account of the affair that Armandt later shared with People Magazine, the biggest surprise in this scandal is that it didn't break sooner. Neither party was very discreet, and Rice had told several friends about her tryst.

The Rice scandal rocked Hart's presidential bid, and he withdrew from the race in May of 1988 [source: Sabato].

8: Robert McCormick Uses the Company Card for Strippers

I think we can all agree that large bills racked up at strip clubs should never be placed on the company credit card.
Robin Lynne Gibson/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Robert McCormick was CEO of an Internet technology company Savvis, but that position didn't prevent him from making a colossal blunder in the common sense department.

McCormick went to an exclusive "gentlemen's" club -- appropriately named Scores -- and managed to ring up a $241,000 tab on his company credit card [source: Maull]. Yes, we said the company credit card. Scores is known for its high prices: $10,000 lap dances, bottles of champagne that cost thousands of dollars, and -- McCormick claims -- for fraud.


When McCormick received the extravagant bill, he disputed almost all of the charges, telling American Express that he rang up no more than a paltry $20,000. Scores countered that the club has a policy in place to verify any charge over $10,000. They take cardholder's fingerprints and even have the customer call their credit card company to verify the charges over the phone. After two years without payment, and McCormick unable to produce any documentation showing fraud, American Express sued McCormick for the money [source: Maull].

Savvis, McCormick and American Express eventually settled the case confidentially and out of the courtroom, but not before McCormick resigned from the company over the scandal [source: Rivera].

7: Stephen Glass Fabricates Most of his Journalistic Work

Stephen Glass performs comedy at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles -- one of the ways he's kept busy after leaving journalism.
Michael Schwartz/WireImage/Getty Images

At just 25 years old, Stephen Glass was already an associate editor at the prestigious publication The New Republic. He was a journalist wunderkind with a promising career ahead of him, but in May 1998, that came crashing down when Forbes reporter Adam L. Penenberg outed Glass for making up the facts in his piece "Hack Heaven" [source: Peneberg]

"Hack Heaven" was about a teenaged computer hacker who busted into a major software company's system, and posted internal information on the company Web site. According to the riveting story, rather than prosecute the teen, the company offered him a job. It's a dream scenario for any young hacker, but the problem is none of it was true.


Probably the most damning detail Penenberg uncovered was that the company in the story, Jukt Micronics, didn't exist. Glass's editor at The New Republic launched an investigation into the rest of Glass's work and discovered that 27 of his 41 pieces for the magazine were total fabrications or contained some made-up facts [source: Bissinger]. Glass even faked backup notes, phone numbers and created false Web sites to get through the fact checking process at the magazine. He also falsified articles that appeared in George and Rolling Stone magazines. Vanity Fair called it "the most sustained fraud in the history of modern journalism."

So, what drove such a talented young reporter to do this?

Glass said he felt extreme pressure to succeed at any cost. He was a social outsider growing up who never felt that he had his parents' approval. Those childhood anxieties followed him into his career, and stress and a fear of failure drove him to do anything -- even violating journalistic ethics at elaborate lengths -- to succeed [source: O'Neill and Karas]. While his rocky childhood doesn't totally excuse Glass's actions, we can all identify a little bit with the pressure to perform.

The scandal haunted Glass even after he left journalism. In 2000 he graduated from law school, but despite passing the California and New York state bar exams, in 2012 he was still fighting for the right to practice law because of the plagiarism in his past [source: O'Neill and Karas].

6: Andrew Wakefield's Autism-Vaccine Hoax

Surrounded by supporters, Dr. Andrew Wakefield (C) walks with his wife Carmel after speaking to reporters at the British General Medical Council in Jan. 2010. His medical license was revoked by that body later in the year.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

In 1998, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, a well-regarded scientist, published an article in the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, claiming that there was a link between autism and the Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine.

The trouble is, Wakefield falsified much of the data in that paper.


Investigative reporters and the medical community have since discovered that Wakefield's paper was a complete fraud. He faked his patients' medical histories and published the results of his fraudulent study all in the name of money. What Wakefield didn't count on was that payoff coming to light.

The British Medical Journal discovered that Wakefield had received $674,000 from lawyers who were hoping to sue vaccine companies [source: CNN]. In order to get the results that the lawyers wanted, Wakefield faked his data in a couple of different ways: He chose some patients in his 12-person study who already had signs of autism and lied about others developing autism after getting the MMR vaccine [source: CNN].

In 2004, some of his fellow researchers found out about the law firm backing the research and withdrew their names as study co-authors [source: CNN]. The Lancet retracted the paper in 2010 and Wakefield was stripped of his medical license.

