It is apparent to any of us who take the time to look around and observe our world that stupidity is rampant. Go to any shopping mall and spend time people watching and you are sure to see many examples of stupidity in action on a large scale—ponder the reasons that draw people to malls and the levels of stupidity increase to frightening proportions. It’s all around us—check-out your workplace, neighbors, news broadcasts, and if you have any linger doubts—the behavior of any of our political leaders will make you a true believer.
Albert Einstein summed up the situation in this famous quote: “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.” Since this situation seems to be a fixed characteristic of human nature our only hope is to understand and do our best to deal with the phenomena. Luckily, we can look to the work of an Italian economic historian for guidance.
Carlo Maria Cipolla (August 15, 1922-September5, 2000), specialized in the study of the causes that produce specific economic and social situations throughout history, rather than focusing on facts and figures. The outline of his thinking on Human Stupidity appeared in the Whole Earth Review, Spring 1987. Cipolla identified five fundamental laws:
1) Always and inevitably each of us underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
2) The probability that a given person is stupid is independent of any other characteristic possessed by that person.
3) A person is stupid if they cause damage to another person or group of people without experiencing personal gain, or even worse causing damage to themselves in the process.
4) Non-stupid people always underestimate the harmful potential of stupid people; they constantly forget that at any time anywhere, and in any circumstance, dealing with or associating themselves with stupid individuals invariably constitutes a costly error.
5) A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person there is.
A close look at these laws will uncover some frightening implications.
—Always and inevitably each of us underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
First of all, we will find ourselves repeatedly surprised with the startling fact that people that we, at one time judged rational and intelligent, will reveal themselves to be unashamedly stupid. This can come as a shock, but should temper any quick assessments we make about the people we deal with.
Secondly, we will find ourselves, on a daily basis, harassed by stupid individuals who will appear in the most unexpected places at the most inconvenient times. We should practice constant vigilance and try to be prepared for these situations.
The third implication is perhaps the most sobering—Cipolla pointed out that the first basic law prevents us from making any numerical estimate of the fraction of stupid people within the total population, since any estimate will inevitably be an underestimate.
— The probability that a given person is stupid is independent of any other characteristic possessed by that person.
Cipolla found stupidity to be determined by nature rather than culture. He placed stupidity into the same category of human characteristics as hair color or blood group. This means that stupidity does not discriminate– it will be found in any and all human groups, in the same frequency—which of course cannot be given a numerical value due to the operation of the first law.
This means that stupidity is not determined by race, education, social status, or income level. It is found in equal proportion among blue-collar workers, university professors, students, bureaucrats, Nobel Laureates, bums, parents, children, leaders of industry, wives and husbands. THERE IS NO ESCAPE—you can join the priesthood, enter a monastery, relocate to a tropical paradise, join MENSA, or move to Miami—you will always have to face the same percentage of stupid people, which will always surpass your expectations—as spelled out in the first law. This phenomena provides shocking proof of the truly awesome power of Nature.
— A person is stupid if they cause damage to another person or group of people without experiencing personal gain, or even worse causing damage to themselves in the process.
This law is perhaps the most troubling and difficult one to understand. It is a fact that reasonable, rational people find it extremely difficult to comprehend and understand unreasonable behavior. Cipolla found that individuals fall into four groups: the intelligent, the helpless, the bandit, and the stupid. We are not rigidly trapped within the first three groups—people in general do not act consistently. At times, the intelligent will act helplessly, there are intelligent bandits as well as helpless bandits. The only exception to this is found in the fourth group—stupid people will act with almost perfect consistency within whatever field of endeavor they become involved in. As Cipolla puts it, “the majority of stupid people are basically and unwaveringly stupid-in other words they perseveringly insist in causing harm and losses to other people without deriving any gain, whether positive or negative.”
This brings to mind the fable, often attributed to Aesop, of the scorpion and the fox: “a scorpion asks a fox to carry him across a river. The fox is afraid of being stung, but the scorpion reassures him that if it stung the fox, the fox would sink and the scorpion would drown as well. The fox then agrees; nevertheless, in mid-river, the scorpion stings him, dooming the two of them. When asked why, the scorpion explains, “I’m a scorpion; it’s my nature.”
— Non-stupid people always underestimate the harmful potential of stupid people; they constantly forget that at any time anywhere, and in any circumstance, dealing with or associating themselves with stupid individuals invariably constitutes a costly error.
Most people make the mistake of believing that a stupid person will only do harm to himself. This is a costly mistake and appears to stem from the confusion of stupidity with helplessness, as well as feelings of self-satisfied distain towards the stupid. This causes usually intelligent, reasonable people to let their guard down at the very time that they should be extra vigilant. This has caused mankind unforeseen losses throughout history.
— A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person there is.
At first sight, this may appear to be an unreasonable exaggeration, but as Cipolla makes clear this is no overstatement. If we consider society as a whole the bandit may appear to be more dangerous than the stupid, but close examination will show that this is not true. A perfect bandit’s action is just a vehicle for the transfer of wealth. The plus in the bandits account is offset by the minus he caused to another person. The state of society as a whole remains static. If everyone acted as a bandit, society as a whole would remain in steady state with no change.
The frightening truth is that a stupid person causes losses to other people without any gain to themselves. The result is society as a whole is constantly being impoverished by stupid people. Let the consequences of this implication sink in and be afraid, very afraid.
I hope this summary of Cipolla’s work will be of value to intelligent, reasonable people everywhere. Stupidity will always be with us, but familiarity with the laws of its operation can be used to minimize its damages to ourselves and loved ones.