One of the wonderful things about the physical sciences is that with a small number of compact ‘laws’, plus some basic commitments to logical thinking, we can understand how the physical universe works. This is well illustrated with Newton’s law of universal gravitation, which states that: ‘every particle attracts every other particle in the universe with a force which is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between their centres’.
This law is sufficient to explain why the coffee you spilt this morning will drop to the floor, and also why our solar system (‘…the gravitationally bound system of the Sun and the objects that orbit it’), has remained turning for the past 4.6 billion years. Note that the ‘laws of physics’ act independently of whether human beings either understand these laws, or have a way of using them.
In the social sciences, the state of affairs is generally not so clear-cut. However, after many years of looking, I believe that there are a few ‘laws of social science’ that have a near universal domain. The first, is of course the Law of the unanticipated consequences of purposive social action, first promulgated as such by Robert K Merton in 1936. The second is a set of linked ‘laws’, called The basic laws of human stupidity, which were developed by the Italian economic historian Carlo M. Cipolla (1922 - 2000), and first published in 1976. Both of these laws bring to my mind the same kind of universality as Newton’s law of gravity - and also act both for tiny individual ‘purposive social actions’, and also for human follies which unfold on a monumental and disastrous scale.
Cipolla defines two factors which need to be evaluated when considering a pattern of human behaviour, (i) the benefits and losses that an individual causes to him or herself, and (ii) the benefits and losses that an individual causes to others. These factors are in principle orthogonal, objective, and quantitative, and Cipolla enumerates and names the four possibilities. Using a simple notation, of + to indicate benefits and - to indicate losses, and S for self, O for others, Cipolla’s four behavioural patterns are: Helpless (S-/O+), Bandit (S+/O-), Intelligent (S+/O+), and Stupid (S-/O-). (As an aside, we can now also see that the famous 'win-win scenario' often talked about by management school professors and negotiators, is nothing other than the intelligent pattern of behaviour described by Cipolla i.e. S+/O+).
This leads us nicely to Cipolla’s definition of stupidity (it is actually his 3rd 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’. This definition makes it clear that ‘stupidity’ is not here used as an insult, but rather as a well-defined behavioural pattern in terms of the economic and social effects of a ‘purposive social action’. In my opinion, this definition and the laws that follow from it, are best seen as a way to extend Merton’s Law - the ‘purposive social actions’ which we all make, have one of these four consequences. Note that these ‘laws of social science’ act independently of whether human beings either understand these laws, or have a way of using them.
Now we can consider Cipolla’s five fundamental laws of stupidity:
1. Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
2. The probability that a certain person (will) be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
3. 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.
4. Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake.
5. A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.
A nice edition of Cipolla's very short book was recently published by W.H. Allen (Here).
I believe that it would be a real help for the world if this slim book, and the well-defined and understandable laws which it contains, was a foundational text for high-school students. How much better I would have dealt with life as a young man, if I had been in command of such a clear and objective framework to evaluate not only the behaviour of other people, but more importantly my own behaviour. With these laws in mind, we can adhere to a perfectly rational moral code which is unencumbered by religious trimmings. Simply put, not only should we avoid stupidity in others, we should endeavour to live a life in which we try at all times to minimise our own stupidity.