The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity

Book review by Deane Barker tags: humor, interpersonal

I heard about this book in a news article, but I don’t remember which one. The title intrigued me, because I like anything that tries to distill humanity down to patterns or rules.

Then, I was in a Daunt Books in London, and I saw it at the checkout register, so picked it up.

I started reading it, and honestly, it seemed a little mean-spirited and judgmental. The author was ranting that lots of people were stupid, which seems a little arrogant.

But then I stumbled on the fact that there’s some history behind this “book” (it’s a long essay, basically). It was written by an Italian economist named Carlo Cipolla in 1976, and has taken on a life of it’s own.

Here are the five laws (copied from the Wikipedia page)

  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.

Those are interesting, but they’re really in service of what I think is the main point of the book (discussed in Law #3). You can divide people into a quadrant based on whether the things they do (1) benefit them, or (2) benefit others.

He has handy names for this:

  1. A bandit is someone who gains at your expense
  2. A helpless person is someone who benefits you at loss to themselves
  3. An intelligent person is someone who benefits you and themselves at the same time
  4. A stupid person is someone who causes losses for you, with no benefit to themselves (so, you both lose)

The book demonstrates this with cartoons of a falling rock. The bandit pushes you under the rock. The helpless person pushes you out of the way of the rock, but stands under it themselves. The intelligent person pushes you out of the way, and also stays out of the way of the rock. The stupid person simply stands with you under the rock.

Does any of this matter? I don’t know. It’s an interesting way to categorize people, and in particular, I do like how he differentiates between stupid people and bandits. A bandit is actually an intelligent person, they’re just a little evil.

By that same token, I love the idea that intelligence is measured by a win-win mentality. Though, I think this is less about “intelligence” and more about empathy and basic human decency.

Like I said, it’s a very short book. You could read it in 20 minutes, so it’s low-commitment.

Don’t bother buying it, because you can get it free online (PDF). And don’t feel like you’re taking something from Cipolla (making you a bandit), because he’s dead.

BTW: since I bought it (cost money), and have reviewed it (cost time), and have shown you where to get it free (benefits you), then clearly I’m helpless.

Book Info

Carlo M. Cipolla, Nassim Nicholas Taleb
  • I have read this book. According to my records, I completed it on .
  • A hardcover copy of this book is currently in my home library.

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