October 28

The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity

79  comments

Stupid people are everywhere. And, as we all know, no class, race, sex, occupation, political affiliation, country of origin, or degree of wealth has a monopoly on stupidity. Stupid people cause profound damage to individuals and to society at large. But, for the most part, stupid people operate in a kind of anonymity. Consequently, we are frequently ambushed by them and pay the often hefty price.

I say stupid people operate in anonymity not because we all don’t know stupid people, but because stupid people don’t have a huge literature identifying them. There are countless books written on how to be smarter, how to improve critical thinking skills, how to learn faster and how to develop acumen in all sorts of fields of endeavor.

There are books on the traits of highly successful people and on the classification of various intellectual skills. But where is the Field Guide to Stupid People, the reference source we need to identify and avoid – as much as is possible – the often irreparable harm such people can inflict? Such a book doesn’t exist. Or at least I thought it didn’t.

All that changed a few months ago when I was in Paris, roaming through the English language section of my favorite Parisian bookstore, Galignani.

Buried on the table of new releases was a small volume with the seductive title: The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity. I picked it up, flipped through its 70 or so pages, and almost put it down. But something told me to go ahead and purchase it despite its hefty 12.25 Euro (~$17) price for such a little book.

Now knowing what’s in this little book, I would have paid multiples of that price.

The author of the book, one Carlo M. Cipolla (1922-2000), a professor of economics at UC Berkeley and at Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, wrote it while at Berkeley in 1976, privately published it and handed it out to about a hundred friends. Professor Cipolla, believing his little book could be only enjoyed in the language in which it was written, refused multiple requests for translations. He relented in 1988 and translated The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity into Italian, and it became an immediate bestseller. Since then it has been translated into multiple languages, but had never appeared in English other than in the impossible-to-find, self-published, first edition.

Finally, the Italian publisher has come out with a paperback version in English, the language in which the book was originally written. Unfortunately, this English language edition is available only in Europe.

Don’t despair. A Kindle version is available through Amazon for a mere $7.90. It will be the best $7.90 you ever spent.

If you read anything about this book, you will see if referred to as a “humorous” little toss off or a “Swiftian” take on stupidity by a well-regarded, prolific economic historian. But I don’t believe that is the case. The book is way too sensible, and I’ve had way too many interactions with stupid people to believe for a minute this isn’t a serious book.

Stupid people are legion and powerful.

As Professor Cipolla explains:

After Darwin we know that we share our origin with the lower members of the animal kingdom, and worms as well as elephants have to bear their daily share of trials, predicaments, and ordeals. Human beings, however, are privileged in so far as they have to bear an extra load — an extra dose of tribulations originated daily by a group of people within the human race itself. This group is much more powerful than the Mafia, or the Military Industrial Complex, or International Communism — it is an unorganized unchartered group which has no chief, no president, no by-laws and yet manages to operate in perfect unison, as if guided by an invisible hand, in such a way that the activity of each member powerfully contributes to strengthen and amplify the effectiveness of the activity of all other members. The nature, character and behaviour of the members of this group are the subject of the following pages.

Let me point out at this juncture that most emphatically this little book is neither a product of cynicism nor an exercise in defeatism — no more than a book on microbiology. The following pages are in fact the result of a constructive effort to detect, know and thus possibly neutralize one of the most powerful, dark forces which hinder the growth of human welfare and happiness.

Sadly, it doesn’t matter whether you are talking about the Mafia, the Military Industrial Complex, International Communism, your college classmates or the Democratic or Republican parties, there are always more stupid people than you think. In fact, that is Professor Cipolla’s first basic law:

Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.

Professor Cipolla goes on to define that number as σ (sigma) and explains:

No matter how high are one’s estimates of human stupidity, one is repeatedly and recurrently startled by the fact that:
a) People whom one had once judged rational and intelligent turn out to be unashamedly stupid.
b) Day after day, with unceasing monotony, one is harassed in one’s activities by stupid individuals who appear suddenly and unexpectedly in the most inconvenient places and at the most improbable moments.

All of which is true, of course, and has been borne out of countless unfortunate experiences we have all had.

So beware whenever you are exposed to a group of well meaning, seemingly normal people. Bankers, lawyers, accountants, doctors, artists, politicians (especially politicians), teachers, aviators – it doesn’t matter. In accordance with this first law, there will be σ of them who are stupid, and that number will always be greater than estimated.

This wonderful little book, which can be read in one short sitting (I’ve read it, myself, at least ten times), describes how to identify truly stupid people and provides charts to do so. You can actually graph where those you know or know of fit into the stupidity quadrants; are they intelligent, are they helpless, are they bandits (not as bad as you might imagine), or are they stupid? As with all of life, there are overlaps, but for the most part, people fit pretty neatly into one of these quadrants.

I’ve dealt with some spectacularly stupid people in my time, and I’ve always attributed malignancy or hatefulness to them, but the reality is they’re stupid. And now, thanks to this book, I know why and can now identify them. Had I had it earlier, I could have saved myself a lot of trouble and a lot of money. The book describes almost exactly what has happened to me on a number of occasions.

One is tempted to believe that a stupid man will only do harm to himself but this is confusing stupidity with helplessness. On occasion one is tempted to associate oneself with a stupid individual in order to use him for one’s own schemes. Such a manoeuvre cannot but have disastrous effects because a) it is based on a complete misunderstanding of the essential nature of stupidity and b) it gives the stupid person added scope for the exercise of his gifts.

Sadly, I have had my share of stupid people exercise their gifts to my loss.

Those interactions were personal to me. Stupid people can harm you as well. But the real consequences come when they harm society or an entire country.

The damaging potential of the stupid person depends on two major factors. First of all, it depends on the genetic factor. Some individuals inherit exceptional doses of the gene of stupidity and by virtue of inheritance they belong from birth to the élite of their group. The second factor which determines the potential of a stupid person is related to the position of power and consequence which he occupies in society. Among bureaucrats, generals, politicians and heads of state one has little difficulty in finding clear examples of basically stupid individuals whose damaging capacity was (or is) alarmingly enhanced by the position of power which they occupied (or occupy). Religious dignitaries should not be overlooked.

The question that reasonable people often raise is how and why stupid people can reach positions of power and consequence.

Class and caste were the social arrangements which favoured the steady supply of stupid people to positions of power in most societies of the pre-industrial world. Religion was another contributing factor. In the modern industrial world class and caste are banished both as words and as concepts and religion is fading away. But in lieu of class and caste we have political parties and bureaucracy and in lieu of religion we have democracy. Within a democratic system, general elections are a most effective instrument to insure the steady maintenance of fraction σ among the powerful. One has to keep in mind that according to the Second Basic Law [explained in the book], the fraction σ of the voting population are stupid people [and by the first law, that population is larger than estimated] and elections offer to all of them at once a magnificent opportunity to harm everybody else without gaining anything from their action. They do so by contributing to the maintenance of the σ level among those in power.

I can’t recommend The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity heartily enough. I hope everyone gets it and reads it multiple times because it is a treasure trove of reason that will go a long way toward protecting you from unnecessary harm, financial and otherwise.
Let me know what you think of it. Perhaps your interpretation will be different than mine.


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  1. Muchos gracias – I look forward to reading this. Seems my more than occasional habit of muttering: “I see stupid people” is not just a lonely exasperation.
    Another book you might enjoy is Paul Fussell’s “Class”, if you haven’t already read it. Some well-aimed arrows therein…

    1. I read Fussell’s book years ago. Strangely, I just ran across it a couple of days ago while looking for another book in my library. Picked it up and read a bit here and there.

  2. This reminds me of “Good Strategy, Bad Strategy” by Richard Rumelt. He devotes two chapters to bad strategy such as goal setting, mission statements, indecision and wishful thinking.

    1. “Good Strategy, Bad Strategy” by Richard Rumelt – I read it and then I bought it – wanted a copy where I could get my hands on it quickly. Take a look at Strategy Safari by Henry Mintzberg.

        1. You might like to read “On the Psychology of Military Incompetence”, by Norman Dixon. It is available on Amazon.
          Dixon describes a number examples of Military Incompetence, many resulting in massive, unnecessary deaths.
          From your review, Military Incompetence may also be human stupidity.
          I have added “The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity” to my must get and read list

  3. I love this book already (currently on p29), especially the humour inherent in “any numerical estimate would turn out to be an underestimate.” Thus n-1 is, of course, an underestimate… :))

  4. Sounds interesting but also more than a bit elitist – something europeans specialize in – though we (USA) seem Hell bent on catching up with them. C.f. Obamacare.
    As someone with two engineering degrees I have found that no matter how intelligent one is, there are always other people who are even more intelligent. The bottom line is, therefore, that they are in as much pain interacting with my stupidity as I am in interacting with those who I view as stupid. Its a sliding scale and we’d all do better to learn some tolerance.

    1. This book defines stupid differently than you. It has nothing to do with intellect – in fact, there are as many highly intelligent stupid people as their are unintelligent stupid people. Stupidity, as defined, has nothing to do with brainpower. Stupid people – as defined – should be avoided, not tolerated.

      1. I get the impression that the book’s definition of stupidity is closer to what most people would describe as foolishness.
        (I bought the book on your recommendation and can’t wait to read it)

      2. Mea Culpa!
        My expectations for the book – which I plan to buy on your recommendation – are now very different.
        It seems to be worth it for the definition of ‘stupid’ that I erroneously assumed to be something it was not.
        Damn. I’m stupid!

  5. I am not tolerant, I do have compassion for those who were born with mental disabilities. I want thoughtful and decisive approaches to important issues from those who are capable. It is not too much to ask.

    1. Ah Bunny, but that is exactly the point. It IS too much to ask. You might as well ask an elephant to fly or a honey bee to carry four humans on its back when you ask for thoughtful and decisive approaches from people who turn out to be stupid. And the frightening fact is that on first blush many stupid people APPEAR capable. They often have resumes full of taking credit for the actions of capable people they’ve known and worked with. They can talk about capable action all day long… and yet they are intrinsically incapable of carrying it out.
      The key skill is learning to spot them early and avoid them. If you are stuck on a team with them, find ways to divert them to non-critical areas where they can do the least harm. If they are leaders, stay away from their company or department for the rocky shoals are fast approaching… you don’t want to be blamed for their stupidity by proximity to their errors.
      And don’t be fooled by good grooming, nice clothes, a good education, and pleasant manners. The educated stupid are the most dangerous of creatures because at first glance they appear to be rational creatures. They’ve learned the lingo and can fake street smarts. Listen between the lines for the crippling irrational beliefs, the too certain positivity, the blindness to potential consequences.
      Like the good doctor, I too have been struck low by my interactions with stupid people. Due diligence in all undertakings must include being constantly on the alert for unexpected stupidity, especially in regards to ones colleagues and business partners. I heard the stupid remarks early and carelessly thought to myself, “Oh, he just misspoke himself.” No, he was really that stupid. The clues were there if I’d only been a little more alert for stupidity.
      No amount of training or life experience will unstupidify the completely clueless. They are immune to the lessons of life. They are the ducks in the pond that snipe at the eagles flying by. The ignorant can be educated. The mentally deficient can be found tasks to suit their meager abilities. But the truly stupid are dangerous irrational creatures. Scrupulous avoidance is the only defense.

      1. Agreed…very well put.
        I actually use my own adaptation of The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity in my presentations.
        As the Pogo cartoon once famously said: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
        And, George Carlin nailed it.

  6. I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed this post and how timely it is. Not five minutes before reading, my wife and I were discussing the bizarre phenomenon of “professionals” propagating the worst sorts of misinformation in the name of their discipline (we were talking about registered dietitians in this instance). I cannot wait to read this book! Thanks so much for sharing your discovery!

    1. I”m sure you will greatly enjoy the book. But spreading misinformation does not necessarily make one stupid. Such activities can bring gain to the perpetrators, which doesn’t necessarily make them stupid (though they can lean in a stupid direction) according to the strict definition of stupidity in this wonderful book.

  7. Thanks for posting this. I look forward to getting the book and reading what his definition of stupidity is. A much as I agree with everything you wrote and quoted, laziness is worse than stupidity (the way I think of it), although maybe he includes that in his definition. A clever lazy person is absolutely to be avoided and a lot of people I would call stupid, but who are honest and hardworking are very solid citizens.

    1. Clever lazy people can be stupid or not. And hardworking, upstanding citizens can be stupid or not. The definition in the book is precise.
      The stupid person who cost me the most money is actually hardworking, extremely intelligent and honest to a fault. Because of those qualities, I didn’t realize this person was stupid (as defined by this book) until I had read the book. Had I had this book years ago, I would have recognized the stupidity immediately and could have saved myself a lot of money and even more heartache.

    1. Not really. Incompetence doesn’t equate to stupidity, at least not by the books definition. There are incompetent people who are stupid and incompetent people who are not. And by the First Law, we always underestimate the number of people who are truly stupid in each group. So there are more stupid incompetent people than you would estimate, and more stupid yet competent people as well.

  8. Thank you, Dr. Eades! I just purchased the Kindle edition to read on my iPad. But I looked through the comments at Amazon.com and didn’t see yours there. Why not post this web page there too?
    Namaste,
    David

      1. It’s quite easy on Amazon. You just go to the page where the book is sold and then follow the link to Customer Reviews. They then allow you to post your review by clicking on a button at that page. You also get to preview your comments before they are posted. You can even edit your own comments later on if you choose to or add additional comments. If you have purchased the book through Amazon, they want you to indicate that, but it’s not mandatory to have purchased through Amazon to get your review posted. I don’t know if you have to be an Amazon member to post as I’ve long been a member so I’ve never had a problem posting any comments or reviews.

        1. I neglected to answer what you first asked. I generally type my comments separately to avoid making an error. Then I do what you said – copy and paste the review or comments into the space offered when you click on the link at the Customer Reviews page for that book.

  9. I’m sure no one here would admit to being stupid. I, myself, am quite intelligent (objectively so). But I have been known to do stupid things aka. mistakes. Does doing something stupid and realizing it still make you a stupid person? Or do all non-stupid people do stupid things from time to time?

    1. Doing so-called stupid things does not make one stupid. There is a precise definition of stupid in the book. It’s different from what people usually associate with stupidity.

      1. Is the book’s definition closer to Thomas Sowell’s definition of the Anointed Ones or those who believe in the Utopian Vision or the Unconstrained Vision? Those people have a very special kind of stupid…

        1. No. Completely different. There are those who fit Sowell’s definition, who aren’t stupid by this definition and vice versa. It all depends on their interaction with other people.

  10. This post was referenced on Paleo Perspectief (Melchior Meijer) and started with this eminent example (roughly translated : ”.The number of people with an IQ of 70 or more who believe that steel structures can, due to local heating fall spontaneously at the speed of free fall perpendicularly into their own foundation, is mind boggling large. The same applies to the number of highly educated people who consider evolution not applicable to humans and paleo as pseudoscience. ..”
    I find it difficult to distinguish sometimes between malice, vanity, and stupidity. When Dr Colin Campbell cherry picks through his China Study, would one call that stupidity? because he must have known that sooner or later somebody would find him out. You did quite some time ago and more recently Denise Minger did. I guess there are many more examples like it.

    1. You wrote:

      I find it difficult to distinguish sometimes between malice, vanity, and stupidity.

      Read this little book, and you will no longer find it difficult to differentiate.
      There are malicious, spiteful people who are not stupid and there are those who are. By the first law, the group of malicious, spiteful people contain a larger number of stupid people than one would estimate. Same with the group of those people imbued with a great deal of vanity.
      Colin Campbell may well not be stupid although he is wrong.

      1. Stupid people driving cars are the bane of my bicycling. I’m 6’4″ and wear a garish day glo shirt with red shorts and red shoes. My bike has eight, count ’em eight bright blinky LED lights in a variety of colors. Plus, my person and bike are festooned with numerous reflectors.
        I ride with the paranoia of a ground hog watching out for hawks… and I STILL almost get run over on a regular basis.
        The intelligent driver spots my rolling Times Square/Picadilly Circus and studiously avoids me. The stupid? They seem not to even notice me as I swerve, brake, and bail to avoid being killed.
        Amazing!

        1. Ha Ben, some might consider riding a bike with so many stupid people driving cars to be an act of stupidity. But maybe not by the definition of the book!
          Cheers

  11. A book I think you might enjoy reading:
    Scarcity : why having too little means so much
    by Mullainathan, Sendhil, author.
    New York : Times Books/Henry Holt and Company, 2013.
    Subjects Scarcity.
    Scarcity — Psychological aspects.
    Supply and demand.
    Title Statement:
    Scarcity : why having too little means so much / by Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Sharif.
    Edition:
    First edition
    Description:
    288 pages ; 24 cm.
    Bibliography Note:
    Includes bibliographical references and index.
    Contributors:
    Sharif, Eldar., author.
    ISBN:
    9780805092646
    9781846143458 (hbk.)
    1846143454 (hbk.)

  12. On a related note, read online about the “Dunning-Kruger effect”. This says that incompetent people overestimate their own abilities. In fact they are incompetent in judging their own competence. This is why stupid people don’t know they’re stupid.

    1. Yes, I’ve read about the Dunning-Kruger effect. Recently, in fact.
      But as I wrote earlier, there is a difference between incompetence and stupidity, at least as stupidity is defined in this book. Nobel laureates are competent at what they do, but some are stupid. And, according to the first law, more are stupid than you would estimate.

