Five Universal Laws of Human Stupidity

In 1976, the University of California, Berkeley, published an essay that Carlo M. Cipolla, a professor of economic history wrote, which outlines the fundamental laws of a force he thought was human’s greatest existential threat: stupidity.

According to Cipolla, stupid people share several identifying traits: they are irrational, they are abundant, and they cause problems for others without apparent benefit to themselves, which entail lowers society’s well-being, like a sickness. The professor also argued that there are no defences against stupidity.

The supposed laws are:

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

Cipolla wrote that you are invariably low-balling the total of idiots, because it doesn’t matter how many idiots you think you are surrounded by, there is always more. The reasoning for this is because of the biased assumptions that people link intelligent people with job title, education level, or other traits that are believed to be exclusive of stupidity. This links us to Law 2.

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

Cipolla believes that across all populations, stupidity is a variable that remains constant. Whether it is gender, nationality, race, educational level or income, they all possess a percentage of stupid people. This means there are stupid university professors and stupid people in the UN General Assembly. In every nation on earth there are stupid people, but it is impossible to put a number to it; and if you do, you are violating the first law.

Law 3: Stupid people cause losses to other people or to a group of people while themselves deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.

This is the Golden Law of stupidity according to Cipolla. A person who causes a problem for others without a clear beneficial outcome for themselves is apparently stupid. Cipolla says there are three other phenotypes that co-exist alongside stupidity.

  • Intelligent People – Actions benefit both parties
  • Bandit – Action benefits themselves at another’s expense
  • Helpless People – Actions enrich others experience at their own expense
  • Stupid People – A person who causes problems for others with no self benefit

The non-stupid are an inconsistent and flawed bunch of people. At times they act intelligently but sometimes we are selfish bandits that benefit at others expense, or act helplessly and are taken advantage of by others. However, the stupid in comparison are built of consistency and will act like an idiot at all times, and this is what Cipolla believes makes stupid people so dangerous.

Cipolla explains:

“Essentially stupid people are dangerous and damaging because reasonable people find it difficult to imagine and understand unreasonable behaviour. An intelligent person may understand the logic of a bandit. The bandit’s actions follow a pattern of rationality: nasty rationality, if you like, but still rationality. The bandit wants a plus on his account, and he will produce his plus by causing a minus to appear on your account. All this is bad, but it is rational and if you are rational you can predict it. You can foresee a bandit’s actions, and often can build up your defences.

With a stupid person all this is absolutely impossible as explained by the Third Basic Law. A stupid creature will harass you for no reason, for no advantage, without any plan or scheme and at the most improbable times and places. You have no rational way of telling if, when, how and why the stupid creature attacks. When confronted with a stupid individual you are completely at their mercy.”

Law 4: Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals.

The costly mistake that we make is that we underestimate the stupid, and that can lead us into our own demise.

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

The fact is, a stupid person is more dangerous than even a bandit. The reasoning behind this is that stupid people can bring a society toppling down due to their indecisive and destructive symbiotic outcomes.

Societies that fall under the mercy of the stupid are those that have an equal amount of stupid people and successful ones, but will also have a high percentage of helpless people. This is where they damage not only themselves and others, but according to Cipolla, will also lead the whole society on a downward spiral.