It’s a very tiny book with a very big idea. Carlo M. Cipolla wrote about “The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity” and it completely changed how I deal with people in difficult conversations and in general.
According to Cipolla there are four basic laws to human stupidity. The first one says that there are more stupid people around than we’d think:
“Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.”
If you’re one of the people who take staying home during Corona crisis serious, you may have been surprised by the sheer number of people who are still on beaches and in restaurants despite clear warning. That’s the first law.
The second law says that no matter what part of society you belong to, what your IQ is or what your profession – the ratio of stupid to non-stupid people is always the same.
“The probability that a certain person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.”
Which means that when you look at your company, the likelihood that you find a stupid person in senior management is equal to the likelihood of finding one on the shop floor.
The third law explains how Cipolla defines a stupid person the first place:
“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 makes a stupid person quite different from a crook (or bandit, as Cipolla calls them). A crook is someone who works to another’s losses, but gains from it. Why is that differentiation important? Because of the fourth and fifth law.
The fourth law says:
“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 infallibly turns out to be a costly mistake.”
And the fifth law concludes:
“A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.”
In fact, these last two laws show that the only sensible thing to do is stay away from stupid people. You can’t engage with crazy!
You can derive strategies to deal with crooks. They are predictable, because they’re calculating people. You may not like it, but you can enter their game and win if you understand the rules. This is especially true for company politics. Stupid people however, are unpredictable. They don’t care much about the outcome and that’s why their attack typically takes you by surprise. Trying to craft a rational response doesn’t get anywhere either, because stupid people “do not conform to the rules of rationality”.
What have I learned?
Whenever I sniff out a person to be stupid, I don’t engage. I don’t try to win them over or defend the truth. There’s always another way to get what you want without engaging with crazy. It means your ego might take a hit on occasion, but it’s still better than dealing with the losses that come from getting too close to stupid people.
(This should also serve as caution of trying to use a stupid person to your own advantage. Because they don’t play by rules or logic, you can’t outsmart them.)
All quotes from Cipolla, C. M. (2011). The basic laws of human stupidity. Il mulino.