‘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. —  Carlo Cipolla

What defines intelligence? Is it a measurable characteristic such as IQ score, vocabulary, numeracy, or the ability to use analogies? Is it shown by external factors such as academic qualifications or career success? Or is it in some immeasurable characteristic such as emotional, interpersonal, intrapersonal, or naturalistic intelligence? I do not know. But the Italian historical economist Carlo M. Cipolla had a theory. Not only is it good as anyone else’s — but it is also depressingly prescient of the current state of America.

In the 1970s, Cipolla circulated two non-technical essays among his friends. One, “The Role of Spices (and Black Pepper in Particular) in Medieval Economic Development” (1973), traces the correlation between spice imports and population expansion in the late Middle Ages, postulating causation due to a supposed aphrodisiac effect of black pepper.

The second, and the one of interest here, is “The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity”. In it, Cipolla formulated his five fundamental 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.

Essentially he proposes two things. First, we underestimate the number of stupid people because we assume that some people are necessarily not stupid – people such as business executives, doctors, and other professionals, people who have college degrees or teach, or the well-spoken. Second, non-stupid people underestimate how much damage stupid people will do.

This raises the question, how do you decide who is stupid? For Cipolla, actions are all that count. He says intelligence or stupidity is not determined by our inherent qualities but rather by the consequences of our deeds.

He asks if the effects of someone’s actions are beneficial or detrimental for that person? And are the effects beneficial or detrimental for everyone else?

This leads to four possibilities

A: An individual’s actions benefit both themselves and others. He calls these people Intelligent

B: An individual’s actions benefit them and hurt others. He calls these people Bandits  

C: An individual’s actions benefit others but not themselves. These people are the Helpless

D: An individual’s actions benefit neither themselves nor others. And these are the Stupid 

Here are the four possibilities pictured on a graph:


In an ideal world, society would comprise just ‘intelligent people’, who would be doing things that benefited both them and others. Adding ‘helpless people’ would not hurt the intelligent, even if the helpless people did not act in their self-interest. And we should not dismiss them, as altruists fall into this category.

But on the downside, we too often assume the real danger to society is ‘the bandits’. However, while they may be sociopathic graspers – in it only for themselves – they have an aim. Their behavior is predictable. They will not act against their self-interest. So the intelligent can write laws in an attempt to constrain them.

This leaves the people Cipolla called “the most dangerous type of person”, ‘the stupid’. These are people whose acts benefit neither others nor themselves. But unlike the bandit, the stupid person is unpredictable. They do not act in their own best interest. They do not know even how to act in their best interest — while all along thinking they are. They are the figurative bulls in a china store.

We think we know who these people are. And we are right — but only to an extent. Cipolla reminds us that stupid people might be people we assumed were intelligent. An assumption we made because they spoke well, had a good education, were quiet in their demeanor, and worked at a demanding job.  

In contemporary America — as it has been throughout history — it is easy to see how the bandits use the stupid to achieve gain. But in doing so they grasp the tiger by its tail. The stupid cannot be predicted. They do not know what is in their best interest. Nor can they think for themselves. And as soon as their current Messiah or conspiracy theory source loses its appeal, God only knows who they will follow next. It is like employing rabid dogs to guard your property. Who knows who they might bite?

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This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.


  1. This was an amazingly eye-opening, incredibly enlightening, thoroughly explicative, and soundly based treatment of this subject. For years, I’ve wondered why some individuals — who are seemingly otherwise very bright, such as doctors and lawyers, professionals and accomplished individuals — seem to do and say the stupidest things and express the stupidest thoughts imaginable. I’ve never stopped to assess their ability — or inability — to conduct a cost benefit analysis of their thoughts, actions and deeds.

    As I’m from Kentucky, I am astonished at the hold the Republican Party has on that state given that they lag far behind other states in education, earning potential, healthcare, you name it, and YET they will elect the same individuals over and over who are making decisions that are clearly not in their self-interests. And Kentucky is not alone in that. There’s West Virginia, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana among others, and it’s not just the South, but the South does have a commanding lead in the regional Stupidity Marathon. And I’ve always imagined that the politicians promising the moon but delivering nothing more than cow manure (but telling voters it’s really a piece of the moon, which they wholeheartedly believe) are bandits — btw it’s nice to now have a label to slap on their foreheads — and this would confirm that to some degree. I only wish a “cure” for the Stupids (the intellectually challenged masses who can’t act even to promote their own self-interests) could have been provided, but instead we are left with the thought that “in an ideal world” this segment of our population would not exist. We’d all be intellectuals. Alas and alack, poor Yorick…


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