3 September 2022
How we understand stupidity
According to the common understanding, stupidity has something to do with the inability or unwillingness to think in an orderly manner.We do not feel a strong urge to define the term more precisely, because each of us experiences so much stupidity around us almost every day that no need for an accurate description arises. At work, in politics, and even in science and charitable organisations, possibly in our own wider families, stupidity seems to grin at us. Stupidity appears to be so overwhelmingly evident and arouses so much aversion that we find it difficult to deal with it soberly.
Change of perspective
The conventional understanding of stupidity as the absence of the ability to think properly cannot actually be correct. Simple experience disproves it: Anyone who has ever had a discussion with a dedicated conspiracy theorist, for example, will no longer doubt his or her capacity to think. Such people can erect and develop the most complicated thought structures in an almost acrobatic way. They search obsessively to find endless details that substantiate their conclusions. Clearly they have a capacity for thinking, even if the output is manifestly wrong.
In 1976, the Italian economic historian Carlo Cipolla published an article on the subject of stupidity titled "Le leggi fondamentali della stupidità umana", the English translation of which is titled “The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity”. Cipolla radically changed the view on stupidity, moving away from the woolly prevailing opinion towards an innovative and more precise understanding of the phenomenon. The essence of his approach is not to understand stupidity in terms of the ability to think, because that is only a potential that can be used in various ways. Rather, he identified the decisive criteria to be behavioural patterns firmly rooted in the personality. The practical value of his approach is that we can better assess the dimension and dangerousness of stupidity and even work on defence strategies.
You may have seen a warning sign on a garden door in France that says “Chien bête et méchant” = "Stupid and malicious dog". This is an expression of subtle black humour, and yet the message has a chilling effect when we think of the dog's chaotic willingness to bite without reason. Such a dog would embody what Cipolla has identified as real stupidity.
Cipolla’s definition of a stupid person as one who is determined to indiscriminately harm other people as well as themselves does not exclude the ability to think accurately. Rather, the thinking capacity of a person of this type is the arson accelerant with which he or she can maximise damage. The blindly stupid person finds fulfilment in damage, regardless of short or long term implications.
As the following diagram shows, Cipolla’s understanding of stupid people becomes obvious when considering their opposite, i.e. intelligent people. The latter, in fact, are naturally anxious to benefit others and/or themselves with their actions. They are committed to what economists designate as “Pareto improvements”. Intelligence understood in this way can be linked to the ability to think sharply, but this need not be the case. Rather, the decisive factor is the consistent intention to generate benefits and the ability to recognise the need for reasonable action. These qualities are anchored in personality.
Naïve people have similar propensities, but are to be distinguished from intelligent people. Naïve people believe in generating benefits, but still feel good about their actions even when they cause self-harm.
Then there is the bandit class, those who are convinced that they can only gain advantages for themselves at the expense of other people and who operate with deception and violence.
All except the stupid can find themselves in a different quadrant in different situations or states of mind. Thus, it is not impossible for a member of the bandit class to act in the mode of an intelligent or naïve person when an impulse to act arises that has nothing to do with enrichment.
Only the people in the lower left quadrant are averse to any mixture; they are steadfastly committed to causing damage.