Cipolla’s 5 laws of human stupidity

Carlo M. Cipolla
Carlo M. Cipolla

In 1976, Carlo M. Cipolla, a Professor of economic history at the University of California, Berkeley published an essay outlining the fundamental laws of a force he perceived as humanity’s greatest existential threat: Stupidity.

Stupid people, he explained, share some identifying traits: they
– are abundant
– are irrational
– cause problems for others without apparent benefit to themselves, thereby lowering society’s total well-being.

There are no defences against stupidity, he argued. He died in 2000. According to Professor Carlo, the only way a society can avoid being crushed by the burden of its idiots is if the non-stupid work even harder to offset the losses of their stupid brethren.

Professor Cipolla developed 5 basic laws of human stupidity; they include the following:

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

No matter how many idiots you suspect yourself surrounded by, Cipolla wrote, you are invariably lowballing the total.

The Professor argued that the above problem is compounded by biased assumptions that certain people are intelligent based on superficial factors like their job, education level, or other traits we believe to be exclusive of stupidity. They aren’t. This takes us to:

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

He said stupidity is a variable that remains constant across all populations. Every category one can imagine – gender, race, nationality, education level, income – possesses a fixed percent of stupid people. There are stupid college profs, stupid people at Davos & at UNGA. There are stupid people in every nation on earth. How numerous are the stupid amongst us? It’s impossible to say. And any guess would almost certainly violate 1st law, anyway.

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

This is the Golden Law of stupidity. A stupid person is one who causes problems for others without any clear benefit to himself. The uncle unable to stop himself from posting fake news articles to Facebook? Stupid. The customer service representative who keeps you on the phone for an hour, hangs up on you twice, & somehow still manages to screw up your account? Stupid.

This law also introduces 3 other phenotypes Cipolla says co-exist alongside stupidity. The
1. intelligent person, whose actions benefit both himself & others.

2. bandit, who benefits himself at others’ expense.

3. helpless person, whose actions enrich others at his own expense.

The non-stupid, he argues, are a flawed & inconsistent bunch. Sometimes we
– act intelligently
– are selfish bandits
– act helplessly & are taken advantage of by others, or
– are a bit of both.

The stupid, in comparison, Professor Cipolla argues, are paragons of consistency, acting at all times with unyielding idiocy.

However, consistent stupidity is the only consistent thing about the stupid. This is what makes stupid people so dangerous.

Law 4: Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times & places & under any circumstances to deal &/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake. We underestimate the stupid, and we do so at our own peril. This brings us to the fifth and final law:

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

And its corollary:

A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit. We can do nothing about the stupid. The difference btw societies that collapse under the weight of their stupid citizens & those who transcend them are the makeup of the non-stupid. Those progressing in spite of their stupid possess a high proportion of people acting intelligently, those who counterbalance the stupid’s losses by bringing about gains for themselves & their fellows.

Declining societies have the same percentage of stupid people as successful ones. But they also have high percentages of helpless people and, Cipolla writes, “an alarming proliferation of the bandits with overtones of stupidity.”

“Such change in the composition of the non-stupid population inevitably strengthens the destructive power of the [stupid] fraction & makes decline a certainty,”

Cipolla concludes. “And the country goes to Hell.”


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