Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity (cat-v.org)
120 points by vimes656 on May 21, 2011 | hide | past | favorite | 45 comments

I come across this maybe once a year while browsing the internet, and I'm always impressed. The author's ability to get just the right mix of resigned dry wit so he doesn't come across as cocky or a jerk or a defeatist... it's rather incredible.

There's gems in there, too -

> 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.

Indeed. You can deal with a person who wants to gain, and is comfortable gaining at your expense. They're somewhat predictable, so you can deal with them if you're careful. But the person who is a whirlwind of calamity - making his own life worse and others around - you can't deal with that guy.

The author continues:

> A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.

And then, and I love this -

> A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit.

Indeed! Bandits are unpleasant, but usually easily understandable. With appropriate cautions, you might even be able to transact with a bandit for a short time if it's necessary. But like the author says, the man who does stupid things is much more dangerous.

With a bandit, it's possible to assess what you have and where you're at that they might want to take from you, and to take precautions. With the man who randomly breaks things for no reason, no such precaution can be taken because even the most basic, unevaluated, routine action could be bungled leading to bad results for all inclined.

Gosh, I always enjoy reading this piece, even though I've seen it a bunch. I should send it to some people who might have not have read 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.

You have to be careful with the "deriving no gain" part, though. In game theory, it's valid to punish someone by incurring a loss if they're trying to gain at everyone else's expense. That's used in the Tit-for-Tat strategy in the Prisoner's Dilemma, for example.

Granted, you can say that it's for the sake of future gain, rather than present gain, but there are times when our lack of knowledge about the circumstances can lead us to commit the fundamental attribution error. Are they "stupid" or are there circumstances of which we're unaware? Of course, if you have the misfortune of knowing them for long enough, it's generally not that hard to figure out which is which.

One law I didn't see, though, is that we all do stupid things sometimes.

> our lack of knowledge about the circumstances can lead us to commit the fundamental attribution error. Are they "stupid" or are there circumstances of which we're unaware?

Such circumstances also depend on the timeframe of the people involved. One person might have a 30-day perspective, another person is thinking about the grandchildren.

The HISB-square looks a lot like the Win-win(intelligent), Win-lose(bandit), Lose-win(helpless), and Lose-lose(stupid) grid of negotiation theory. The time when Win-lose is a valid strategy is when there's no ongoing relationship between the two parties, e.g. bargaining for goods in a no-refunds market. The whole idea of commodity/stock/etc exchanges is built around this concept. When some bandit pulls a Win-lose when there's an ongoing relationship, it's easy for the helpless loser to turn a Win-lose into a Lose-lose situation. It might look like revenge, but it could be to establish a track record for their next negotiation.

Besides timeframe, such circumstances depend on information available. There's many bandits around who hide their true identity, and pose as intelligent for appearances sake, but are pulling some nasty banditry behind the scenes. I'd suggest a counter-rule to rule 1:

  Always and inevitably everyone overestimates
  the number of intelligent individuals in circulation.
The intelligent-posing bandits in that situation call the helpless losers who swung a win-lose into a lose-lose "stupid". After many such incidents, the helpless tend to always assume they're dealing with a bandit, even though the other person may be intelligent. These are school playground lessons.

So I'd propose a second corrolary to the fifth rule's first corrolary (i.e A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit):

  Stupid people become stupid because bandits pose as intelligent.

It's under "frequency distribution". I like the redefinition of stupidity! There are times we think "yeah.. i see the pattern.. I know where this is gonna go". And we're right. Yet we take the lose-lose action just for the heck of it or just because we can. So intelligent, but stupid.

Of course you enjoy it. It makes you feel smart.

> Of course you enjoy it. It makes you feel smart.

You know what's funny? I think this is exactly what the author would call a "stupid" remark - it's meant to say something nasty about the person you're replying to, and you don't even gain from it!

You see, the irony here is that the author isn't actually talking about stupidity and intelligence. He's actually talking about people who engage in lose/win, win/win, lose/lose, or win/lose behavior.

He calls those "helpless", "intelligent", "stupid", and "bandit" - but normal definitions of stupidity and intelligence don't really apply, as he notes that Nobel laureates often engage in stupid (lose/lose) behavior, despite being intelligent under normal definitions.

Your comment here? It's a pretty good example of lose/lose behavior - it's designed to be a bit of a jerk towards me and makes you look snarky in the process. Lose/lose. So yeah dude, stop doing that ;)

Maybe I'm just an optimist, but it didn't actually seem to me like he was trying to say anything nasty about you. I thought he was just joking/reflecting on the universal appeal of the article--it's well-written and accessible, so it would make most readers feel smart, and everyone likes feeling smart.

