The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity
In the early 1600s, pioneering astronomer Johannes Kepler put forth his three laws of planetary motion, which, for the first time, provided an accurate and evidence-based description of the movement of the Solar System's planets around the Sun. By the end of the century, Isaac Newton followed Kepler's example with three laws of his own, describing the relationship between an object and the forces acting on it, thus laying the foundations for classical mechanics. Almost exactly three hundred years later, Carlo M. Cipolla, a professor of economic history at the University of California - Berkeley, introduced a set of laws no less revelatory than those of Kepler or Newton: The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity.
While these laws are not taught in grade school, they do hold lessons worthy of reflection in this modern era. Stupidity today is on display more than ever before -- on TV, YouTube, and the city streets you frequent each and every day. To better react to and avoid such dimwitted behavior, one must first understand it. Cipolla's insightful set of five laws is a helpful guide.
His first law sets the stage.
"Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation."
Glaringly pessimistic, the first law is meant to prepare you for what's out there, and what's out there are hordes of people who do stupid things, often without notice. And there are always more of them than you think.
Contributing to the first law is Cipolla's second law.
"The probability that a certain person will be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person."
Anybody, whether intellectual or ignorant, blue-collar or white collar, book smart or street smart, can be stupid. Moreover, idiocy persists at roughly equal proportions at all levels of society. The rate of stupidity amongst Nobel laureates is just as high as it is amongst male swimmers on the U.S. Olympic team.
"[The Second Basic Law’s] implications are frightening," Cipolla wrote. "The Law implies that whether you move in distinguished circles or you take refuge among the head-hunters of Polynesia, whether you lock yourself into a monastery or decide to spend the rest of your life in the company of beautiful and lascivious women, you always have to face the same percentage of stupid people -- which (in accordance with the First Law) will always surpass your expectations."
How can this be? Well, it might make more sense in light of the definition of stupidity, which Cipolla provides in his third law. Understandably, given his background, he tackles the term from an economic perspective. (See the figure below for a visual explanation of the definition.)
"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 brute who starts a bar fight; the tailgating driver; the football player who commits a flagrant personal foul; the video gamer throwing a temper tantrum and deciding to sabotage his team; all of these are "stupid" people. Their actions are so utterly thoughtless and unreasonable that reasonable individuals have trouble fathoming how these people can function, Cipolla insists.
"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."
With his next law, Cipolla admonishes the members of society who tacitly encourage stupidity. Most of us are guilty.
"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."
When we have a good idea of who stupid individuals are, we still hang out with them, even if it's to our detriment, Cipolla laments.
"Through centuries and millennia, in public as in private life, countless individuals have failed to take account of the Fourth Basic Law and the failure has caused mankind incalculable losses."
Cipolla's fifth law of stupidity is unequivocal.
"A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person."
Yes, more dangerous even than a bandit (refer back to the figure above), who inflicts losses upon others but at least reaps benefits for himself. Stupid people drag down society as a whole, Cipolla insists.
"Stupid people cause losses to other people with no counterpart of gains on their own account. Thus the society as a whole is impoverished."
It's the great and burdensome responsibility of everyone else, particularly the intelligent, to keep them in check.
Source: Cipolla, Carlo M. "The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity." Whole Earth Review (Spring 1987 pp 2 - 7)