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Basic Laws of Human Stupidity (searchlores.org)
123 points by jodrellblank on Sept 11, 2009 | hide | past | favorite | 42 comments

Carlo Cipolla was a great historian.


I particularly recommend Guns, Sails, and Empires and Clocks and Culture.

The best bit is at the end, where it is pointed out that Cipolla's descendants are trying to prove the point of the essay thinking if they restrict the publication of the essay on the web they will somehow profit.

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

I don't buy it.

There are people who are stupid in spite of characteristics that one would ordinarily expect to be associated with reduced stupidity. But I'm betting that any statistics package would show a substantial if not perfect correlation.

And I'm still looking for that technique, or that piece of knowledge, which finally cuts off the lower levels of stupidity.

I think you're not using the author's definition of "stupid" (an aggregate behavioral mode) but instead the more commonly understood meaning (lacking in intelligence or knowledge). I really don't want to be misquoted with an article of this nature, so I'm going to replace some terms in my response: "stupid" is now "destructive" and "intelligent" is now "generous."

The author's boldest thesis is that there are no common "destructive" characteristics outside of aggregate behavior. Only by looking at the net effect of an individual in question can you truly determine if their behavior is, to some degree, destructive. Or helpless. Or "bandit." Or generous. By the author's reasoning, "destructive" people cannot help but hurt others and to some extent themselves, regardless of all other factors except influence.

Mr. Cipolla's definition is firm, but adaptable enough to allow for all sorts of situations. What other social model is going to tell you up front that some Nobel laureates behave in destructive ways? That's not supposed to be allowed by the common metrics and understandings of the characteristic/success correlation model.

How many articles have you run across is the last, oh I don't know... year or so that can't seem to penetrate the "mystery" of why the best, brightest, most highly paid group of individuals in the world can't manage the very financial system that keeps them in business and the rest of us employed. Or why members of congress, with assured lives, cannot agree to measures which would enhance the well-being of themselves and their constituents. Or why unhappy, desperate people actively protest measures that would ease their suffering.

In each case you can point to specific reasons for these types of situations (incentives, irrationality, ignorance), but you haven't really said why these types of situations exist and continue to exist despite all of our other advancements. The author simply says that a group of people will experience decline as the balance of power shifts to the "destructive" members of that group, whoever they may be. The effects of this (in the author's mind) are clearly seen throughout history as a regular feature of humans, much as the male/female birth ratio has been unwavering.

What's fascinating about this essay is that it has to be the purest form of "don't judge a book by its cover" that I've ever read. It also agrees quite nicely (unless I'm mistaken) with the spirit of the Nash Equilibrium, which says that the best thing that you can do is take into account the other players' (members of society) potential actions and plan for the best outcome for yourself and all other players. According to Mr. Cipolla's model, the best thing you can do is elevate the generous (those who will help all) and mitigate the destructive (those who will hurt all), not just for yourself or in spite of them but for all of us.

I'm having a hard time disagreeing with that sentiment.

I think "cooperative" might be a little closer to the idea than "generous" - has more of a sense of both parties coming out ahead. Good observations and analysis.

"I think you're not using the author's definition of "stupid" "

The author does not offer one.

Hmm... Did you consider the one featured rather prominently in a box under the heading "The third (and golden) basic law"?

> 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.

I haven't read that philosophical masterpiece that far. This is indeed a very innovative definition this guy has devised. So a person who causes losses to others while her or himself gaining, like a criminal for instance, is not stupid by definition?

Sadly most other common definitions are a little different: http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?s=stupid

An idea for a superhero: she can deftly and permanently reform any particular low-level stupidity using in-person persuasion, but can't impart a truly general lesson (so the villains can offer many episodes of mayhem). Our hero can't fully impart her persuasive ability to her sidekick, even though to all appearances it's her insightful arguments that do the trick, not any magical charismatic force.

You're right. I might buy it if they inserted the word 'genetic,' but clearly, the social traits of a stupid person are largely the product of their stupidity.

Nonetheless it's a useful law - it helps to overcome bias toward believing other people are non-stupid by emphasizing that stupidity could be lurking anywhere.

> Since [the bandit] is not intelligent enough to devise ways of obtaining the plus as well as providing you with a plus, he will produce his plus by causing a minus to appear on your account.

There are, I think, some people who probably could produce pluses all around but prefer to harm others. Alternatively, there might be some tradeoff between a lesser plus and a net gain for society vs. a greater plus and a net loss for somebody else. From an intelligent person's perspective, the latter might be preferable, depending on the gains and losses and the preferences of the person.

For instance, I have no problem doing "harm" to other "bandits" (for instance, conking a thief on the head as he tries to rob me). Does that make me a bandit myself? According to the author, yes, because it's a net negative to the bandit, even though I'm doing it in order to put a plus on "society's" account.

