05-13-2013   Leave a comment

I’ve been accused on occasion of thinking everyone I’ve ever met is stupid. I’m really not that jaded to think something that’s so ridiculous.  I do believe that every person on the planet has the capability to have moments of genius and just as many have moments of stupid, myself included. I’m just fascinated and maybe overly so by people either being “stupid” or just acting “stupid”.  I’ve dealt with and interviewed thousands of people over the years and the number that could be considered “stupid” by any normal human being is nothing less than mind boggling.  I’ve also known my fair share of genius level people, both male and female, and almost all of them come across as “stupid” when you discuss anything except their specific fields of interest. They are so focused on them that everything else is unimportant. 

I’ve reread a book recently that’s translated from the Italian and it was all about “Stupid”.  The authors name was Carlo M. Cipolla and he was Professor Emeritus of Economic History at Berkeley. His first book was published in 1988 in Bologna and in that book there’s an essay called The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity, which may be the best thing ever written on the subject.

Here are his Five Laws of Stupidity somewhat paraphrased:

1. We always underestimate the number of stupid people.

He also observes that it is impossible to set a percentage, because any number we choose will be too small.

2. The probability of a person being stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.

Militant feminists may be incensed, says Cipolla, but the stupidity factor is the same in both genders (or as many genders, or sexes, as you may choose to consider). No difference in the sigma factor, as Cipolla calls it, can be found by race, color, ethnic heritage, education, etcetera.

3. (And Golden) A stupid person is someone who causes damage to another person, or a group of people, without any advantage accruing to himself (or herself) — or even with some resultant self-damage.

(We shall come back to this, because it is the pivotal concept of the Cipolla Theory.)

4. Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid people. They constantly forget that at any moment, and in any circumstance, associating with stupid people invariably constitutes an expensive mistake.

That (I would say) suggests that non-stupid people are a bit stupid — but I shall get back to this point at the end.

5. A stupid person is the most dangerous person in existence.

This is probably the most widely understood of the Laws, if only because it is common knowledge that intelligent people, hostile as they might be, are predictable, while stupid people are not. Moreover, its basic corollary:

A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit.

He leads us to the heart of the Cipolla Theory. There are four types of people, he says, depending on their behavior in a transaction:

  • Hapless – Someone whose actions tend to generate self-damage, but also to create advantage for someone else.

  • Intelligent – Someone whose actions tend to generate self-advantage, as well as advantage for others.

  • Bandit – Someone whose actions tend to generate self-advantage while causing damage to others.

  • Stupid – We already have this definition in the Third Law.

It has become painfully obvious to me that I haven’t even scratched the surface of “stupid” compared to Mr. Cipolla.  I’ve accepted the fact that my reading and understanding of “stupid” must be taken to the next level or maybe I’m just being “stupid” too.

I have a lot of fun pointing out “stupid” on this blog and will continue to do until it stops being funny.  Hopefully at some point in the future I’ll be able to sit down and rewrite Cipolla’s Laws from a more modern perspective and with a touch more humor.


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