Carlo Cipolla’s 5 Laws of Stupidity

Across the annals of time, an influential factor has impeded the advancement of human well-being and joy. This force wields might surpassing that of the Mafia or the armed forces. Its ramifications resonate on a global scale, spanning from the highest echelons of corporate power to the corners of your neighborhood tavern.

That force is human stupidity. 

Carlo M. Cipolla, noted professor of economic history at the UC Berkeley, wrote an important book – THE BASIC LAWS OF HUMAN STUPIDITY – in order to detect and neutralize its threat. 

Stupidity is a complex problem, for many reasons. Here are Cipolla’s five laws of 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.

And here’s how Cipolla charted stupidity:

The chart gives us four groups of people:

  • Helpless people contribute to society but are taken advantage of by it
  • Intelligent people contribute to society and leverage their contributions into personal benefits
  • Stupid people are counterproductive to both their and others’ interests
  • Bandits pursue their own self-interest even when this poses a net detriment to societal welfare (most of our billionaires?!)

An additional category of ineffectual people exist at the center of the graph!

What’s really interesting to me is that Cipolla applies his Theory of Stupidity to the rise and fall of Nations.

“Whether one considers classical, or medieval, or modern or contemporary times one is impressed by the fact that any country moving uphill has its unavoidable σ fraction of stupid people. However the country moving uphill also has an unusually high fraction of intelligent people who manage to keep the σ fraction at bay and at the same time produce enough gains for themselves and the other members of the community to make progress a certainty.”


“In a country which is moving downhill, the fraction of stupid people is still equal to σ; however in the remaining population one notices among those in power an alarming proliferation of the bandits with overtones of stupidity (sub-area B1 of quadrant B in figure 3) and among those not in power an equally alarming growth in the number of helpless individuals (area H in basic graph, fig.1). Such change in the composition of the non-stupid population inevitably strengthens the destructive power of the σ fraction and makes decline a certainty. And the country goes to Hell.”

I would add that the stupid Nation is the one that has abandoned the Common Good.

NOTE: Prof. Cipolla retired from UCB in 1991, and died on September 5, 2000, in Pavia, Italy. His heirs have tried to assert control over the text of THE BASIC LAWS OF HUMAN STUPIDITY , but it was released to the public domain, and cannot be retracted.