The Heavy Price of Stupidity

There are different definitions of smart and stupid. For some, stupidity is what you find watching videos of drunk people jump from the top of a flight of stairs, only to have the railing catch them between the legs.

For others, it’s people who score sufficiently low on an IQ test. Some people think stupidity applies to everyone they disagree with.

For the Italian economist Carlo Cipolla, stupid people are those that cause losses to other people and themselves, without anyone gaining from it:

“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 Types of People

In the Basic Laws of Human Stupidity, Cipolla divided people and their behaviour along a couple of lines: the benefits to others, and the benefit to themselves. From here you find four types of people:

  • Bandits: people who gain at others expense
  • Helpless: people who benefit others at their own expense
  • Intelligent: people who provide gains for both themselves and others
  • Stupid: people who cost others without gaining, or even losing, something themselves

Within the helpless and bandit categories, there is a gradient towards stupidity.

Me giving you $100 costs me exactly what it benefits you. Someone stealing $100 from me costs me exactly what they gain. But most actions aren’t 1-to-1 relationships like this.

When you get some pleasure from watching videos of people diving into frozen-solid lakes, or getting hit in the groin with a football, or burning their butt because they stuck fireworks down there — the costs to them won’t be the same as the gains for us.

Turning to bandits, Cipolla writes: 

“If someone kills you in order to rob from you fifty pounds or if he murders you in order to spend a weekend with your wife at Monte Carlo, we can be sure that he is not a perfect bandit.”

These people are flirting with stupidity. However, they are not squarely in the stupid basket. In either case, we enjoy watching people fail, or the bandit gets a weekend with your wife.

Truly stupid behaviour costs everybody involved, and by virtue of this, society suffers at large.

The Dangers of Stupidity

If actions were always 1-to-1, then the gains and losses would balance each other out. $100 lost is $100 gained, but the overall money in circulation hasn’t changed.

“If all members of a society were perfect bandits the society would remain stagnant but there would be no major disaster.”

However, when the costs start stretching out above the gains, we all lose overall.

While this might not be so bad for small individual actions, when the people in question occupy important positions, the repercussions are all the more damaging.

To make matters worse, Cipolla argues that there are more stupid people in circulation than we expect, and they are more difficult to deal with than bandits, as their actions seem to defy logic and rationality.

“Essentially stupid people are dangerous and damaging because reasonable people find it difficult to imagine and understand unreasonable behaviour.”

It’s for these reasons that Cipolla states:

“A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.”

Be Less Stupid

Whether you adhere to Cipolla’s definition of stupid or maintain your own, it’s clear that actions which incur losses to everyone involved are the worst of the bunch.

While our individual actions might be scattered across the graph, we should all be aiming for that top right area, to make decisions that benefit everyone.

Failing that, aim to benefit someone else or ourselves to a greater extent than it costs the other party. Or, failing that, to at least maintain equilibrium, so as not to drag us all down.

We’re more likely to achieve this if we can avoid contact with people occupying the lower quadrant. This is easier said than done, as Cipolla adds:

“A stupid creature will harass you for no reason, for no advantage, without any plan or scheme and at the most improbable times and places. You have no rational way of telling if and when and how and why the stupid creature attacks. When confronted with a stupid individual you are completely at his mercy.”

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