In 1976 Carlo Cipolla, an Italian economic historian, set out to find a sociological definition and theory of human stupidity. The essay, entitled “The basic laws of human stupidity”, was meant as a humorous pamphlet to be given out to family and friends as a Christmas present. I know Christmas is gone already but I thought I’d share with you beloved, albeit few, readers and friends a summary of his work. Let’s call it a late Christmas present!
Cipolla states in his introduction: “this essay is neither the fruit of cynicism nor an exercise in social defeatism – any more than a microbiology book is. The following pages are, in fact, the result of a constructive effort to investigate, know and therefore possibly neutralise one of the most powerful and dark forces that impede the growth of human well-being and happiness.” Despite it’s amusing tone (or rather because of it) I believe the essay explores some fascinating social dilemmas worth diving into.
On a personal note, and in an attempt to include our current climate of political correctness into the text, please note that the words stupid or stupidity are not meant as an insult or denigratory remark but rather a technical definition of a human reality.
First Law: Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
No matter if you are a cynic or an optimist, you certainly have been shocked many times over by the stupidity of fellow members of the human race (and I’m willing to bet it has happened at least once in the past ten days). Cipolla invites us to consider that:
“However high the quantitative estimate that one makes of human stupidity, one is repeatedly and recurrently amazed by the fact that:
a) people whom one has judged in the past to be rational and intelligent then suddenly turn out to be unequivocally and irremediably stupid;
b) day after day, with incessant monotony, one is hindered and hindered in one’s activity by stubbornly stupid individuals, who suddenly and unexpectedly appear in the least opportune places and moments.”
Second Law: The probability that a certain person (will) be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
For Cipolla stupidity is not determined by cultural factors but by biogenetic. Some people are born tall, some have red hair, some have green eyes and some are simply born stupid. In other words there are no class, race, gender or creed discriminations in stupidity. He adds: “I firmly believe that stupidity is an indiscriminate prerogative of any and every human group and that this prerogative is uniformly distributed according to a constant proportion.”
Furthermore: “In this regard, Nature truly seems to have surpassed itself. It is well known that Nature, quite mysteriously, manages to keep the relative frequency of certain natural phenomena constant. (…) We do not know how Nature achieves this extraordinary result (…) The extraordinary fact about the frequency of stupidity is that Nature manages to make sure that this frequency is always and everywhere equal to the probability regardless of the size of the group, so much so that one finds the same percentage of stupid people whether they take into account very large groups or very small groups. No other kind of phenomena under observation offers such a singular proof of the power of Nature.”
To prove the point a series of studies were conducted in various Universities around the world. They divided the populations of these university into four broad categories meant to express class and level of education: janitors, employees, students, faculty. The amazing result was that the percentage of stupid people remained the same in the four categories. They repeated the test with Nobel Prize winners, the elite, the “crème de la crème”, and the result was to discover that a comparable percentage of Nobel Prize winners are stupid (I don’t know about you but that doesn’t surprise me at all!).
“At this point it is necessary to clarify the concept of human stupidity”. Cipolla quotes the famous affirmation by Aristotles that “man is a social animal”. No matter if you live in a metropolis or in the woods, sooner or later you’ll have to deal with other human beings. And in doing so we are forced to carry out, or not, some specific action. He adds: “From any action, or non-action, each of us derives a gain or a loss, and at the same time determines a gain or a loss for someone else.”
He illustrates this in this graph:
From these two factors, one must consider to explore human behaviour, we obtain four groups of people (plus an additional one, ineffectual people, comprised by people who refuse all action). These four groups are: intelligent people, bandits, helpless people and stupid people. These groups are defined as follows:
Intelligent people: people who’s actions bring benefits to both themselves and others.
Bandits: people who’s actions bring benefits to themselves but losses to others.
Helpless people: people who’s actions bring benefits to others but losses to themselves.
Stupid people: people who’s actions bring losses to themselves and to others.
Third Law: 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.
“Faced with the third basic law, rational people instinctively react with skepticism and disbelief. The fact is that reasonable people have difficulty conceiving and understanding unreasonable behaviour.”
We can all understand the actions of an intelligent person based on the effectiveness of the results. We can also understand the actions of a bandit, who despite a dubious moral ground, acts and behaves following a logical pattern. We can also understand the failures of a helpless person for his or hers failed attempt is still driven by a legitimate logic. But it is difficult for a rational person to come to terms with the illogical, unreasonable, absurd and incoherent actions of a stupid person. “Nobody knows, understands or can explain why that absurd creature does what it does. In fact there is no explanation – or rather – there is only one explanation: the person in question is stupid”.
Of course no human being behaves in a constant and coherent matter all of the time. We all have bad days, so to speak. An intelligent person might sometimes act in a matter that approaches banditry or helplessness. But because he’s fundamentally an intelligent person “most of his actions will have the characteristic of intelligence”. The same can be said of bandits and helpless people. The only category that breaks the pattern is, of course, that of stupid people. “The reason for this is that the vast majority of stupid people are fundamentally and steadfastly stupid — in other words, they persistently insist on causing harm or loss to other people without any gain for themselves”.
