Wednesday, 15 June 2022

Cipolla's Five laws of human stupidity

An economics professor - Carlo Cipolla - at the University of California Berkeley wrote an essay in 1976 proposing a set of five 'laws' on human stupidity. It was picked up in the Californian publication Whole Earth Review; delightfully illustrated by James Donnelly (see figures 1 and 2 in the illustration accompanying this post); and annotated by editor Kevin Kelly, saying "There is genius at work in this thesis" (Cipolla, 1987, p. 2). 

Cipolla's (1987) laws, as published in the Whole Earth Review, were as follows: 

  1. First law: "Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation" (p. 2), making me wonder whether Cipolla read Robert Heinlein, who wrote "Never underestimate the power of human stupidity" (1974, p. 43).
  2. Second law: "The probability that a certain person will be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person" (p. 2). It doesn't matter what demographic or educational background we have, we are equally as likely to be stupid, at any rate of recurrence.
  3. Third (and golden) law: "All human beings fall into four basic categories: the helpless, the intelligent, the bandit and the stupid". "A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while [themselves] deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses" (p. 3). Further, "[m]ost people do not act consistently" (p. 4), which makes "stupid people [even more] dangerous and damaging because reasonable people find it difficult to imagine and understand unreasonable behaviour" (p. 5). Lastly, "it follows that: a) one is generally caught by surprise by the [stupidity] attack; b) even when one becomes aware of the attack, one cannot organize a rational defense, because the attack itself lacks any rational structure" (p. 6).
  4. Fourth Law: helpless, intelligent and bandit people "always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals". Helpless, intelligent and bandit "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" (p. 6).
  5. Fifth Law: "A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person", and thus, "A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit" (p. 6).

Below is a video from the TVLPodcast exploring the links between the four categories of Helpless, Stupid, Intelligent and Bandit people (2017):

These five laws seem to collectively illustrate that if society is in decline, the power of stupid people can overwhelm the collective 'good' that intelligent people supply. Thus society collectively becomes more stupid. The corollary is that when society is growing, intelligent people keep society ahead of stupidity (Cipolla, 1987). But it appears this is a close-run thing in Cipolla's eyes.

The Professor died in 2000, so has missed the bread and circuses of the past five years. In the light of Covid, Trump, Johnson and Putin, I wonder where Cipolla would now think that our dominant societies are? 

While I remain uncertain of this construct's validity, I have enjoyed thinking about it immensely. 



  • Cipolla, C. M. (1987). The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity. Whole Earth Review, 54. pp. 2-7.
  • Cipolla, C. M. (2019). The basic laws of human stupidity. Doubleday.
  • Heinlein, R. A. H. (1974). Time Enough for Love. New English Library. 
  • TVLPodcast (23 August 2017). 294 The Five Laws Of Stupidity [video].

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