The Theory of Human Stupidity

Insights Newsletter
5 March, 2021

Humans are complicated. We are intelligent species that dominated the world with our knowledge and brilliance. We built pyramids and skyscrapers, we went to the moon, and we invented Pokémon GO.

Yet, throughout human history, human stupidity has triumphed time and time again – whether it is communism and fascism killing millions of people, recurring asset price bubbles and their eventual bursts, or carelessness leading to environmental degradation. We never cease to stop causing unnecessary harm to ourselves or others.  

Stupidity applies on an individual level, too. We have dozens of cognitive biases, believe our own lies and feel good about it.

But is there something more systematic about human folly?

Italian economic historian Carlo M. Cipolla believes so. In his book 'The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity', Cipolla identifies four different kinds of people – stupid people, helpless people, intelligent people, and bandits.

As a group, stupid people are far more powerful than the Mafia and the Military-Industrial Complex because they actually drive and influence social outcomes. 

Cipolla found that the same proportion of people in any group tended to be stupid, even within the group of Nobel laureates or professors, or even blue-collar workers. The reality is that we have to face the same proportion of stupid people, no matter where we go or travel.

Everyone underestimates the effects of stupid people in action because it is not apparent. As a result, non-stupid people underestimate the damaging power of stupid people.

Intelligent people benefit themselves and society; bandits steal from others to benefit themselves; helpless people are exploited for their naivety despite contributing positively to society. However, stupid people are counterproductive to both their own individual and society's overall interests.

Cipolla says that a stupid person is far more dangerous, especially if the individual was born into the elite class. Their total damage capacity is infinite within their potential position as bureaucrats, generals, and even politicians.

As stated by Yuval Harari, history teaches us that people must never underestimate the role of stupidity in human history. It is one of the most powerful forces around the world.

We cannot trust human decency and supposedly good human leadership to do what is best for humanity. We can only hope that is the case, but stupid humans could win at the end of the day.

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