Last week, while crossing the road, I saw a car that was incorrectly parked. Naturally, the first reaction was, “What an idiot!” This person has not only put their vehicle at risk of getting nicked, but they also put pedestrians at risk. Apparently, having a number plate with KING written on it didn’t help much.
But then I started to think, “Should I be calling this person an idiot or stupid? And what is the difference between an idiot and a stupid?” So, I searched on the internet just to find the difference between these two terms. Then, of course, I did find something about it. But I also found an interesting article on stupidity.
Oh, by the way, did you watch a movie titled “Idiocracy?” It is a sci-fi comedy...more comedy, less sci-fi. Because even though it is called sci-fi, there are so many living examples around us who match many characters from that movie. It’s fun. You should go watch it sometime.
Now about that interesting article. This article was written by Carlo Cipolla in 1976. And it is titled “The basic laws of stupidity.” So, at first, I thought, “Oooh, this looks funny.” I had a good laugh just by reading the title. The article talks about the five fundamental laws of stupidity.
The first law says that “Everyone underestimates the number of stupid people in circulation.” So, at first, this sounds trivial and a highly generalized statement. But if you look around you, you can easily see that number of stupid people around you is much higher than you thought earlier.
Everyone underestimates the number of stupid people in circulation.
Then we have the second law of stupidity. It says that “Being stupid is independent of other characteristics of that person.” And what it means is that it doesn’t matter whether you are an entry-level employee, senior manager, CEO, politician, entrepreneur, doctor, or engineer. It doesn’t matter who you are and what your profession is. They have no bearing whatsoever on someone being stupid.
Being stupid is independent of other characteristics of that person.
It feels like, “Wow! that is outrageous.” But then you will realize that you have seen lots of such people in your life. They are really stupid, and yet they are in those positions.
But then the third law makes it clear. It says that “There are people who, with their unlikely actions, not only cause harm to other people, but also to themselves.”
The author explains this with a classic two by two matrix. On the vertical axis, we have people causing benefits to others or losses to others. And on the horizontal axis, we have people causing benefits to themselves or losses to themselves.
There are people who, with their unlikely actions, not only cause harm to other people, but also to themselves.
In the top right corner, it has people who benefit others while benefitting themselves. And this benefit is fair for all. They are the intelligent ones. The bottom right is people who benefit themselves by causing losses to others. They are labeled as bandits. The top left has people who cause losses to themselves while benefitting others. They are helpless and naive people. And finally, on the bottom left, we have people who cause losses to others, and in doing that, they don’t get any benefits for themselves. It is a lose-lose situation for all. That is the zone of stupidity.
And that is where the fourth law makes more sense, which is, “Non-stupid people always underestimate the harmful potential of stupid people.” Most of us would want to give them the benefit of the doubt because they incur losses. But we tend to forget that they also cause damage or losses to others. Many times, we confuse stupidity for helplessness.
Non-stupid people always underestimate the harmful potential of stupid people.
Now finally, there is the fifth law. It is that “A stupid person is the most dangerous person. More dangerous than bandits.” It makes sense because if someone is in the bandit category, we can easily anticipate what they might do. You know they are bandits, and you know they can harm you for their own gains. So, the defensive strategy becomes clear.
A stupid person is the most dangerous person. More dangerous than bandits.
But with stupid people, it is different. The problem is that even they don’t know what they’re doing most of the time, forget about you figuring out their next move. So, it makes them completely unpredictable. And that makes them more dangerous.
Now, as Cipolla mentions, there are two types of bandits. Some have an overtone of intelligence; others have an overtone of stupidity. So, the ones with an overtone of intelligence almost appear like intelligent people. But their actions are often win-lose. This is where the inequality starts to build. We think they are doing the right thing, but they are not. So, “Beware of bandits with overtones of intelligence.”
Beware of bandits with overtones of intelligence.
When I read these laws, at first, I thought it was hilarious. I mean, come on, it was not a scientific study. But if you think it through, you will see that they’re nothing less. I first laughed, but then I started to think. How do you protect yourself from human stupidity?
You see, intelligence is mostly much broader than a single general ability. But we confuse individual talent with intelligence. So, when a bandit with overtones of intelligence starts to overpower, it makes you feel inadequate. It makes you feel like an imposter, less than most other people. Which can push you into the helpless zone. And that is not helpful.
If we do not develop the ability to think for ourselves and not introspect regularly, we can become victims of stupidity.
Intelligence and stupidity are not the opposite of one another. And beyond labeling people, it is vital to understand the risks. When we are not careful with our actions or words, we can all behave stupidly. If we do not develop the ability to think for ourselves and not introspect regularly, we can become victims of stupidity.
Ignorance, overconfidence, lack of control, distractions; all contribute to making us more stupid. And if that happens, technology and AI will be the least of our problems.
Laws of stupidity...laugh as much as you want but think!