What if we didn’t underestimate stupidity?
Over the weekend, I picked up a small, humorous book that made Italian economist Carlo M. Cipolla famous— »The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity. » This book partially confirms Diesel’s thesis on stupid people: « The stupid individual is the most dangerous, » more so than « cretins » or even « bandits. » (See my previous posts on Diesel’s « Be Stupid » campaign: What if we were stupid more often? and What if we got stupid at the office?)
Carlo M. Cipolla, born in 1922 and died in 2000, was an Italian economist and historian whose interest lay primarily in the analysis of social phenomena rather than of facts and figures. He taught at Berkeley and the Scuola Normale Superiore at Pisa. He became famous for his work on overpopulation—and stupidity! Published in English in 1976, « The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity » was translated into Italian 15 years later, edited in English after 25 years, and for the first time is available in French after 35 years.
Based on the principle that « Humanity has always been in trouble, » Carlo M. Cipolla has decided to understand the inner workings of the stupid subset of humanity— »One of the most powerful dark forces that hinder the well-being and happiness of mankind. » He defines a stupid person as someone « Irrationally capable of acting with no interest for himself nor for anyone else, » and highlights the five fundamental laws of stupidity.
The first basic law of human stupidity asserts without ambiguity that: Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
The Second Basic Law states that: The probability that a certain person will be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
The Third Basic Law (the Golden Law) explicitly clarifies: 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.
The Fourth Basic Law states that: Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals.
The Fifth Basic Law states that: A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person. The corollary of the Law is that: A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit.
If we created a chart with the measure of the gain (whether positive or negative) of an individual’s actions on the x-axis and on the y-axis have the profit of another individual based on the actions of the former, one could define four quadrants and thus four types of behavior:
- Intelligent behavior—promotes the well-being of another, which we call today a « win-win » situation;
- Bandit behavior—where one voluntarily acts to the detriment of another, what we would call the « win-lose » situation;
- Cretinous behavior—where one would be disadvantaged to the benefit of another, what is called the « lose-win » situation;
- Stupid behavior—where nobody benefits, hence a « lose-lose » situation.
For the author, the actions of a bandit is at least rational: « We can foresee the actions of a bandit, his evil maneuvers and his detestable aspirations; we could therefore prepare and defend ourselves. » But against the irrational behavior of a stupid person, we’re helpless! Because their actions do not conform to the laws of rationality, their attacks generally take us by surprise and rational defenses don’t work. It’s what Dickens was thinking when he declared that « Man can face everything, armed with stupidity and good digestion, » or Schiller who wrote, « Against stupidity, even the gods themselves struggle in vain. » Stupidity as an absolute weapon! Humanity isn’t done with being stupid. For the best and for the worst!
Read a pdf of Carlo Cipolla’s book here via the Oklahoma State University site.