Stupidity and power
All humans, through their actions, have an effect on their community; the intensity of which is determined by the degree of strength, they genetically posses, of the traits inherent to their category. That is how intelligent, helpless, criminal or stupid one is. But also, and more dangerously, it derives from the position of power and authority they occupy in society. If, like discussed earlier, the same percentage of stupid people can be found in university janitors and Nobel prize winners, it is safe to assume that a relative percentage of stupidity will be present amongst heads of states, military leaders, economists, heads of industry and so on and so on. With the additional problematic that their “capacity to harm others is dangerously increased by the position of power they occupy”.
“The question that reasonable people often ask is how and why stupid people manage to reach positions of power and authority.” This is Cipolla’s answer: “Class and caste were the social institutions that allowed a steady stream of stupid people in positions of power in most pre-industrial societies. In the modern industrial world (…) instead of class and caste, there are political parties, bureaucracy and democracy. Within a democratic system, general elections are a highly effective instrument to ensure the stable maintenance of a percentage of stupid people among the powerful. It should be remembered that, under the Second Law, a percentage of people who vote are stupid and elections offer them a magnificent opportunity to harm everyone else, without any gain from their action. They accomplish this by helping to maintain a constant level of fools among the people in power.” Just take a look at most politicians around the world and you’ll notice this is true.
The power of stupidity
According to Cipolla the real power and danger of stupidity resides in it’s irrationality. An intelligent person can fight a bandit for they both fight with the same weapons: logic and rationality. A fight between an intelligent person and a bandit resembles a chess game where the best tactical moves will determine the winner. This is not the case with a stupid person for a stupid person will irremediably behave irrationally.
“Since the actions of a stupid person do not conform to the rules of rationality, it follows that:
- generally one is taken by surprise by the attack;
- even when awareness of the attack is acquired, it is not possible to organise a rational defense, because the attack, in itself, lacks any rational structure.”
Fourth Law: 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.
It is no surprise that a helpless person would not recognise the danger of a stupid person. They are helpless after all. What is surprising is that an intelligent person or a bandit would make the same mistake. They should know better. The only hypothesis Cipolla can conceive are that, when faced with stupidity, intelligent people are overwhelmed by a sense of superiority or pity or contempt. Also, an intelligent person generally tends to believe that a stupid person can only hurt himself, but that means confusing stupidity with helplessness. Cipolla adds: “Sometimes it is even tempting to associate oneself with a stupid individual with the aim of using him for your own aims. This manoeuvre can only have disastrous effects because:
- it is based on the complete incomprehension of the essential nature of stupidity
- gives the stupid person extra room to exercise his talents. (…) Due to the erratic nature of stupidity, one cannot foresee all the actions and reactions of the same and in a short time one will be crushed and pulverised by his unpredictable actions.
Over the centuries, in public and private life, countless people have not taken into account the Fourth Basic Law and this has caused incalculable losses to humanity.”
Fifth Law: A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.
The fifth law has profound consequences for the social, political, cultural and economic well being of a community. When the stupid “go to work” they create nothing but losses, for themselves and others, and the whole society is impoverished.
When a society is healthy and growing the damage done by stupid people is kept in check by intelligent ones. But if a society is in decline stupidity becomes more active because intelligent people tend to disappear and bandits occupy more and more places of power. This inevitably strengthens the destructive power of the stupid and brings the country to ruin.
There is one aspect of Cipolla’s study that leaves me unsatisfied, and that is the consideration of truth. In order for stupidity to be analysed following his system we must first define the proper starting point of our analysis. If stupidity is to cause harm to others without any gain for oneself we must first define what constitutes harm. Of course in most cases this is self evident but in more subtle and complex situations this is not always the case. Let’s use a current example: Covid vaccines. If the vaccines are a good medical product those refusing to take it are, by Cipolla’s definition, stupid. But if the vaccines are a bad product then those refusing to take it are intelligent. So in order to define stupidity we need to have a clear definition of good and bad. And this is not always easy to do.
The second aspect that I’d like to point out is that being helpless, bring benefits to others but losses to oneself, could be considered both a weakness or an act of absolute ethical and moral integrity. Didn’t Jesus of Nazareth, after all, sacrifice himself for the good of humanity? Didn’t Gandhi? St Francis? Isn’t the sign of a materialistic mind to consider helplessness a weakness rather than a virtue?
This said, it seems to me, that the proliferation of stupidity in all fields of today’s social life is a clear sign of the decline of the capitalist era. A system that has put profit and material pleasure above everything else created a cultural vacuum of Biblical proportions. Within this empty space the virus of stupidity has reproduced itself to staggering amounts. Hedonistic capitalism, having eliminated the classical ideas of universal ethic, finds itself at it’s logical conclusion. We bartered virtue for pleasure, culture for entertainment, economic justice for social justice, philosophy for memes, the transcendent for the immanent, political ideals for blind ideology, Pink Floyd for Justin Bieber and the results are in folks! May all the number of the stars give light to your fair way!