In recent reading, I’ve stumbled on a paper by Carlo M. Cipolla. An Italian, Cipolla taught economic history at the University of California at Berkeley, and proposed “The [Five] Basic Laws of Human Stupidity”:
1) Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
2) The probability that a certain person will be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
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.
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.
5) A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.
Clarifications and Corollaries
“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,” Cipolla wrote in the explanation of the 3rd law. “Nobody knows, understands or can possibly explain why that preposterous creature does what he does what he does*. In fact there is no explanation — or better, there is only one explanation: the person in question is stupid.”
The Fifth Law has a Corollary: A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit. (Because a thief at least has motives, even if you don’t agree with them.)
It’s all spelled out in his short paper: The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity.
* I’m unsure whether that’s emphasis or an error, but it is a direct quote.
Cipolla died in 2000, at 78. I certainly hope he found This is True before he departed. I think he would have enjoyed it.
(Hat tip: I found Cipolla’s essay via Futility Closet, which was featured in my now-defunct “Bonzer Web Sites” in 2010.)
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