If we could see how many votes each of the comments got we'd know who had done better out of the exchange :-)

Winning an appeal to the populous does not imply correctness.

>You know what's funny? I think this is exactly what the author would call a "stupid" remark - it's meant to say something nasty about the person you're replying to, and you don't even gain from it!

Or it's meant to point out something that I, at least, happen to agree with. Reveling in identifying stupidity tends to obscure that we're all stupid at one point or another. Besides, it's not all too difficult to turn this around on you; you just called him stupid for no gain of your own.

>You see, the irony here is that the author isn't actually talking about stupidity and intelligence. He's actually talking about people who engage in lose/win, win/win, lose/lose, or win/lose behavior.

Then he shouldn't use those terms over and over again in such a misleading fashion.

All of your post--which is essentially a smokescreen--fails to address the salient accusation, which is that applying mathy and logic-y terms to a discussion of stupidity doesn't quite ameliorate the distasteful sense that, in reading/enjoying the article, we're gloating.

It makes us all look smart, but reinforces the fear that the majority of us belong to H1. Society improves, but at what cost to us?

I think this is exactly the kind of comment that makes HN decline. Short and clever. But nasty.

the bandit on the upper half isn't necessarily unpleasant. we applaud when someone manages to make money from stupid people. value transferred from stupid people to intelligent people is an important aspect of wealth creation on a society wide level. after all, stupid people often destroy what wealth they manage to get.

but I agree with the conclusion of the article. It is an important measure of a society whether banditry, helplessness, and stupidity are venerated.

> stupid people often destroy what wealth they manage to get.

Usually by giving it to bandits.

wealth isn't zero sum or mercantilist. you can easily destroy wealth right now by smashing your monitor.

This is entertaining read, but there is some irony there.

Should add one more law. "A stupid person almost always is not aware of his/her stupidity, and often thinks others are stupid."

This is trash of the worst kind: fatuous nonsense wrapped in pseudoscience. Please tell me this is a parody and it's gone over my head.

Just in case, I will critique in the spirit of the original article:

The first immutable law of madeupistan is that this article makes no sense. If one quantifies by Q the amount of sense this article doesn't make, and divides it by L, which is how badly the sense it doesn't make is, one can plot the result on a graph, with axes and everything like in science.

As you can see by even a cursory examination of the diagram, anything can be positioned from "scotsman" to "no scotsman" on the Y axis, and "sense" to "no sense" on the X axis. This explains the fundamental nature of mankind.

The second immutable law of madeupistan is that your position on the scotsmanian axis is irreversibly determined at birth. You may be confused initially by the observation that even someone with a high degree of scotsmanity will sometimes act like a non-scotsman and vice-versa. Never fear, that is explained by the graph.

The fourth immutable law (and, by extension, the third) is that anything can be proven by decomposition into a punnett square.

The fifth immutable law is that once someone has been determined to be a scotsman, they will take actions without any basis in rationality whatsoever (I will heretoafter call these actions "Just So" actions). Note, though, that as per the second law, sometimes they will not.

The danger of these Just So actions is inexplicably large, and it behooves any non-scotsmen among us to immediately seek out and prevent Just So actions by dangerous scotsmen. If we do not do this, society will collapse.[1]

[1] Myself, 2011, Journal of Just So Information

Well - I think it's part parody.

I mean - obviously the author hasn't done the sort of empirical work discovering the amount of stupid people in each kind of social class. It was at this point in the text that people like me laughed and people like you required a laugh-track.

It's interesting though. I meet dudes like you that respond to something that for some reason irks them with:

"It's not formulated to the highest standards of intellectual rigour - and so is worst kind of crap"

I have to wonder what really is provoking the hyperbole. Because it hardly seems warranted to me.

Just a suggestion - but maybe you might profit from stepping back from this a little. Plenty of contributions to a discourse can still possess insight without all the trappings of intellectual rigour.

The reason I say it's the worst kind of trash is (ironically) the same reason the author says stupid people are the most dangerous - it has about as much merit as, say, a Daily Mail article, but because it's presented in a way that mimics science, it more easily slips past peoples' defences.

I suspect that you are falling victim to hyperbole yourself with "highest standards of intellectual rigour". I don't expect a double-blind randomised trial or publication in Nature, but surely when someone says to us "this is the truth", we must ask "why?"

If the author had said "I think that people are born stupid or clever, and stupid people are very dangerous, so we should watch out for them." I would disagree, but not loudly - it is, after all, a matter of opinion unless someone has facts to bring to the table.