Wakefield and some of his fellow scientists continue to defend the study, saying that there was a scheme to cover up the link between vaccines and autism, but no peer-reviewed study has been able to replicate Wakefield's results [source: CNN].

That faked paper from the '90s is having real public health effects to this day. Some parents -- fearing for their children's safety -- are still opting not to get the MMR vaccine. This drop in vaccination rates has caused a spike in cases of measles, a dangerous childhood illness [source: CNN].

5: Thomas Edison Electrocutes an Elephant

A 1929 photo of American inventor Thomas Edison in his laboratory in Orange, N.J.
Keystone/Getty Images

Thomas Edison was the quintessential genius -- a self-made man, inventor, and scientist, but even geniuses screw up sometimes.

Around the turn of the last century, Edison researched and developed electricity, specifically direct current (DC) electricity. There are two types of electricity that we use today: direct current and alternating current (AC). In the U.S., AC is the standard, but that wasn't always the case.


Back in the early 1900s, the AC/DC debate was similar to the VHS or Beta videotape wars of the 1980s. Which type would win out? Scientists got pretty competitive. Edison was making big money off of his DC patents, since it was the standard in the U.S. at the time, so when George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla discovered a competing form of electricity -- that happened to be more efficient and less expensive -- things got ugly [sources: Long,PBS].

In an effort to discredit Westinghouse's and Tesla's AC electricity, Edison did what any level-headed scientist would do: He electrocuted a bunch of animals to show that AC current was more dangerous than DC. He even called these electrocutions "getting Westinghoused" [source: Long]. He started these "experiments" on smaller animals, like dogs and cats, but when the Luna Park Zoo on Coney Island had an elephant named Topsy that they were planning to put down, Edison jumped at the chance to electrocute her [source: Long].

All of those cruel animal deaths turned out to be for naught. Because of some complications with DC, the U.S. ended up adopting AC as the electrical standard despite Edison's wrong-headed efforts [source: Long].

4: Elizabeth Fleischmann-Aschheim Gives Herself Radiation Poisoning

One of the first X-ray photographs, taken by German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen, showing his wife's hand and wedding ring. It wasn't much later that people learned how dangerous prolonged exposure to X-rays could be.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Wilhelm Rontgen discovered the X-ray in 1895, the news swept not just the medical community, but the media as well. That's how 30-year-old Elizabeth Fleischmann-Aschheim learned about the discovery that captivated her imagination. Though she never completed high school, she decided to learn all about radiophotography and became a very skilled radiographer in just a year, thanks to help from her brother-in-law, who was a physician [source: Palmquist].

Fleischmann opened California's very first X-ray laboratory, making her the first radiographer in the state [source: Palmquist]. These accomplishments were no small feat in the late 1800s, especially for a woman.


Fleischmann and her brother-in-law performed many X-ray experiments, sometimes involving hours of radiation exposure [source: Breyer]. But from early on, it was clear that X-ray exposure was dangerous: More than 20 radiologists and X-ray manufacturers had reported severe injuries after repeated or long-term exposure by the end of 1896 [source: Palmquist].

Despite the evidence that radiologists should take safety precautions, Fleischmann refused to wear protective gear, because she was afraid it would scare off her patients. She paid for that stubbornness with her life. In 1905 she died from radiation poisoning when she was only 46 years old [source: Breyer].

3: Jonah Lehrer Plagiarizes ... Himself

Shown in happier days, Jonah Lehrer participates in the "You and Your Irrational Brain" panel discussion at the 2008 World Science Festival in New York City.
Thos Robinson/Getty Images for World Science Festival

Journalist Jonah Lehrer rose to stardom by age 31. He wrote for prestigious publications like the Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker and was a published author. His books focused on neuroscience, including "Imagine: How Creativity Works," about how the creative brain works [source: Harris].

In June of 2012, Lehrer got caught plagiarizing, a cardinal sin in journalism. Unlike most cases of plagiarism, though, Lehrer actually copied ... himself. He reused whole paragraphs from his Wall Street Journal pieces in blog posts that he wrote for The New Yorker [source: Kaufman]. In a New York Times interview, Lehrer apologized for the plagiarism, saying it was just plain laziness that drove him to duplicate his work across the two publications [source: Kaufman].


That alone might not have been enough to permanently damage his career -- the words he copied were his own, even if it was unethical to recycle them without his publisher's knowledge -- but just a month later, the magazine Tablet outed him for making up Bob Dylan quotes for "Imagine" and then lying about it [source: Kaufman].

