Giancarlo Livraghi was recruited to Serendipia by Ron Lee and Jake Ghitis (see About Serendip Forum, 25 August, and following). Giancarlo is a writer, living in Italy, who has been involved in advertising, and currently concentrates on "the human and social issues of electronic communication", having been a founder of ALCEI-Electronic Frontiers Italy. Among his writings in English is an on line newsletter. Giancarlo's essays on stupidity appeared originally in Entropy Gradient Reversals, and are mirrored here with his permission. Some additional information about Giancarlo is provided by Entropy Gradient Reversal as part of their posting of his second essay.

The Power of Stupidity

By Giancarlo Livraghi
June 1996

[See also The Power of Stupidity, Part II, written 15 months later.]

I have always been fascinated with Stupidity.

My own, of course; and that's a big enough cause of anxiety.

But things get much worse when one has a chance to find out how Big People take Big Decisions.

We generally tend to blame awful decisions on intentional perversity, astute mischievousness, megalomania, etc. They are there, all right; but any careful study of history, or current events, leads to the invariable conclusion that the single biggest source of terrible mistakes is sheer stupidity. When it combines with other factors (as happens quite often) the results can be devastating.

One of the many examples of stupidity is that intrigue and powermongering are called "machiavellian". Obviously nobody has read his books, as that is not what old Niccol˛ meant.

Another thing that surprises me (or does it?) is the very little amount of study dedicated to such an important subject. There are University departments for the mathematical complexities in the movements of Amazonian ants, or the medieval history of Perim island; but I have never heard of any Foundation or Board of Trustees supporting any studies of Stupidology.

I have found very few good books on the subject. One I read when I was a teenager, but never forgot. It is called A Short Introduction to the History of Human Stupidity by Walter B. Pitkin of Columbia University, and was published in 1934. I found it by chance many years ago while browsing around my mother's bookshelves; and much to my delight, when I went to her home yesterday and looked for it, it was still there. Old as it is, it's still a very good book. Some of Professor Pitkin's observations appear extraordinarily correct sixty years later.

Now... why did he call a 300-page book a "short introduction"?

At the end of the book, it says: Epilogue: now we are ready to start studying the History of Stupidity. Nothing follows.

Professor Pitkin was a very wise man. He knew that a lifetime was far too short to cover even a fragment of such a vast subject. So he published the Introduction, and that was it.

Pitkin was well aware of the lack of previous work in the field. He had a team of researchers hunt through the files of the Central Library in New York. They found nothing. According to Pitkin, there were only two books on the subject: Aus der Geschichte der menschlichen Dummheit by Max Kemmerich, and ▄ber die Dummheit by Lewenfeld. Unfortunately I don't understand German, though "Dummheit" sounds clear enough; and I guess Kemmerich and Lewenfeld must have had a special abundance of material for their studies, considering what happened in Germany in 1933 and following years.

In Pitkin's opinion, four people out of five are stupid enough to be called "stupid." That was one and a half billion people when he wrote the book; it is over four billion now. This, in itself, is quite stupid.

He observed that one of the problems of Stupidity is that nobody has a really good definition of what it is. In fact geniuses are often considered stupid by a stupid majority (though nobody has a good definition of genius, either). But stupidity is definitely there, and there is much more of it than our wildest nightmares might suggest. In fact, it runs the world -- which is very clearly proven by the way the world is run.

But somebody, fifty-four years later, came up with a rather interesting definition. His name is Carlo M. Cipolla and he is Professor Emeritus of Economic History at Berkeley. All of his books are in English, except two. The first was published by "Il Mulino" in Bologna in 1988.

In that book there is a little essay called The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity, which may be the best ever written on the subject.

Here are the Five Laws of Stupidity according to Carlo Cipolla:

First Law

We always underestimate the number of stupid people.

This is not as obvious as it sounds, says Cipolla, because:

  1. people we had thought to be rational and intelligent suddenly turn out to be unquestionably stupid;
  2. and

  3. day after day we are hampered in whatever we do by stupid people who invariably turn up in the least appropriate places.

He also observes that it is impossible to set a percentage, because any number we choose will be too small.

Second Law

The probability of a person being stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.

If you study the frequency of stupidity in the people who come to clean up classrooms after hours, you find that it is much higher than you expected. You assume that this is related to their lower level of education, or to the fact that non-stupid people have better chances of obtaining good jobs. But when you analyze students or University professors (or, I would add, computer programmers) the distribution is exactly the same.

Militant feminists may be incensed, says Cipolla, but the stupidity factor is the same in both genders (or as many genders, or sexes, as you may choose to consider). No difference in the sigma factor, as Cipolla calls it, can be found by race, color, ethnic heritage, education, etcetera.

Third (and Golden) Law

A stupid person is someone who causes damage to another person, or a group of people, without any advantage accruing to himself (or herself) -- or even with some resultant self-damage.

(We shall come back to this, because it is the pivotal concept of the Cipolla Theory.)

Fourth Law

Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid people. They constantly forget that at any moment, and in any circumstance, associating with stupid people invariably constitutes an expensive mistake.

That (I would say) suggests that non-stupid people are a bit stupid -- but I shall get back to this point at the end.

Fifth Law

A stupid person is the most dangerous person in existence.

This is probably the most widely understood of the Laws, if only because it is common knowledge that intelligent people, hostile as they might be, are predictable, while stupid people are not. Moreover, its basic corollary:

A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit

leads us to the heart of the Cipolla Theory. There are four types of people, he says, depending on their behavior in a transaction:

Someone whose actions tend to generate self-damage, but also to create advantage for someone else.
Someone whose actions tend to generate self-advantage, as well as advantage for others.
Someone whose actions tend to generate self-advantage while causing damage to others.
We already have this definition in the Third Law.

