Book Review  

The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity by Carlo M Cipolla

The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity by Carlo M Cipolla

The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity attempts to explain the seemingly irrational behaviour of certain individuals in any group or society.

Rather than being an academic research project on the psychology of why people make rash decisions, this book seeks to explain in a broad way how ‘stupid’ people operate, and why we should be wary of them.

It outlines five basic laws, starting with the general principle that there are always more stupid people than one first thinks.

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One of the most startling conclusions he comes to is that there is always the same fraction of stupid people in any group regardless of that group’s social and educational background.

And he defines stupid as being someone who indulges in behaviour that is to the detriment of other people as well as him or herself.

This is in contrast to the ‘bandit’ who, while operating to the loss of others, still works in his or her own favour.

Carlo Cipolla says: “The bandit’s actions follow a pattern of rationality: nasty rationality, if you like, but still rationality. 

“Essentially, stupid people are dangerous and damaging because reasonable people find it difficult to imagine and understand unreasonable behaviour.

“The problem with stupid people is when they take up positions of power. And they occupy all positions in society, from top to bottom.

“In a previous era, the influences on social organisation came from the church, class and caste.

“Now we have political parties and bureaucracy, and lieu of religion we have democracy.

“Within a democratic system, general elections are a most effective instrument to ensure the steady maintenance of the fraction [of stupid people] among the powerful.”

Hence a stupid person with power can be most threatening. 

The fifth basic law Mr Cipolla cites is: “A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.”

It is a short book, probably taking a couple of hours to read.

More than anything, it might provide some solace to ‘intelligent’ people – those who Mr Cipolla defines as working for their own good and the good of others – who despite their best intentions, have their plans and institutions disrupted by unpredictable and destructive behaviour of certain individuals, who seem hell bent on taking everyone down with them.

Melanie Tringham is features editor of Financial Adviser

Published by WH Allen