After several developments there is
a book in English
(as well as in Italian and Spanish)


The Power of Stupidity

By Giancarlo Livraghi
June 1996
(revised and updated December 2006)

disponibile anche in italiano
disponible también en español



This was originally written in 1996 as a “special report” for Entropy Gradient Reversals, that had asked me for some comments on human stupidity. I was surprised when it was translated into Spanish in 1998. Later several readers asked me to publish an Italian version, which I did in September, 2001.

This version is revised, in December 2006, also in relation to several things that I wrote in following years (see index) – but the substance is essentially the same.

A much wider development is in a book, in Italian, English and Spanish.

The study of stupidity can be seen as a branch of a more extended subject, “why things go wrong” (see Murphy, Parkinson, Peter and Cipolla.)  But it could be also the other way round. All the behaviors that lead to wrong decisions can be seen as ways of being stupid – and none, dismal as they may be, have such devastating effects as human stupidity.

I have always been fascinated with Stupidity. My own, of course; and that’s a big enough cause of anxiety.

But things get much worse when one has a chance to find out how Big People take Big Decisions.

We generally tend to blame awful decisions on intentional perversity, astute mischievousness, megalomania, etc. They are there, all right; but any careful study of history, or current events, leads to the invariable conclusion that the single biggest source of terrible mistakes is sheer stupidity.

This fact is quite widely understood by anyone who has had a chance to look into the subject. One of the ways in which it is summarized is known as Hanlon’s Razor: «Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.» The same concept was confirmed by Robert Heinlein in a shorter and simpler statement: «Never underestimate the power of human stupidity.»

The origin of Hanlon’s Razor is uncertain. It can be considered as a corollary to Finagle’s Law of Dynamic Negatives (which is similar to Murphy’s Law). It’s inspired by a classic, Occam’s Razor (and it’s equally sharp). “Hanlon” is probably a phonetic variation on the name of Robert Heinlein, who had stated that concept in his novel Logic of Empire in1941.

When stupidity combines with other factors (as happens quite often) the results can be devastating.

A fact that surprises me (or does it?) is the very little amount of study dedicated to such an important subject. There are University departments for the mathematical complexities in the movements of Amazonian ants, or the medieval history of Perim island; but I have never heard of any Foundation or Board of Trustees supporting any studies of Stupidology.

I have found very few good books on the subject. Three deserve to be specifically quoted.

One I read when I was a teenager, but never forgot. It is called A Short Introduction to the History of Human Stupidity by Walter B. Pitkin of Columbia University, and was published in 1934. I found it by chance many years ago while browsing around old bookshelves; and much to my delight, I still have it. Old as it is, it’s still a very good book. Some of Professor Pitkin’s observations appear extraordinarily correct seventy years later.

Now... why did he call a 300-page book a “short introduction”?

At the end of the book, it says: «Epilogue: now we are ready to start studying the History of Stupidity.» Nothing follows.

Professor Pitkin was a very wise man. He knew that a lifetime was far too short to cover even a fragment of such a vast subject. So he published the Introduction, and that was it.

Pitkin was well aware of the lack of previous work in the field. He had a team of researchers hunt through the files of the Central Library in New York. They found only two books on the subject: Über die Dummheit by Leopold Löwenfeld (1909) and Aus der Geschichte der menschlichen Dummheit by Max Kemmerich (1912).

Of course there are several books that, in one way or another, are related to stupidity. Only a few cover the subject coherently, but some are interesting, for different reasons. The most relevant are quoted in chapter 1 and in other parts of my book. Over the years I have collected a “bibliography” of those that I have been able to find – and I am updating it when something new is published that is worth mentioning.

In Pitkin’s opinion, four people out of five are stupid enough to be called “stupid.” That was one and a half billion people when he wrote the book; it is over five billion now. This, in itself, is quite stupid.

He observed that one of the problems of Stupidity is that nobody has a really good definition of what it is. In fact geniuses are often considered stupid by a stupid majority (though nobody has a good definition of genius, either). But stupidity is definitely there, and there is much more of it than our wildest nightmares might suggest. In fact, it runs the world – which is very clearly proven by the way the world is run.

But somebody, fifty-four years later, came up with a rather interesting definition. His name is Carlo M. Cipolla, Professor Emeritus of Economic History at Berkeley. All of his books are in English – only a few are in Italian. One, Allegro ma non troppo, was published by “Il Mulino” in Bologna in 1988 (translation by Anna Parish).

In that book there is a little essay called The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity, one of the best ever written on the subject. It has been published in several languages, but unfortunately the original English text is not publicly available (see a note at the end of this page).

In part his observations confirm existing knowledge. Such as the fact that “the number of stupid people” is broadly underestimated. That is something that we can all notice every day. Aware as we may be of the power of stupidity, we are often surprised by its surfacing where and where we least expect it.

