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Saturday, August 20, 2016

Basic Laws of Human Stupidity

Randy Cassingham of This is True included this recently:

In recent reading, I’ve stumbled on a paper by Carlo M. Cipolla. An Italian, Cipolla taught economic history at the University of California at Berkeley, and proposed “The [Five] Basic Laws of Human Stupidity”:
  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.
“Our daily life is mostly made of cases in which we lose money and/or time and/or energy and/or appetite, cheerfulness and good health because of the improbable action of some preposterous creature who has nothing to gain and indeed gains nothing from causing us embarrassment, difficulties or harm,”

Cipolla wrote in the explanation of the 3rd law. “Nobody knows, understands or can possibly explain why that preposterous creature does what he does what he does*. In fact there is no explanation — or better, there is only one explanation: the person in question is stupid.”

The fifth law has a corollary: A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit. (Because a thief at least has motives, even if you don’t agree with them.)

It’s all spelled out in his short paper: The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity
It's a fun essay, not to be taken too seriously.  But there is a puzzle here with the second law. Cippola writes:

Whenever I analyzed the blue-collar workers I found that the fraction s of them were stupid. As s's value was higher that I expected (First Law), paying my tribute to fashion I thought at first that segregation, poverty, lack of education were to be blamed. But moving up the social ladder I found that the same ration was prevalent among the white collar employees and among the students. More impressive still were the results among the professors. Whether I considered a large university or a small college, a famous institution or an obscure one, I found that the same fraction s of the professors are stupid. So bewildered was I by the results, that I made a special point to extend my research to a specially selected group, to a real elite, the Nobel laureates. The result confirmed Nature's supreme powers: s fraction of the Nobel Laureates are stupid. 
What? Some Nobel Laureates are stupid? There could be at least two factors in play here.

The first is that we humans have areas of expertise and areas of non-expertise, which is where we are stupid. I didn't say ignorant, I said stupid.  I am ignorant of the inner workings of a modern car engine. I would be stupid if I tried to make a major repair myself.

But smart people make this mistake all the time. Thinking they are smart, they express opinions in areas far outside their area of study. Academics, who tend to be experts in narrow areas, are particularly prone to this.

The second is Lawrence J. Peter's Peter Principle: people rise to their level of incompetence.

A junior employee does a superb job, so they get promoted to a job they do very well. So they get promoted to a job  they do well. Then they are promoted to a job they are competent at. Finally, based on that long track record, they are promoted to a job that is beyond their capabilities.

So, you start out smart in an organization, but can easily end up incompetent, which is so close to stupid you can't tell much difference.

Thus, with the help of these two phenomena, we can see how there can be stupid people distributed everywhere.