Professor Cipolla uses a matrix that looks like this:


        H           | +         I
------------------- O -------------------  X
        -           |           +
        S           | -         B

The "X" axis measures the advantage gained from one's actions.

The "Y" axis measures the advantage gained by another person (or group).

Clearly, people in the "I" area are intelligent, people in the "B" area are bandits, people in the "H" area are hapless, and people in the "S" area are stupid.

It is also quite clear that, depending on where they fall in this matrix, people have a greater or lesser degree of stupidity, intelligence, banditism, etc. One can develop quite a variety of combinations, such as smart bandits or stupid bandits, depending on the benefit-damage ratio. (In this, Cipolla observes, the amount of damage is to be measured from the perspective of the victim, not the bandit, which makes most thieves and criminals quite stupid.)

I guess that from here on each of us can use this matrix to study stupidity and elaborate the application of the Cipolla Theory in all its many possible variations.

But that is not quite the end of the story.


.                   |
   .         Hi     |
      .             | +         I
         .          |
            .       |
        Hs     .    |
                  . |
------------------- O -------------------  X
        -           |  .       +
                    |     .
                    |        .     Bi
                    |           .
        S           | -            .
                    |    Bs           .
                    |                    .
                    |                       M

If we draw a diagonal line across the matrix, we find that everything on the upper right side of this line generates an improvement to the overall balance of the system, while events (and people) on the other side cause a deterioration.

A variety of interesting analyses can be conducted by studying variables in each of the four sectors, such a Sh and Sb, Ib and Ih, Hs and Hi, or as many sub-sectors as one may wish to define.

For instance, the "M" chord in the lower right side of the grid delineates the position of the "perfect bandit": someone who causes exactly as much damage as he or she accrues gain. Obviously, on the two sides of the diagonal you have "imperfect" bandits -- Bi are "intelligent bandits" and Bs are "stupid bandits."

In a world populated exclusively by "perfect bandits," the system as a whole would be balanced; damage and advantage would cancel each other out. The same effect would occur in a world populated by "perfectly hapless" people.

Of course intelligent people make the biggest contribution to society as a whole. But, nasty as it may sound, intelligent bandits also contribute to an improvement in the balance of society by causing more advantage than harm overall. "Hapless-intelligent" people, though they lose individually, can also have socially positive effects.

However, when stupidity gets into the act, the damage is enormously greater than the benefit to anyone.

This proves the original point: the single most dangerous factor in any human society is stupidity.

As a historian, Cipolla points out that, while the sigma factor (stupidity) is a constant in time as well as space, a strong upcoming society has a higher percentage of intelligent people, while a declining society has an alarming percentage of bandits with a strong stupidity factor (sub-area Bs in the grid) among the people in power, and an equally alarming percentage of hapless (H area) among those who are not in power.

Where are we now? That's a good question...

Cipolla also observes that intelligent people generally know they are, bandits are well aware of their attitude, and even hapless people have a sneaking suspicion that all is not right.

But stupid people don't know they are stupid, and that is one more reason why they are extremely dangerous.

Which of course leads me back to my original, agonizing question: am I stupid?

I have passed several IQ tests with good marks. Unfortunately, I know how these tests work and that they don't prove anything.

Several people have told me I am intelligent. But that doesn't prove anything, either. They may simply be too kind to tell me the truth. Conversely, they could be attempting to use my stupidity for their own advantage. Or they could be just as stupid as I am.

I am left with one little glimpse of hope: quite often, I am intensely aware of how stupid I am (or have been). And this indicates that I am not completely stupid.

At times, I have tried to locate myself in the Cipolla matrix, using as far as possible measurable results of action, rather than opinion, as a yardstick. Depending on the situation, I seem to wander around the upper side of the grid, between the Hs and Ib areas; but in some cases I am desperately lost in Sh. I just hope I am on the right side of the diagonal as often as I think.

On a broader scale, one would expect the strongest success factors to lie in the Ib and Bi subsectors. However, the staggering number of Sb and even Sh people who have wonderful careers can be only explained by a strong desire on the part of many leaders to be surrounded by as many stupid people as possible.

When I read the book, I liked it so much that I wrote a letter to Carlo Cipolla. (I have done this sort of thing only twice in my life).

Much to my surprise, he answered, briefly but kindly.

I had two questions:

  1. "Can I have the original unpublished English text, for my English speaking friends?"
  2. The answer was no. (He didn't say why, but I have a hunch.)

    "What do you think of my 'corollary' to your theory?"

    In this case, the answer was "Well... why not, maybe..." -- which I took as Enthusiastic Approval and Endorsement of...

Livraghi's Corollary to Cipolla's First Law

In each of us there is a factor of stupidity, which is always larger than we suppose.

This creates a three-dimensional grid and I don't think I have to take you through the steps, because no stupid (or timid) person would have had the courage to read this far.

Of course, one can introduce other variables, such as our own H and B factors, and other people's S, H and B. It may be wise to forget I, as there never is enough of that; however, do consider B, because even the most generous person can sometimes behave like a bandit, if only by mistake. These additional factors generate multi-dimensional models that can get fairly difficult to manage. But even if we consider only our individual sigma values, the complexity can become quite staggering.

Try it for yourself... and get really scared.

Go to
The Power of Stupidity, Part II