Prof. Cipolla’s Laws

Masques et bouffons (Comedie Italienne) by Maurice Sand. 1860

Masques et bouffons (Comedie Italienne) by Maurice Sand. 1860

Forget the likes of John Maynard Keynes, Milton Friedman and Joseph Stiglitz; forget micro-economic terms like utility, surplus, demand curves, elasticity and the law of diminishing returns; the most important economist on this site is Carlo M. Cipolla, and the most important theoretical developments of the modern era are his LAWS OF STUPIDITY. How long have we needed a systematised and reliable model to help us conceptualise the workings of stupidity? Exciting stuff indeed, and the groundwork laid by Cipolla contains much promise for us later, if somewhat more amateur, stupidity theorists.

This blog is inspired by Professor Cipolla (although falling far short of his brilliance), and as such takes a look at some examples of how stupid decisions, and the actions of stupid individuals, impact negatively on the communal space that is the planet earth. Although the tone of Professor Cipolla’s seminal work, “The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity”, is tongue-in-cheek, the reality to which he refers is, unfortunately, completely tangible: the consequences of bad planning and misinformation have been profound and tragic.

The human and environmental cost of stupidity is beyond quantifiable measurement: from tainted dog food to massive environmental disasters, every nation on earth seems endowed with their own helping of inane decision makers.

Cipolla was a Professor of Economics at UC Berkeley until 1991, and regrettably passed away in 2000. His legacy, however, is weighty, and his contribution to the understanding of human stupidity is revolutionary.

The genius of Cipolla’s observations is that the 5 general laws which he hashes out are arrived at inductively, and are based on many years (one might even say a lifetime) of observation. Whereas the Professor cannot arrive at a model to predict the specific behavioural patterns of stupid people (in fact he firmly articulates that astounding irrationality is the very weapon of stupid people; and, therefore, that stupid behaviour can never be adequately rationally modelled), he does arrive at a useful definition of what true stupidity is. In Cipolla’s view, stupidity is defined by an action that results in a double negative: the consequences of stupidity involve a loss to the stupid individual as well as a loss to society (here taken to mean either a single person or a larger collective group).

This type of action can be compared to three other species of effects: the first, which is the diametric opposite of stupidity, is intelligence. Intelligent action results in a gain to the intelligent agent as well as a gain to society. A “bandit” is an agent who brings about a gain for him/herself but causes a loss to society. A “helpless” individual is an agent who brings about a gain to society through a loss to him/herself. Cipolla uses a standard (Cartesian) 4 quadrant graph consisting of x and y axes. The x-axis represents the loss/gain to the self, and the y-axis represents the gain/loss to society. It is thus that intelligence is located in the upper right quadrant, banditry in the lower right quadrant, stupidity in the lower left quadrant and helplessness in the upper left quadrant. Every action by every individual can be plotted somewhere on the graph, and the location of the plotted point will give an observer a clear indication of its level of intelligence and its “species” (i.e. whether banditry, helplessness, intelligence or stupidity). Only the lower left quadrant indicates a scenario in which no gain (either for the individual or for society) has been achieved, and as stated, this is the way Cipolla defines stupidity.

His Five Basic Laws of Human Stupidity are as follows:

  1. Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation. [They are more plentiful, as a rule, than we are led to believe]
  2. The probability that a certain person will be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person. [Stupidity is a proponent of equal opportunity, and doesn’t discriminate on the basis of race, gender, class, level of education or anything else that could be construed as grounds for discrimination]
  3. 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. [See above]
  4. 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. [Keep away from stupid people, and bear in mind that they constantly act in a stupid way: think Forrest Gump – “stupid is as stupid does”]
  5. A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person. [No one wins when stupidity is in play]

The last contribution to the field stupidology that the professor makes to be mentioned here is the “amplification effect”: when in a position of power, the negative impact that the respective stupid individual can make is greatly amplified due to the very nature of hierarchical structures. On this account, stupid people occupying significant positions in the governmental and commercial sphere are a bane to those who wish to survive life in a harmonious and well considered manner. In brief summary, it is advisable to 1. avoid stupid people in positions of power; 2. avoid stupid people operating heavy machinery and dangerous home appliances; 3. remain vigilant and be proactive (as best as is possible) when stupidity is identified as such.