Cipolla’s 5 Laws of Human Stupidity

Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation, Cipolla’s Law of Stupidity states. Even though Carlo Cipolla originally formulated his principles in the form of an amusing letter to his friends, it soon gained wide attention among social theorists. Today Cipolla’s law is often used to highlight the importance of critical thinking and careful decision making in order to counteract the potential effects of endemic ignorance in politics and corporations.

The full story
Cipolla introduction

In 1976, Carlo Cipolla, a professor of economic history, derived a social law, by which we can group people into four categories: The first he called “the helpless”, the second are “the intelligent”, the third are “the bandits”, and the last are “the stupid”. 

The stupid person is the most dangerous type of person, and in groups far more powerful than the Mafia, the Military or Communism, Cipolla warned. To arrive at this conclusion, we need to understand his 5 Basic Laws of Human Stupidity.

five basic laws of human stupidity
Cipolla's stupidity

1: Always and inevitably, everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.

2: The probability that a person is stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person. Education, wealth or status have nothing to do with it.

3: A stupid person is someone who causes losses to other people while himself deriving no gain.

4: Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid people and keep forgetting that to deal with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake.

5: A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person, even more dangerous than a bandit.

four factors of human behavior
Four factors

Cipolla then considers four factors of human behavior. A person can cause benefits to others, benefits to themselves, losses to others and losses to themselves.

If Tom takes an action and suffers a loss, he’s helpless. If Tom benefits himself, while also benefiting Jerry, he’s intelligent. If Tom helps himself, but causes Jerry a loss, he’s a bandit. And if Tom does something that’s of no benefit to him, but causes Jerry a loss he’s stupid. Ineffectual people are in the center. 

Let’s now look at the effects of these groups on society.

the effects on society
Stupid people in society

Helpless people contribute to society but are taken advantage of by others, especially bandits. And so their contribution is limited. Note that extreme altruists or pacifists may willingly accept a place in this category for moral reasons.

Intelligent people contribute to society and leverage their contributions into reciprocal benefits. Their actions lead to a net gain to society, which is why helpless people should always support intelligent ones.

Bandits pursue their own self-interest and enrich themselves, even when doing so poses a harm to society. Helpless and intelligent people should try to stop them. 

Stupid people always contribute to a net loss to society. But not only that. As they do so for no obvious reason. Their actions also frustrate, anger and confuse everyone else. 

Cipolla’s point of view
Cipolla's point of view

Against major cultural trends among his fellow intellectuals, Cipolla was convinced that men are not equal. That some are stupid and others are not, and that the difference is determined by nature and nothing else. One is stupid in the same way one is red-haired, he wrote.

Cipolla warned that the damaging potential of the stupid person therefore depends on the amount of stupidity inherited, as well as their position of power in a society.

Among bureaucrats, generals and politicians one has little difficulty in finding clear examples of basically stupid individuals, whose damaging capacity was alarmingly enhanced by the position of the power they occupied.

what do you think?
Cipolla WDYT

What are your thoughts on stupidity? Are people born or made stupid? Or is it, as usual, more complex, and is there an interrelationship between the two? 

Share your thoughts, and read more about Cipolla’s work and amusing essay — which originally was only intended for friends — in the descriptions below.


Dig deeper!

Classroom activity

  • Begin the class by discussing the concept of stupidity and its effects on society.
  • Watch the Sprouts video on Chipolla’s theory and have the class vote on whether they agree or disagree with it. 
  • Then, divide the class into pairs and ask them to research real-life examples of famous historical figures who have caused a net loss for society. 
  • Collect the answers anonymously and present them to the class. 
  • Facilitate a class discussion on whether these examples truly led to a net loss for society and whether the behavior was due to stupidity or other factors such as being a bandit. 
  • Encourage the class to consider whether the concept of “net loss” is objective or subjective. If there is agreement on one of the examples, have the class vote on whether the behavior was due to stupidity or other factors. 
  • End the class with another vote on whether they agree with Chipolla’s theory and compare the results from the first vote with that of the second.


  • Script: Jonas Koblin
  • Artist: Pascal Gaggelli
  • Voice: Matt Abbott
  • Coloring: Nalin
  • Editing: Peera Lertsukittipongsa
  • Production: Selina Bador
  • Fact-checking: Ludovico Saint Amour Di Chanaz
  • Sound Design: Miguel Ojeda

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