But when someone dresses up their conjecture in make-believe laws and pseudo-scientific formulae, they are being deceptive. Perhaps a more acceptable thing to do would be dispassionately describe the flaws in his argument, but the deception made me angry and I don't see anger as necessarily wrong. I don't believe I wrote anything inaccurate, or anything I wouldn't say if the article was brought up among my friends.

Frankly, I'm surprised I was the only one. Perhaps it's just the wrong crowd.

To a certain degree I emphasise - in spoken contexts I often fail to pick up sarcasm. But I have far less problems in navigating through subtle shifts in tone in a piece of text.

While you seem to see it as a wolf in sheep's clothing and are terrified that the sheep are about to be devoured, I'm seeing the wolf, dressed in sheep's clothing, comically delivering a lecture to said sheep about avoiding wolves - and actually dispensing some pretty good advice. Surely you can see the wonderfully playful irony here.

What's more, the sheep are sitting around (i.e. hacker news readers) having a good ol laugh at the wolf. And you're amongst them shouting loudly - WATCH OUT THE WOLF WILL DEVOUR YOU! And when they look at you strangely your response to this is to conclude that you're just in the wrong crowd.

Just a shame is all - you're obviously quite a smart chap. It's like meeting Beethoven and finding out that really he hates listening to Mozart. It would boggle the mind!

Ha. Well, I don't know if I'd describe myself as terrified or shouting, but I take your point gladly. I wasn't being facetious when I said I hope it's a parody that's gone over my head.

For the record, though, the "wrong crowd" was referring to your suggestion that I should step back from the discussion (presumably because you found my comment too forceful or emotional), which I took as your main point. I meant that if your sentiment is shared by others, it could be that that form of argument isn't appreciated on HN. I'm not quite condescending enough to suggest it's the community's fault if I don't get the joke. ;)

It's like meeting Beethoven and finding out that really he hates listening to Mozart.

Apparently, Ludwig was rather taken with Wolfgang's music:


Indeed - so that's why it would be quite boggling to learn otherwise! ;)

This is trash of the worst kind: fatuous nonsense wrapped in pseudoscience. Please tell me this is a parody and it's gone over my head.

I was just talking to my sister about kitsch, camp, and punk, and how all of those scenes were misunderstood by a certain subpopulation who didn't catch the irony. "Animal House" was pure parody. I can tell you that a lot of fellow undergrads emulated it, and not everyone caught the joke. And sometimes, some people are so enthusiastically applying irony to everything, they forget about basic decency. (I admit to making mistakes in both directions.)

I suspect that a study of what people actually read would reveal that "fatuous nonsense wrapped in pseudoscience" is about par for the course. Most diet movements fit this description, yet how many billions of dollars have been wasted on them? One can't even get the general public to apply something as basic as the laws of thermodynamics without making huge mistakes. A lot of people are no better off applying basic physical laws than thinking they should make more sacrifices to Zeus.



The takeaway here is that we're evolved to deal with the problems and lives of cavemen. It's only through some accidents of talent and diligence that some of us are able to understand things above and beyond that level.

You seem to be suggesting that the world would be better off if this article didn't exist. I'm interested to know why, because I found it mostly funny and a little thought-provoking. I didn't get the impression that the author claims his work has been subjected to any degree of scientific rigor, nor that he thinks people ought to be idolizing or congratulating him for sharing it. It's just kind of out there, for each reader to make whatever they want of it.

Also, what exactly do you mean by "parody"? I thought he was clearly poking fun at the world at large, but didn't get the sense that there was any particular other work which he was lampooning.

I agree that it's trash but for another reason. It's exactly along the lines of theories like "everyone behaves selfishly", or "evil men rule the world". There is some truth in such theories, but only in a glass-half-empty kind of way. They tend to become self-fulfilling prophecies in that they produce the exact kinds of behavior that they predict. Why not, instead of railing against stupidity, work on educating people to overcome their (perceived) stupidity?

you're taking it way too seriously.

The First Basic Law prevents me from attributing a specific numerical value to the fraction of stupid people within the total population: any numerical estimate would turn out to be an underestimate.

We could always start with 100% and see how it goes. I suspect this upper bound method was applied by more than one writer.

Never mind the quibbles, it's good to see this one back. As the footnote says, there's genius in it.

I believe the point here goes along the lines: ``instinctively, one perceives the fraction as (N-1 / N)'' -- where N is size of the group in question and the -1 is oneself... Which curiously renders oneself as a not-very-smart one. Which suggests one underestimated the fraction ;-)

Especially as the two supporting points (a: unpleasant letdowns; b: frequent bothering ``at the wrong moment'') are quite subjective.

