The Basic Laws Of Human Stupidity

What is humanity’s greatest existential threat?


It’s all around us. It’s in you, it’s in me, it’s in everyone of us. And we have to watch out for it. Stupidity is dangerous.

Some people have studied stupid people. In 1976, Professor Carlo M. Cipolla published an essay outlining the fundamental laws in refreshingly plain terms.

These are the basic laws of human stupidity:

Law 1: Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation

They are out there and you meet them in the street, in the supermarket and in the board room. You might think they are rational and intelligent but they don’t turn out that way. Every single day we are harassed by stupid people who are in the most inconvenient places at the most improbable times.

There are loads of people who do stupid things and often without notice. There are always more of them than you think.

Law 2: The probability that a certain person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person

Cipolla says that stupidity is something that remains constant across all populations. He says that every category – gender, race, nationality, education level, income, etc  possesses a fixed percentage of stupid people. There are stupid teachers. There are stupid people at the BBC, JCB and at GCHQ where great minds don’t think alike. There are stupid people in every organisation in every nation on earth.

Law 3. A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses

Cipolla says this is Golden Law of stupidity: a stupid person is someone who causes problems for others without any clear benefit to himself or herself. He says,

Our daily life is mostly made of cases in which we lose money and/or time and/or energy and/or appetite, cheerfulness and good health because of the improbable action of some preposterous creature who has nothing to gain and indeed gains nothing from causing us embarrassment, difficulties or harm. Nobody knows, understands or can possibly explain why that preposterous creature does what he does. In fact there is no explanation – or better there is only one explanation: the person in question is stupid.

This law introduces three other phenotypes:

  1. The intelligent person, whose actions benefit both self and others.
  2. The bandit, who benefits self at others’ expense.
  3. The helpless person, whose actions enrich others at his/her own expense.

Most of are imperfect, flawed and inconsistent. We accept that sometimes we can act intelligently, other times we are selfish bandits and on occasions we act helplessly and are taken advantage of by others. But the stupid person is highly consistent in being just plain stupid.

Law 4: Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake

Cipolla says throughout human history, “countless individuals have failed to take account of the Fourth Basic Law and the failure has caused mankind incalculable losses.”

Even though we might understand we should never underestimate a stupid person we still associate with them even if it’s to our detriment.

Law 5: A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person

Remember that. Cipolla says that the stupid drag down society as a whole

Stupid people cause losses to other people with no counterpart of gains on their own account. Thus the society as a whole is impoverished.

Cipolla says that countries doing well and moving uphill have a fair chunk of stupid people but they enjoy “an unusually high fraction of intelligent people” who can collectively overcompensate for their stupidity.

He didn’t mince his words.

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