Two consequences are pretty obvious in any analysis of the problem. One it that we often underestimate the awful effects of stupidity. The other is that, because it is so unpredictable, stupid behavior (as indicated in Hanlon’s Razor) is more dangerous than intentional mischief.

What is missing in this perspective (as in the case of Walter Pitkin and almost every author dealing with this subject) is a consideration of our stupidity – or, in any case, of the stupidity factor that exists even in the most intelligent people.

I shall get back to that subject further on. But, at this point, it’s appropriate to note that the problem of stupidity lurking in all of us, generally ignored or underestimated, is correctly defined in a particularly interesting book, Understanding Stupidity by James Welles. The first edition was published in 1986 (extended and developed in following years).

I am sorry to admit that, when I first wrote this article in 1996, I wasn’t aware of this work by James Welles. Now I can say that it’s the best book I have read on the subject, the most thorough in analysis and depth. When I discovered it, I was pleased to find that James Welles agrees with many things that I had written about the power of stupidity.

One of the key points in Carlo Cipolla’s theory (as well as in the studies by James Wells) is that a person’s stupidity is “independent of any other characteristic of that person”.

This may contradict some widespread opinions, but it’s confirmed by any careful analysis of the problem. This isn’t some superficial way of being “politically correct”. It’s a basic fact. It is substantially true that no human category is more intelligent, or more stupid, than another. There is no difference in the level and frequency of stupidity by gender, sex, race, color, ethnic background, culture or education level. (Ignorance may be influenced by stupidity, or vice versa, but they are not the same thing – see Three Friends of Stupidity).

There is a criterion, in Cipolla’s theory, that I have adopted as a method in some of my analyses. It’s defined in the one that he calls “Third (and Golden) Law” – «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.»

An important advantage of this approach is that it avoids the thorny problem of trying to find, in theory, a definition of stupidity (or intelligence) while it evaluates its relevance in relation to practical effects.

It’s obvious that, with this criterion, different categories of behavior can be defined. At one extreme we find people who do good for themselves as well as for others (therefore we call them “intelligent”). At the other end of the spectrum there are people who do harm to themselves as well as to others (and those are “stupid”). It’s pretty obvious that there are also at least two “in between” categories. One that harms others while gaining self advantage (Cipolla calls them “bandits”). And one where we place people who harm themselves while doing good for others.

The definition of this last category isn’t as simple as it may seem. It isn’t always appropriate to call them “hapless” or “hopeless”. That may seem correct if gain or loss are measured according to simplistic criteria of “classic” economy. But it can be wrong when applied to people who deliberately sacrifice some of their own benefits for the good of others – as we shall see shortly after the next point.

It’s obvious that this sort of concept can be “charted”, quite simply, by using the classic (two-dimensional) “Cartesian coordinate system”.

It is “standard procedure” to define four “quadrants”
numbered counterclockwise from I to IV

If we place on the horizontal (“abscissa”) X-axis the advantage (or disadvantage) that someone obtains from his or her own actions, and on the vertical (“ordinate”) Y-axis the effects on other people, anyone of us can find a placement, based on the practical consequences of behavior, where a person (of group of people) is to be placed – in general or in a particular circumstance. It’s obvious that behaviors in “quadrant I” (top right) are at various levels of “intelligence”, while in “quadrant III” (bottom left) it’s stupidity.

It is also obvious that in the fourth quadrant (bottom right) we can find different levels of “banditism”. But those in the second (top left) can’t be so easily defined. (This is one of the points in which my interpretation is somewhat different from Cipolla’s definitions – another, more general, difference is explained in the final comments in this article).

They may be “hapless” or “hopeless” if and when they harm themselves and others without being aware of what they are doing. But the same placement in the coordinates could be the result of deliberately generous or “altruistic” behavior. In such cases the analysis could take one of two courses. Consider moral and social benefits – and therefore place those behaviors in the “intelligent” area. Or leave them where they are, on the left of the Y-axis, but use a different definition (more on this subject is in a “footnote” to The Stupidity of Power).

Without getting into the details, that could be quite complex, of what can be done with this sort of analyses, a key fact is that the evaluation of different behaviors can be done on an individual basis (one-to-one) or on a wider scale, involving “large” systems (nations, international communities or even humanity as a whole) or not-so-wide environments (local situations, companies, associations, organized or informal groups, human communities of any sort, nature or size).

The system, as a whole, can improve or degrade as the result of a combination of several different behaviors, not all necessarily “altruistic”. But it’s clear that the greatest improvement is the result of “intelligent” action – and the worst deterioration is caused by stupidity. In other words, if each person or group of people mind too much their own interest, and don’t consider the effect of their actions on everyone else, there is a general decay of society as a whole – and so also those who thought they were being “smart” turn out to be stupid. But it often happens that this is understood when it’s too late.

This confirms the basic concept: the most dangerous factor in every human society is stupidity.

Of course there are specific, and often dramatic, consequences when there is an unbalance of cause and effect. As in the case of actions by a few people that have an effect on many. For more on this subject see The Stupidity of Power.