To quote the venerable fortune(6):

  Renning's Maxim:
        Man is the highest animal.  Man does the classifying.

I just look at the first picture and completely lose it laughing. "Hmm - something wrong... what could it be?"

Aside from that - if I may add a serious comment - I think the most important insight of this article is to recognise that stupidity has a kind of power. It reminds me very much of the writings of Castaneda whose Don Juan character always advised to disrupt ones routines in order to prevent others from taking advantage of them.

I think what the article misses, however, is that intelligent people can in fact take advantage of this very same power. If your reasons are thought out ahead of time - to a degree beyond what most people are capable, then your individual actions may well appear random to those with short attention spans. It is just too much for them to place them within a greater whole.

The article is very funny, but I do find the definition of stupidity as the tendency to perform actions that benefit nobody as particularly insightful.

I agree that it is an important insight.

intelligence is less confusing when regarded as an optimization process.


"The probability that a certain person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person."

This is assuredly true, on the basis of replicated research, with regard to IQ. There is essentially no correlation between IQ and rationality.


High-IQ people can be every bit as irrational ("stupid" in the language of the submitted article) as low-IQ people, and worse still, not notice that they are being stupid. There are whole books on the subject.






All we can do about that here on HN is take other people's comments seriously and try to see ourselves as others see us as we ponder our decisions.

Sometimes stupidity is indistinguishable from pure evilness. That's why I believe it's more practical to focus on removing inefficiency instead of corruption.

I suspect that humanities worst moments come from a combination of evil and stupidity, even if that stupidity is just a failure to predict what your actions will actually mean for others.

I suspect that humanities [sic] worst moments come from a combination of evil and stupidity


    - Failure of military leaders to recognize the implications 
      of advancing firearms technology starting in the Civil War
    - Failure of national governments to recognize the geopolitical instability
      embodied by the competing systems of alliances prior to WWI
    - Failure of national governments to recognize the economic and political
      instability caused by treaties prior to WWII
    - Disconnect of German leadership from reality through advocacy of 
      economic and biological pseudoscientific theories 
    - Disconnect of Soviet leadership from social and economic reality 
It seems that the caveman-mob level of broken thinking we exhibit as national groups caused all sorts of technology-amplified havoc in the 19th and 20th centuries.

I wonder if it's any better in the 21st century?

    - Burgeoning US debt, and the political impediments to solving it
    - Calamitous global environmental changes, also accompanied by political
      impediments to solution
What are the odds of solving our current problems without bloodshed? Probably very near zero. The best we can hope for is to limit the scope of bloodshed to militants, small regional conflicts, and assassinations. After all, we are still mostly just mobs of tribal cavemen.

bandits aren't "evil". They simply have fallen into the trap evolution has laid for us all: rationalizing actions that benefit them.

A lot of truth here, but one statement seems incorrect:

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

There would be no incentive to actually work, as everything presumably would be stolen. So I don't think stagnation would be the result. A steady decline back to hunter gatherer seems more likely.

No, because robbing someone of their incentive to work is a net loss to society, so the bandits would no longer be perfect (unless they in turn gain a corresponding incentive to work, or some other equivalent gain).

There are no perfect bandits, let along a society full of them. Scenarios like "If all members of a society were perfect bandits" are hypothetical and don't really translate to any actual human society that you could imagine. Even so, they're useful for illustrating concepts.

As a basis for a World View and model for conducting one's affairs this is pretty hard to beat. The Second Basic Law and σ in particular also gives plenty of material for more comtemplative moments.

Hey! I came up with 4-th law independently. All I needed was 5 years of business experience as freelancer and striving entrepreneur.


reminds me of the Wizards First rule: "People are stupid...given proper motivation, almost anyone will believe almost anything."

That's just a paraphrase of Herman Goering:


Some very apt descriptions there, good read. Interesting and pithy lens to view the world through.

One dimension that struck me as missing: What about indifference? Surely there's a difference in quality between say helplessness and indifference, even if it isn't captured in the win/loss-for-me/you framework.

Many behaviours can be explained by indifference, as it's not obviously right or even rational to think of the Total Humanity Utility as a goal-in-itself. There seems to be an assumption of utilitarism hidden there.

Despite this problem the view described here seems to me to shine light on many phenomena of human existance.

Definitely has the slant that everyone in the world is stupid. I don't like that kind of world view, but still somewhat interesting. Can't stop estimating that most of the people in the world are stupid. Pretty antisocial.

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact