Cipolla’s “Laws of Stupidity” (The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity) are an interesting ‘useful joke’ for anyone who is concerned with information distortion, or the production of disorder. However, I think they can be easily be made more realistic, expanded and personal solutions proposed.

The axes

Cipolla first sets up two graph axes. The first axis ‘measures’ whether an action is harmful or beneficial to the person performing the action. The other axis ‘measures’ whether the action is harmful or beneficial for others. He then puts forward the suggestion that there are four ideal types of behaviour

  • If a person performs an act which is beneficial to themselves but harmful to others, he defines them as a ‘brigand’. I will use the word ‘criminal’ because of problems with English, which I hope will become clear as we progress.
  • If a person performs an act which benefits themselves and others, then they are defined as ‘intelligent’.
  • If a person performs an act that harms themselves and benefits others, he defines them as acting ‘helplessly’.
  • If a person performs an act that harms themselves and others then they are ‘stupid’.

The Problem with Nouns

The problem with nouns is that they tend to imply stability, and suggest a person can be classified in one of these categories forever in everything. Rather strangely he does use the idea that people can behave helplessly. So let us consider a slightly more realistic set of definitions.

  • If, in particular circumstances, a person performs an act which is beneficial to themselves but harmful to others, then they are behaving criminally.
  • If, in particular circumstances, a person performs an act which is beneficial to themselves and others they are acting intelligently.
  • If, in particular circumstances, a person performs an act which harms themselves and benefits others, they are acting helplessly
  • If, in particular circumstances, a person performs an act which harms themselves and others they are acting stupidly.

This makes it clear that otherwise intelligent people can in certain circumstances act stupidly. Which is something we can agree with and is also is part of Cipolla’s second law. The question now becomes in what kind of circumstances will people act in particular ways, psychologically and socially? We may never find a complete answer to that question, but at least we have the capacity to shift from either praise or condemnation, into something which might prove useful to ourselves.

“When do we behave stupidly” not “Damn, you are so stupid”.

The ‘laws of stupidity’ may change a bit as a result, and we may get a few more such ‘laws’ which add to our understanding.

Law 1

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

The amount of stupid behaviour is huge.

We can change this to: “In any given circumstances the number of people who will behave stupidly is larger than we think.”

This implies the people who behave stupidly in different situations may be different people – those people may behave intelligently, helplessly or criminally in other situations. We cannot assume that stupid people remain consistently stupid – indeed if they behaved in a stupid manner all the time, they might be more noticeable and less dangerous.

Law 2

The probability that a certain person (will) be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.

We can change this to: People who behave stupidly in one set of circumstances may behave in many other ways in different circumstances. “There is no observable behaviour which eliminates the possibility of a person behaving stupidly in some circumstance or other.”

Law 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.

This is a definition not a law. But it is possibly wrong in implying that people are coherently stupid. Let us replace it with another definition.

Definition: A person is behaving stupidly when they cause losses to another person or group of persons, while themselves deriving no gain or even incurring losses.


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.

Let us rephrase this as well: “People always underestimate the damaging power of people behaving stupidly. Dealing with a person who consistently behaves stupidly, or who behaves stupidly in the particular circumstances you are operating under, always turns out to be a costly mistake.

This again helps to remind you that many people are not always stupid, and that a person who does not behave stupidly in most set of circumstances, can behave stupidly in another. It takes art to find out who is stupid, when.

Law 5

A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.

This is partially a rephrasing of the last ‘law’.

People who often behave stupidly, or who behave stupidly in the circumstances you are in, are dangerous.”

Extra Laws

Given this approach we can also add some extra laws.

Law 6

Even the wisest person is capable of behaving stupidly in the right circumstances.

Non of us are, at all times, immune to behaving stupidly. This could be thought of as a basic ‘psychoanalytic’ statement, pointing towards the unconscious reality: stupidity is not just other people.

Law 7

The more immune we think we are to behaving stupidly, the less chance we have of perceiving our stupid behaviour, or changing it.

This seems almost obviously correct. I have never met a person who I thought was behaving stupidly (as defined by Cipolla), who could see they were behaving stupidly at the time. They tend to be vituperative in their defense, and condemn everyone else for stupidity (or malevolence) rather than themselves. They can usually point to areas of life in which they are not stupid, as evidence they cannot be behaving stupidly now.


The Causes of people behaving stupidly could be both psychological and sociological. It could be a feedback situation, the more people who behave stupidly the more others are under pressure, and the more likely they are to behave stupidly as well.

It seems probable that people are more likely to behave stupidly, criminally, or helplessly, when they are exhausted, overworked, feel that superiors in the hierarchy are pressing them or not listening to them (bosses, politicians or other rulers), when they have little hope for the future, when they are flustered, neurotic, in fear and so on. Some of these kinds of circumstances will arise because of the interaction of individual response and social factors; we cannot expect everyone to behave the same, simply that more people are likely to behave non-intelligently under pressure.

It is, for example, likely that people, in the Western World, and elsewhere, are feeling exhausted and pressured by work or by the lack of work, they are likely (under neoliberalism) to feel that bosses and politicians are not listening to them but to ‘elites’ (however they define that), they may have little hope for the future due to economic decline, personal debt, job insecurity, or climate change, they may feel the world never leaves them alone, or they may build up anger by participating in polarising information groups online. All of which is likely to narrow their focus, and influence them to behave non-intelligently in some areas of their lives. They also may lack models of intelligent behaviour to emulate.


  • Recognise the possibility that you may be behaving non-intelligently in some circumstances.
  • While this may be influenced by others, change starts with yourself.
  • Few ‘normal’ people want to behave stupidly, criminally or helplessly. They want to help and build for themselves and others. They want less pressure.
  • Pause and break the cycle – regularly.
  • Five minutes in every hour, take a break – with no stimulation (No reading, no watching tv or youtube, no gaming, no chatting, no brooding, no problem solving, no web browsing, etc. ).
  • Listen. Accept what is. What you are feeling. Accept your body. Pressing discomfort down can be useful in emergencies. It is not useful all the time. Listen. Look around. ‘Listen’ again. Let ‘images’ arise if they arise.
  • Be honest and kind to yourself. Self compassion is nearly always useful.
  • Relaxing demands, accepting feelings, can lead to solutions arising.
  • This is close to what has been called Dadiri – being open to the world and its patterns.

This may well not solve all your problems (we may need a change of system, which starts with you and your interaction with others), but it will almost certainly help you to behave intelligently in more circumstances – and that might help change the world, so that people are more likely to behave intelligently more often.