I think intelligence is more about capacity (whether for good or ill) than the actions of a person. Granted, we can't poke around in their head and measure it, like we can "add up" their actions, but I still find action accounting a false metric.

I think you and Cipolla are using these terms differently. He uses "intelligent" and "bandit" (and "stupid" and "helpless", as well) to refer to patterns of behavior, while you are using them to refer to the basic character of the individual. Consider, for instance, the fact that you say you have no trouble causing harm to bandits. Part of the reason for this is almost certainly an intelligent (in Cipolla's usage) lack of concern for the well-being of those who harm others, so long as you profit, because hurting them may actually cause a net gain to their would-be victims.

It's easy to make the mistake of thinking that he uses the terms to refer to the basic character of an individual rather than to patterns of behavior, because of the way he talks about how stupid people are pretty much unwaveringly stupid, and they're born that way. This conflates the cause of stupidity with stupidity itself, however. What is inborn, and fundamental to the person's character, is something else that predisposes one to adopt a particular pattern of behavior -- not the pattern itself. Ultimately, according to Cipolla's theory, it seems that the fundamental character of a person predisposes that person to either "stupid" or "not stupid" behavior, overall -- with circumstances playing a significant role in determining whether a "not stupid" person's behavior will tend most toward "helpless", "bandit", or "intelligent" behavior.

There are, of course, people who are fundamentally prone to "helpless" behavior (stubborn altruists), as well as those who are fundamentally prone to "bandit" behavior (sociopaths), but they are exceptions rather than the rule, I think. Rather, many "bandits" and "helpless" people are simply those prone to "intelligent" motivations whose failures ensure their behavior patterns are not strictly "intelligent".

I guess the key is to simply recognize that he's using the terms "intelligent", "helpless", "bandit", and "stupid" in a formalized manner that does not strictly match the intuitive, colloquial understandings of those words we have when discussing other subjects.

I guess the key is to simply recognize that he's using the terms "intelligent", "helpless", "bandit", and "stupid" in a formalized manner that does not strictly match the correct understandings of those words we have when discussing other subjects.


I hate it when people give new meanings to words that already have perfectly good and useful meanings. If you have new concept that requires a name, make up a new word. Don't take an old word and give it an analogous meaning. Doing so confuses language and creates an opportunity for equivocation. That is, when people start using conclusions based on the new meanings and applying them to condition based on the old meanings.

Needlessly confusing language is stupid, in both senses of the term.

The intuitive and colloquial uses of those terms tend to stray significantly from the "correct" denotative uses, too. That might be worth keeping in mind while you champion those uses of the term.

My sympathies definitely lie with the prescriptive use of terms. I just think that, if strictly identified as existing within a limited framework for purposes of a particular discussion, jargon denotations are perfectly acceptable prescriptions for use.

If the bandit does something which causes you to harm him, he was a stupid bandit.

No, he was helpless, and you were the bandit.

One of the few magazines I have held on to over the decades is the issue of Whole Earth Review from Spring 1987 that has this essay in it. Also of interest to hackers in that one issue is a good early summary of nanotechnology by Drexler, an interview on the Connection Machine with Danny Hillis, and one of Stephen Roberts's articles about his computerized bicycle. In some ways Whole Earth Quarterly was like an early version of HN, but with a somewhat different emphasis.

I'm sorry but smart people don't make wild generalizations because they understand it's impossible to easily categorize almost 7 billion unique people. So far in life I've personally encountered people who could be defined as stupid but they are quite clever. This makes them appear to be far smarter than they probably are. I've encountered lots of very smart people who seem to spend a significant amount of their life complaining about stupid people instead of using their intelligence for something more constructive. I've encountered ignorant people who are willing to learn if you give them a chance. I've encountered smart people who are close minded and stubborn to a fault. I suppose this article is a joke and I'm taking it too seriously. I can't stand intelligent people who feel the need to put down other people. Always makes me wonder who's really the smart one. The ignorant person who is happy with themselves or the intelligent person who needs to belittle others to achieve the same thing?

> I'm sorry but smart people don't make wild generalizations because they understand it's impossible to easily categorize almost 7 billion unique people.

I think you're confusing categorizing people with pronouncing value judgments on them. Moreover, your first sentence makes a demonstrably false claim. It is trivially easy to categorize people (e.g. male/female/transgender, people-I-like/people-I-don't-like, etc.). The interesting question is how to categorize people in useful ways that can help you understand how society functions, and I think the article gives a really interesting analysis of one chosen categorization.

I agree that it isn't healthy to base one's self esteem on negative value judgments of others, just as it is always better to look at what positive contributions a person has to offer society, no matter how small.

I wonder why you equate the article's attempt at human categorisation (with which you might fairly find fault) with putting people down or belittling them. Don't see it myself.

I think stupid behavior is exhibited by everyone from time to time depending on the particular gifts and knowledge of the individual.

Most of us a smart in some way, and stupidly incompetent in another.

