You're underestimating the amount of stupidity around you

You encounter more stupid people every day than you think, you may just not realize it. I'm going to help you find them.


First, we need to define what a stupid person is. In his short book ‘The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity’, Carlo Cipolla describes a stupid person as follows:

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.

You might think, ‘wait a second that doesn’t make any sense, why would anyone cause a loss, while they gain absolutely nothing in return’. I wouldn’t blame you, that’s what I originally thought. But think of the times somebody stood in your way when you were trying to be productive, whilst they didn’t gain from standing in your way. Stupid people are irrational, unreasonable and unpredictable, that’s why it is so hard to reason with them or rather, make sense of their behavior. That’s why they’re so dangerous.

Of course, there are a few distinctions to be made. How do you distinct stupid people from the rest? Again, Cipolla offers us 4 main categories in which humans fall. You're underestimating the amount of stupidity around you /img/stupidity/stupidity.svg

Fig. 1
Click image to enlarge

As you can see above, you can categorize people based on their incentives in a certain situation. So, using the graph (fig. 1) we can categorize someone based on their motivations and the way they act:

  • Stupid people: counterproductive, they lose something while the other party also loses something
  • Helpless people: naive, they lose something while the other party gains something
  • Intelligent people: contributors, they gain something while making sure the other party gains something as well
  • Bandits: thieves, they gain something while the other party loses something

Here are some practical examples: You're underestimating the amount of stupidity around you /img/stupidity/examples.svg

Fig. 2
Click image to enlarge

It’s important to realize that stupid people aren’t concentrated in one social category. You find the same percentage of stupid people among Nobel laureates as you do among blue-collar workers. Just because somebody has a prize or a high function associated to their name doesn’t make them intelligent. They are still stupid. Not only they are stupid, but the whole system is ridiculous for rewarding these types of people.

It’s almost as if modern western society promotes status seeking, not erudition seeking.

Luckily, stupid people are usually consistent. If they do something intelligent, they normally do it by mistake. So, if they are consistent they should be easy to avoid, once we’ve defined them. They should never, and I mean never be making decisions for a whole society. That’s another reason top-down, central-planned societies are a big no-no. It’s very easy for a stupid person to be elected (by other stupid persons, of course) and make unwise decisions that affect negatively the lives of millions of people.

In order to minimize the rise of stupid people in positions of power you need to have certain societal values that promote not the show-off, but the cool-headed rational. Not the stupid, the intelligent. Actions, not words. The entrepreneur, not the rent-seeker (although some might be bandits, a lot of them are very stupid). It’s important to make sure that when we take a certain action, we can help others as well. That we are intelligent in that sense.

And so, in conclusion, I’m going to leave you with a quote by the great Marcus Aurelius:

Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.

Buy the book

The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity

by Carlo Cipolla
Amazon US
Amazon UK

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