The 5 Basic Laws of Human Stupidity

If I may ask you what humanity’s greatest existential threat is, what would you say? Let me guess, nuclear war, bioengineered pandemic, superintelligence, climate change, natural disaster.

Well, you are wrong. This is because according to Carlo M. Cipolla, humanity’s greatest existential threat is stupidity.

In 1953, Cipolla, an Italian, left for the United States as a Fulbright fellow and in 1957 became a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Two years later, he obtained a full professorship. Cipolla was awarded the International Balzan Prize for Economic History in 1995 and held honorary degrees in Italy and Switzerland. His classic treatise The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity was first published in 1988 and has been published in more than ten languages. According to Cipolla, human beings fall into four basic categories: the helpless, the intelligent, the bandit, and the stupid.

While Cipolla’s laws are not taught in grade school, they do hold lessons worthy of reflection in this modern era. This is because stupidity is currently on display and on the rise more than ever before- on TV, on YouTube, in politics, family gatherings, and in the streets, you come across it every day. In tandem, to better react to and avoid such dimwitted behavior, we must first understand it. And Cipolla’s insightful set of five laws is a vital theory that can help understand stupidity.

Let us dive into the 5 basic laws of human stupidity.

First Basic Law

According to the first law: Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.

According to Cipolla, there are too many stupid people out there who do stupid things, and no matter how hard you try to estimate their number, you will always underestimate how many they are. Thus, Cipolla asserts that there are always more stupid people than you think.

Now, just pause and think about this. Think about all the people that you had assumed are intelligent, before realizing they were actually stupid. Cipolla also suggested a simple experiment. Go out in the street and see how many people insist on obstructing you for no apparent reason. What would you call their behavior if not stupid?

Second Basic Law

According to the second law: The probability that a certain person is stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.

According to Cipolla, stupidity is a human characteristic, like having blue eyes, a long nose, or blond hair. Therefore, it is distributed roughly equally in all walks of society, regardless of people’s level of education. Anybody, no matter whether he or she is an intellectual or ignorant, book smart or street smart, blue-collar or white-collar, can be stupid. Furthermore, Cipolla argues that stupidity persists at roughly equal proportions at all levels of society. Therefore, the rate of stupid people among Nobel laureates is just as high as it is amongst primary school dropouts or those who never stepped their feet in a classroom.

Cipolla conceded that the implications of the Second Basic Law are frightening. This is because, “Whether one frequents elegant circles or takes refuge among cannibals, whether they lock themselves up in a monastery or decide to spend the rest of their life in the company of a beautiful partner, the fact remains that they will always have to deal with the same percentage of stupid people, which (as stipulated in the First Law) will always surpass your expectations.”

In this pessimistic view, Cipolla argues that humans are doomed to deal and live with stupidity for the rest of their existence because there are no safer places or solutions to avoid it.

Third Basic Law

According to the third law: A stupid person is one who causes losses to another person or a group of people while they gain nothing or may even suffer losses.

Understandably, given his background as an economic history professor, Cipolla tackles the term stupidity from an economic perspective.

According to Cipolla, human beings fall into four basic categories: the helpless, the intelligent, the bandit, and the stupid. The helpless causes losses to themselves but cause benefits to others. On the other hand, the intelligent causes benefit to others and to themselves. The bandits cause benefits to themselves but causes losses to others. However, as per the third law, the stupid causes losses to others, and most shockingly causes losses even to themselves.

According to Cipolla this third law is the golden and most important law, which should never be forgotten. According to him, stupidity is not a matter of IQ, but rather a lack of relational skills. In particular, he believed that it is possible to classify people based on their behavior. Thus, there are four classes of people, intelligent, bandits, stupid, and helpless people. Stupid people are the ones who harm others and often themselves, thereby bringing losses to themselves and others. Contrariwise, intelligent people, benefit themselves and others.

Cipolla believed that stupid people behave in an irrational and difficult-to-understand way. Their actions are so utterly thoughtless and unreasonable that reasonable individuals have trouble understanding how these human beings can function.

Cipolla writes, “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 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.”

Fourth Basic Law

According to the 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.

To understand this law better, Cipolla added that, “stupid people are deadly dangerous because reasonable people find it difficult to imagine and understand stupid behavior”. Thus, an attack by stupid people always catches intelligent people by surprise. This makes it even much harder to come up with a rational defense. Nonetheless, this would be of little importance, if any, since actions that are illogic cannot be comprehended using logic.

Consequently, by underestimating the power of the stupid people, you are vulnerable to stupid people’s unpredictability. According to Cipolla, intelligent people often think that stupid people can only harm themselves and that they are immune to stupid peoples’ actions. This is a fatal mistake as it makes intelligent people feel invulnerable and thus lower their guard.

Cipolla laments, “Even after having a good idea of who stupid people are, intelligent people hang out with them, even if it’s to their own detriment.”

Cipolla adds, “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.”

Fifth Basic Law

According to the fifth law: A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.

This law arises as a natural consequence of the fourth basic law. If you have no idea about what Cipolla meant by this law, he made it even more explicit by adding that- A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit. This is because; though a bandit inflicts losses upon others, he or she at least reaps benefits for himself. Stupid people drag down society as a whole.

According to Cipolla, “Stupid people cause losses to other people with no counterpart of gains on their own account. Thus the society as a whole is impoverished.” Thus, it is the great and burdensome responsibility of all, especially the intelligent, to keep the stupid in check.

In closing, Cipolla came up with the 5 basic laws which to some, are equally or even more important than Newton’s laws of gravity. This is because these 5 basic laws of human stupidity remind us that stupidity is a more powerful force than nuclear war, bioengineered pandemic, superintelligence, climate change, natural disaster, the mafia, or the military since it has always hindered the growth of human welfare and happiness. The shocking thing is that stupidity has global catastrophic effects and can be witnessed anywhere from the most powerful boardrooms in the world to our local bars.

By using irony and common sense, Cipolla’s 5 basic laws of human stupidity are both hilarious and deadly serious and offer a genuine and fascinating theory that helps us understand human stupidity in a clear and incisive way. Thus, when inevitably hampered by human stupidity, this theory can help you understand the predicament that you are in and you will therefore be in a better position to face clueless politicians, unreasonable colleagues, or your nagging in-laws. However, as per the second law, you are doomed to deal with and live with stupidity for the rest of your existence because there are no safer places or solutions to avoid stupid people.