This article is talking about a specific brand of stupidity, and Carlo carefully lays out his definition of "stupid people". It has nothing to do with competence or knowledge.

"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."

-That's the definition I'm using. Lack of competence or knowledge can both be causes of stupidity, but that's not really the point I'm making.

My point is that whatever the cause, stupidity is not a constant. It is situational and also varies over time. Smart people act stupidly from time to time as well. Additionally, when you take an action that is a gamble, sometimes you lose out even if the odds where in your favor. That's not stupidity, even though by this strict definition of the term it could be defined as such since loss has occurred with no benefit.

One cannot be purely stupid or purely intelligent all the time. There are times when someone is simply standing around in the restroom brushing his teeth, for instance. This doesn't change anything about the accuracy of the core thesis as applied to life in general.

Mostly, what I've seen of "stupid" behavior (in Cipolla's use of the term "stupid") is the result of such motivations as spite. Spite appears to be one of the strongest motivators in human nature, and is purely destructive. It is, at its best, designed to not do the spiteful party any harm -- but no thought is put into doing oneself any good. It is often veiled in justifications related to evening some imaginary scales between a "bandit" and a "helpless" victim, but all too often it is simply spite beneath the surface -- in short, it is a special case of stupidity (and my own least favorite form of stupidity, because of its petty malevolence).

This has little or nothing to do with IQ and other conventional definitions of "intelligence" and "stupidity". It is, as I've said above, about patterns of behavior (and, to an extent, the motivations that produce those patterns).

At the risk of being recursive, I'm going to invoke Heinlen's Razor: "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity."

In that context, "stupidity" also means ignorance, which should avoid actual recursion.

That is, I don't think most stupid behavior is caused by spite (malice) but rather obliviousness (ignorance).

Actually, it's Hanlon's Razor:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanlon%27s_razor

I think indifference factors in a lot as well. A lot of times people aren't actively wishing harm on others, but by the same token they won't change there own behavior to mediate harm that may be done to others because of their actions.

Yes, that's a word I was looking for but couldn't come up with.

"One cannot be purely stupid or purely intelligent all the time."

That pretty much sums up what I was saying :) That's why I take issue with labeling people as 'stupid people' because like anything, it is rarely as cut-and-dried as that.

Quite right. Naked malevolence and self-destructiveness seem to me to be the two sides of Mr. Cipolla's stupidity coin. There are a host of bad emotional states that are characterized by naked malevolence and self-destruction.

To the extent that emotional forces are the primary mediators (as opposed to purely rational ones), I think that Cipolla's stupidity correlates well with the notion of "emotional intelligence" that people talk about nowadays.

I mostly refer to spite by its biblical handle "bitterness". I agree with you, that it's one of the most common and powerful emotional handicaps.

Of course not, no one COULD be completely stupid or completely helpless all the time or they'd be DEAD. And similarly I doubt, but it isn't as obviously impossible, that no one is bandit or intelligent all the time.

I propose Law 1a) Always and inevitably everyone underestimates their own propensity to stupidity

Very good read. Great points about people's categorical actions either benefiting or detracting from society as a whole.

thanks for the link - Fravia's site offers a wealth of knowledge.

RIP to a great teacher, from reverse engineering to searching.

RIP Fravia.

Good guy, engaging speaker, great friend.

Always good to see a searchlores link.

The picture reminds me of an accident last year, the operator of a sidewalk snow blower had his hand cut off while trying to clear the snow from the auger. He was only using one hand trying to clear it because he only had one hand, and now he has no hands.

It doesn't say it in the article but his other hand was deformed at birth and he was unable to use it.


So HN, LW, and OB aren't the havens that I thought.... Just fucking great.

Or did I miss something and σ is actually relative to the average intelligence of a group? Does stupid = not intelligent? I'm going to have to re-read this and scan these comments better.

I know only one law: He who thinks that everyone is stupid, probably is.

If literally everyone were stupid in the sense of the essay, society would crumble very quickly. It is doubtful that anyone sophisticated enough to understand such a definition of stupidity would fail to understand this implication.

On the other hand, I have many friends who see stupidity everywhere, and who recognize it as an inveterate condition of our species. They are not openly contemptuous of everything (for that would serve no one) but they are sober, sensible, and harmless. They are not stupid.

author's definition of stupid people has nothing to do with stupidity and I find using the word stupid highly misleading.

"...that some are stupid and others are not, and that the difference is determined by nature and not by cultural forces or factors..."


This piece has been written by an incredibly arrogant misanthrope maybe even a fascist. It has no substance, just opinion. It does not even define what "stupid" means. Low IQ? Ignorance? Lack of understanding of human relations (like in "saying stupid things")? This guy just denounces one of the main pillars of modern democracy - "all men are created equal" - and you applaud.

Next thing he'll tell us that we have to exterminate "stupid" people in the best case before they have been born because it's all nature and not nurture.

I think someone needs a therapist.

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