Tablet reporter Michael C. Moynihan questioned Lehrer about some of the quotes in "Imagine," and Lehrer told him that the quotes came from an old interview that had not been made public. Lehrer later admitted that he made up the quotes, and that when Moynihan questioned their veracity, he panicked and lied about the source [source: Kaufman].

When the story broke, "Imagine" publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt pulled the e-book and stopped all shipments of the book's physical copy [source: Kaufman]. Lehrer also resigned in disgrace as a writer for The New Yorker.

2: Orly Taitz Tries to Prove Obama Ineligible for Office

A reporter holds a copy of President Barack Obama's long form birth certificate in the briefing room of the White House in 2011. Obama released this after extended criticism by those who do not believe he was born in the United States
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Sometimes, being an attorney just makes you do things that other people wouldn't bother with. Exhibit A: Orly Taitz, lawyer and dentist. Proof that lots of education doesn't necessarily lead to smart decisions.

In 2009, Taitz got busted for posting a fake Barack Obama birth certificate from Kenya online. Critics immediately pointed out that Kenya was not a republic in 1961, the year of Obama's birth, as the false document purported [source: PolitiFact.com]. But that was just the beginning. In February 2012, she sued the Mississippi secretary of state and Democratic Party for including President's Obama's name on the ballot, saying that candidates must be U.S. citizens. The Party came back with a signed and sealed Certificate of Live Birth from the state of Hawaii that included a verification of Obama's birth date [source: Seitz-Wald]. Undaunted, Taitz filed similar failed suits in Kansas and Vermont [sources: Reilly, Seitz-Wald].


Taitz has become something of a joke in the media, where she's often called "the birther queen." She probably has many motivations for these attacks, but one is fierce political fervor. Taitz grew up in communist Moldova and believes that Obama is a communist that must be stopped [source: Fletcher]. An avid GOP supporter, Taitz feels that the party didn't do enough to fight Obama, even calling the GOP leadership "spineless" in a post on her blog [source: Taitz]. These suits didn't anything for her credibility as a lawyer. And they didn't help with her failed run for California senator in 2012 either.

1: CIA Head David Petraeus Has Affair, Busted by Unsecured E-Mail

A July 13, 2011 photograph of Gen. Davis Petraeus shaking hands with his biographer and paramour, Paula Broadwell.
© ISAF via Getty Images

For David Petraeus, keeping secrets was part of his job. But this one didn't stay hidden. Petraeus is a retired four-star general in the U.S. military who was serving as director of the CIA when an FBI investigation discovered his affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. The affair led to Petraeus's eventual resignation [source: Raddatz].

The pair's big mistake was thinking that personal information would stay personal, which is seldom the case. To keep their correspondence on the down-low, Petraeus and Broadwell (both married to other people) shared a Gmail account, and rather than sending e-mails to each other, they only saved their messages as drafts. That didn't turn out to be as secure a plan as they thought [source: Gorodyansky].

The trouble began when Broadwell used the same computer to harass another woman -- Jill Kelley -- who Broadwell suspected of having her eye on Petraeus.

Kelley forwarded those anonymous e-mails to a friend at the FBI, launching the investigation that ended Petraeus's tenure at the CIA [source: Lush]. Investigators were able to use the IP address attached to the Kelley e-mails to trace the e-mail account back to Broadwell's computer, where they discovered the drafts from both Broadwell and Petraeus in another email account [source: Gorodyansky]. The jig was up. An IP address is a unique identifier that your computer uses to talk to a computer network. There are ways to mask an IP address, but Petraeus apparently did not take those precautions. Surprising for the head of the CIA!

There are all kinds of intelligence, but no amount of smarts makes a person immune to pulling dumb moves from time to time. Sometimes, these mistakes are career-ending catastrophes and sometimes they're little mistakes that we all make on a daily basis. None of us gets it right 100 percent of the time, and people that we look up to as smart and savvy are no different.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Really Smart People Who Did Really Dumb Things

Just like my Sports Cheating Scandals article, this one was a lot of fun to research! There's something cathartic that comes with learning that even someone you'd consider a role model has made some bad choices. It certainly puts your own bad choices in perspective!

The dumb decision that hit me closest to home was Edison electricity tests on elephants. I'd run across videos of those "experiments" before, and they disturb me every time. Edison is one of my heroes, and knowing that even he has the capacity to lose sight of the big picture humanized him just a little bit, even if it did tarnish my image of him at the same time.

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