The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity

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

Stupid is as stupid does.

“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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5 Comments on “The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity

  1. Randy, you have no idea how much I needed this when it showed up in my in-box. I just spent the last four months dealing with a real estate client who absolutely hit every one of these Laws of Stupidity. In a normal real estate transaction, there are about 200 emails between the various parties: my client, the other agent, the closing attorney, inspectors, repairmen, etc.

    For selling this woman’s house and buying another, there were over 1700 emails, about 90% from the client. She would ask the same question after I had already answered it multiple times, totally ignored most of the advice I gave her, overpaid for many services after I gave her a better alternative. And after the closing, she demanded I pay her $200 because the refrigerator wasn’t cleaned to her satisfaction (it looked fine to me). Oh, and I had paid for the cleaning to begin with as a favor to her. Now I realize, she was just stupid from birth and couldn’t help herself. May I have your permission to share this with some of my Realtor friends?

    A classic client from hell! You need some Get Out of Hell Free cards too (actually read the back if you don’t already know what it says). And yes: I put this page up so that readers had a “permanent” page to direct friends to. You’re welcome to send the URL to anyone you think “needs” to see it. -rc

  2. Apropos T-Shirt Slogan: When you are dead, you don’t know that you are dead. It is difficult only for the others. It is the same when you are Stupid.

  3. I worked six and a half years at an answering service in the 90s, three and a half of those years on graveyard shift. Maybe we should add another to the list of stupid:

    The later it is, the stupider they get.

    A memorable call came from a guy on one of our church lines at 3 am, demanding that I wake the priest because he had had an epiphany about the meaning of a particular Bible verse. No matter how many times I explained to him that I could NOT wake the priests, except for what THEY deemed as emergencies — last rites for a dying parishioner, or trying to talk a jumper down from a building — he was still insistent, until I finally told him, “NO, the church will be open starting at (time).”

    I was then informed I was going to hell, because I had denied him the love of God. I wonder what the priests had to say about that particular complaint, we never got a call from that church about the incident.

    Come to think of it, he could have been a “Get Out of Hell Free” salesman who was just a few years too early.

  4. I came upon the Laws of Stupidity article years ago when it was published in a magazine and reproduced it on my (then) website mentalsoup.com. It lasted for several more years (with lots of great comments) until Mr. Cipola’s attorneys contacted me and asked me to take it down, which of course I did. Glad to see it’s still getting circulated. It’s amazingly accurate and insightful.

    Interesting his estate was that protective of it. -rc

  5. Good list but it overlooks how creative the stupid can be.

    As an installer/trainer in the eighties (remember Wordstar & Visicalc?) I can attest that stupid people are ingenious in demonstrating their stupidity and exposing unrecognized assumptions.

    The things that are now cliches like thinking the mouse is a foot pedal and plugging two power strips into each other really happened as did a lot of other equally absurd things.

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