It is often appalling to learn of the unbelievably stupid stunts that some patients have done that result in horrible injuries. While some injuries may be tragic and just bad luck, others are unfathomable in the sheer stupidity and complete lack of insight that led to the injury, not only to the individual but often to a group of others. It was after listening to one such story of a stupid self-created injury that it reminded me of an essay I read as an undergraduate student: an essay on the Basic Laws of Stupidity.
There are Laws that are immutable, timeless, and profound, which have changed and advanced science over the past centuries. Keppler’s Law of Planetary Motion described the motion of the planets in the solar system in 17th century, changing astronomy forever. Newton’s Laws of Motion and Gravitation revolutionized physics. The Laws of Thermodynamics added to the fundamental laws of physics and demonstrated applicability in other natural sciences. The most humorous yet stunningly obvious laws were introduced in 1976 by Cipolla.1 Cipolla was an economist at the University of California Berkley when he introduced the Basic Laws of Human Stupidity. The essay was written in a humorous style initially for a small group of colleagues1 and was then eventually published.2
Cipolla described five basic laws of human stupidity:
Law 1: Always and inevitably, everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
Law 2: The probability that a certain person is stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
Law 3: A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself/herself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.
Law 4: Nonstupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. Nonstupid people constantly forget that under any circumstances, dealing or associating with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake.
Law 5: A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.
Cipolla posited that stupidity is a constant universal variable across the globe regardless of how one tries to categorize or subcategorize people. Law 1 states that there is a fixed percentage of stupid people in the population, and Law 2 states that even the most admired or intelligent individuals can be stupid. Thus, there are stupid people everywhere, in every disciple and every group. How true this Law is, especially when we reflect upon our own stupid decisions or those around us. If we try to quantify the number of stupid people that are intelligent, we violate Law 1: as we would surely underestimate the number of stupid “intelligent” people. The most compelling law is the third law, which Cipolla called the “Golden Law of Stupidity:” a stupid person causes losses to others without any benefit to themselves. The third law, when dissected, results in four types of individuals based on their ability or inability to create benefits/gains versus pain/losses. This has been portrayed brilliantly in Cipolla’s Graph of Stupidity (Fig. 1). In this graph, Cipolla emphasized that nonstupid individuals are an inconsistent and flawed group and can be placed anywhere in his graph based on their benefit to themselves or others. Stupid individuals are those who create losses to themselves and others (lower left quadrant). Intelligent individuals are diametrically opposite, where they create gains for themselves and society (upper right quadrant). When an individual creates losses for themselves and benefits others, Cipolla labels them helpless, and when individuals create losses for others to gain for themselves, he calls them bandits. The bandit is a con-artist, thief, or cheat. Interestingly, the nonstupid group can be in all quadrants except the lower left. Interestingly, we all possess elements of the intelligent, helpless, and bandit. It is the individuals trapped in the lower left quadrant that Cipolla says are “trapped in a paragon of consistency resulting in acting at all times with unyielding idiocy” (Law 4), making them by far the most dangerous type of person (Law 5).
My revisiting of Cipolla’s Basic Laws of Stupidity resulted in a laugh and was quickly followed by the astonishment of how true the laws were. Reflecting on my own stupid decisions, how the stupidity of others has affected me, and where I might sit on on Cipolla’s graph made me see the genius of Cipolla’s Law.
Now when I learn of the stupid and outrageous ways some patients sustain injuries, I am no longer astonished, but sad, wondering how much harm was done to others by the stupid actions of an individual and continually strive to never be in the lower left quadrant.
1. Cipolla CM. The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity. Wayback Machine. 2013. Accessed December 12, 2022. https://web.archive.org/web/20130216132858/http://www.cantrip.org/stupidity.html
2. Cipolla CM. The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity. Bologna, Italy: Società Editrice il Mulino; 2011.
3. Perissi I, Bardi U. The Sixth Law of Stupidity: A Biophysical Interpretation of Carlo Cipolla’s Stupidity Laws. Systems. 2021;9:57.