The Laws of Stupidity

Graph with the benefits and losses that an individual causes to him or herself and causes to others.
Photo by Vincedevries on Wikimedia, licensed under CC-BY-SA 4.0

In the Disney animated feature The Lion King, when the royal usurper Scar exclaims, “I’m surrounded by idiots!”, he may have been onto something. Carlo M. Cipolla certainly thought so.

In 1976, Cipolla, a professor of economic history at the University of California, Berkeley, published an essay entitled “The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity” ( The good professor, who died in 2000, considered this fundamental lack of intelligence to be humanity’s greatest existential threat. In fact, he argued stupid people share some identifying traits — they are abundant, they are irrational, and they cause problems for others without apparent benefit to themselves. He went so far as to identify five laws of stupidity as outlined in the article mentioned above. In summary —

Law 1: Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation. No matter how many idiots you suspect yourself surrounded by, there are even more than you think.

Law 2: The probability that a certain person being stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person. Stupidity is a constant variable across all populations. Every category — gender, race, nationality, education level, etc. — possesses a fixed percentage of stupid people.

Law 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. This is Cipolla’s Golden Law. Unbelievably, a stupid person causes problems for others without any clear benefit for himself.

Law 4: Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. By underestimating the stupid, we put ourselves in jeopardy.

Law 5: A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person. (Corollary: A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit.) Self-explanatory.

Is there an antidote? Cipolla thinks not. He argues there are no defenses against stupidity. Our only remedy is for the rest of us to work harder to overcome all the mistakes. This means that to progress, a society must have a high proportion of people acting intelligently to counterbalance the stupid’s losses. Declining societies have the same percentage of stupid people as successful ones. But they also have high percentages of helpless people and  “an alarming proliferation of the bandits with overtones of stupidity.” That’s when things start going downhill.

This is certainly a pessimistic view of humanity. Bur unfortunately, I have not found much evidence to the contrary in my lifetime.

Taken from “The Five Universal Laws of Human Stupidity” by Corinne Purtill (

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