  13. Actually this Dunning-Kruger talk reminded me of another book which I think would make a perfect sister companion to this Stupidity book we’re talking about: Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me.
    Basically it goes ahead and shows you how and why people do and say things that seems completely retarded given the evidence (cognitive dissonance), it’s mostly about politicians but it is EXACTLY the same thing applied to nutritionists and health advisors etc.
    Gary Taubes mentions the book on his Reddit AMA last year: http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/12edbj/im_gary_taubes_science_writer_and_author_of_sweet/c6uezzp

  14. I would guess one sign of stupidity is consistently applying, for its own sake, a principle or ideal that is usually unnecessary or inappropriate, as if it is a virtue with heavenly rewards.
    Similar to superstition, but can be any modern concept that rules out actions or compels them, if applied inflexibly or whimsically.
    I am intrigued.

  15. I just ordered this book from Amazon, by linking from this website. They had one paperback available which is used but supposedly in “like-new” condition. As soon as I can read it I’ll let you know…

  16. Hi Dr. Eades,
    I just wanted to thank you for writing such an excellent review–it had me chuckling throughout, while thoroughly holding my interest.
    There are already so many great comments here (kudos especially to Ben Fury– well said) so I’ll simply say thanks so much for a great read, and, your recommendation.

    1. Well, as the book says, every group contains stupid people, and the first law says we always underestimate the number of stupid people in any group. So readers of this blog are a group. There are stupid people in this group. And we all underestimate their number. But, you, MrFreddy?!?! How can that be possible?

  17. Just read this book on your recommendation.
    Very entertaining and certainly some rational thoughts went into this book.
    However, I feel this is a fundamentally flawed (and maybe even damaging) book in that it fails to factor in the greatest acts of ‘intelligence’ available to us humans: compassion and love. Is there ANY better way to benefit YOU and OTHERS??
    Yes i suppose all of these human ‘categories’ exist (intelligent, helpless, bandit and stupid) but the approach of this author to validate them on a scale of best to worst is insensitive, and ignorant.
    We shouldn’t condemn and avoid-at-all-costs ‘stupid’ people. We should love them and help them to transform their destructive behaviours in the ways we can as individuals.
    By separating people into broad categories, thus feeding the widespread notion that we are all NOT connected, does not benefit an individual or others. So to me, very ironically, the author of this book is himself Stupid by his own definition in holding these views.
    The world isn’t a terrible place because of stupid people. The world is a terrible place because of people who fail to see that we are all connected instead choosing to believe they are separate, and that life is about competition rather than cooperation and love.

  18. In the age of overspecialization we also have many who are brilliant
    In their tiny niche, and pretty stupid otherwise. By rewarding masters of
    Small trades we are training legions of idiot savants who are marvelous in finance, medicine, engineering, IT, etc. , but semi-literate outside their box. Part of this is due to the decline of the liberal arts and the rise of professional schools and instrumental training. I suspect that the predominance of raw bits of information over critical analysis is related to the dominance of the Internet and stupid phones like the one im using right now. It is nice that I can cheaply squire the book in question without having to order it from abroad.

  19. I would also add that the elitism of valuing ‘head work’ over ‘hand work’ is another problem. I can play the violin but there is little I know about how to repair my own car or bike. That’s pretty stupid, but predictable, given my background

  20. It’s not specifically about stupidity, but another very short book that cuts to the bone is “How to Lie with Statistics”, by Darrell Huff – written back in the 50’s but still applicable.

  21. Does intent matter? Or only the result?
    For example, If I embezzle a large sum of money from you, my intent was bandit and my action was bandit.
    But if I embezzle the same amount of money in order to invest in a wildcat scheme and promptly lose all the money, my intent was bandit, but my action was stupid because you’re worse off and I’m no better off then when we started.
    Or if I embezzle the same amount of money from you in order to invest in a wildcat scheme and actually do get-rich-quick and put your money back before you find out, my intent was bandit, but the result was intelligent because I’m now better off and you’re no worse off.
    Or something like that.
    mtmd

    1. Interesting. I would say results matter more than intent. Your actions are viewed from your perspectives while the other’s actions are viewed from their perspective. Accordingly, if you get screwed by the actions of another, then from your perspective, the intent doesn’t matter, only the outcome or results.

  22. I think this book could be read for entertainment, or for studying somebody else’s opinion. But to be serious, I don’t like to judge and divide people into categories or stigmatize them. If the person behaves differently, this does not necessarily mean that he is more stupid than you. People are different, and each deserves his place under the sun.

  23. If you couple this essay (book, now, evidently) with a few others, it does not bode well for humanity.
    Read “The Social Conquest of Earth” by E. O. Wilson and “The Bridge at the Edge of the World” by James Gustave Speth.
    For some philosophical underpinnings, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” is always a good read (or re-read).

  24. I just re-read this blogpost – and found it just scary in view of the new president. And I´m going to buy this book. So a late thank you for this post.

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