In the use of the coordinates there are some differences between the approach suggested by Carlo Cipolla and the method in my reasoning. They are mainly three.

  • Observations by Pitkin, Cipolla and nearly everybody considering this subject are based on an assumption of total separation: some people are intelligent and some are stupid. As we shall see shortly further, I believe that almost nobody is totally stupid, and nobody can hope to be always intelligent. Therefore we need to consider the element of stupidity (and also of other behavior patterns) that exists in all of us.

  • Analyses based on results can be made by trying to define a person’s general behavior pattern or be limited to a particular set of circumstances. This second option is not to be excluded. It can be quite interesting to find how the same person, in different situations, can behave in ways that lead to different results and definitions.

  • The obvious attitude, when we work with these coordinates, it to place ourselves in the “X-axis” and someone else in the “Y”. But it can be very useful to do it the other way round, trying to trace the effects of our actions on other people. The difficulty lies in the fact that, of course, the quality of results is to be measured by the point of view of whoever is at the receiving end. But it’s always a useful exercise to try to “put ourselves in someone else’s shoes” – especially when we are trying to measure our level of stupidity (or intelligence.)

It’s a widely known fact that responsible and generous people are generally aware of how they are, malicious and nasty people understand what they are doing, and even the weakest victims have a feeling that something isn’t quite right... but stupid people don’t know they are stupid, and that is one more reason why they are extremely dangerous.

Which of course leads me back to my original, agonizing question: am I stupid?

I have passed several IQ tests with good marks. Unfortunately, I know how these tests work and that they don’t prove anything.

Several people have told me I am intelligent. But that doesn’t prove anything, either. They may simply be too kind to tell me the truth. Conversely, they could be attempting to use my stupidity for their own advantage. Or they could be just as stupid as I am.

I am left with one little glimpse of hope: quite often, I am intensely aware of how stupid I am (or I have been). And this indicates that I am not completely stupid.

At times, I have tried to locate myself in the Cartesian coordinates, using as far as possible measurable results of action, rather than opinion, as a yardstick. Depending on the situation, I seem to wander around the upper side of the graph, above the X-axis, sometimes in the quadrant on the top right, that is to say, with a relatively “low” or “high” level of intelligence. But in some cases I am desperately lost on the left side, hurting myself as well as others. I just hope I am “useful to others” as often as I think. But I know that it’s impossible to never make mistakes – and that there is never any end to learning.

On a broader scale, one would expect the strongest success factors to lie in the first and fourth quadrant, that is, on the right side of the Y-axis. However, the staggering number of people who belong on the other side, and have wonderful careers, can be only explained by a strong desire on the part of several leaders to be surrounded by as many stupid people as possible.

Shortly after reading his book, I wrote a letter to Carlo Cipolla. (I have done this sort of thing only twice in my life).

Much to my surprise, he answered, briefly but kindly.

I had asked him:

«What do you think of my “corollary” to your theory?»

The answer was «Well... why not, maybe...» – which I think can be taken as agreement and approval of

Livraghi’s Corollary to Cipolla’s First Law

In each of us there is a factor of stupidity, which is always larger than we suppose.

This “corollary” (as those that followed – see Part Two) isn’t necessarily related so a single author. It could be applied, for instance, to Hanlon’s Razor or Finagle’s Law – as to any general consideration on the ubiquity of stupidity, that is often, if not always, more widespread and more dangerous than expected.

This creates a three-dimensional coordinate system and I don’t think I have to take you through the steps, because no stupid (or timid) person would have had the courage to read this far.

Of course, in addition to our own and other people’s stupidity, we can introduce other variables, such as our own behavior factors, and their many ways of combining with those of others. It may be wise to forget the “intelligent” factor, as there never is enough of that – but to consider “fourth quadrant” values, because even the most generous person can sometimes behave like a bandit, if only by mistake. These additional factors generate multi-dimensional models that can get fairly difficult to manage. But even if we consider only our individual stupidity values, the complexity can become quite staggering.

Try it for yourself... and get really scared.

See also Part 2 of “The Power of Stupidity” (September 1997)
Part 3 “The Stupidity of Power” (April 2002)
and other articles on this subject (2002-2009)

Before (and after) I wrote this article
I made several attempts (online and off)
to find the original English text
of Carlo Cipolla’s essay on stupidity.
It was written in the early Seventies
and circulated privately by photocopy.
In 1976 it was printed in Bologna in a thin booklet
as a Christmas gift to a few colleagues and friends.
It was published by the Whole Earth Review in 1987,
apparenty without the author’s agreement.

Fifteen years later, in 2002, it became available online,
in Ecotopia and other websites.

But in 2006 the copyright owners decided
to prohibit its publication everywhere, including the internet.
So it has become, again, unavailable
(though it occasionally re-appears online in different places).
That’s a pity. But,unfortunately, that’s the law.




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