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The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity
September 21, 2013 11:41 AM   Subscribe

The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity -- Five laws that explain why stupidity will always be with us, dragging us down.

The third law: A stupid person is a person who caused losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.
posted by Chocolate Pickle (55 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite

 
If it's the norm, why would it be called stupidity rather than the normal human condition?

Wait, that does not make it better.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 11:49 AM on September 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


Whole Earth Review/Coevolution Quarterly (where this was published back in 1987) was indeed the Metafilter of its day.

We can clearly see the connection in its tendency to, as here, overthink the holy living fuck out of any plate of beans it can get its hands on.
posted by Naberius at 11:49 AM on September 21, 2013 [16 favorites]


Stupid people are so dumb!
posted by srboisvert at 11:49 AM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Rule zero. Stupid people always think OTHER people are stupid.

Exhibit A: the original article.

Exhibit B: this reply...
maybe Socrates was right.

posted by EnterTheStory at 11:53 AM on September 21, 2013 [10 favorites]




I like how there's an actual bandit in the bandit quadrant in Figure 2.
posted by jimmythefish at 11:57 AM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is spooky because I was just trying to articulate the other day why I was calling another person stupid. This is exactly what I was trying to say, but I couldn't put it together:

The third law: A stupid person is a person who caused losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.

Now how do you go about telling another person that this is what they're doing without them harping on "You called me stuuuupiddd..."
posted by bleep at 11:59 AM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals.

So in other words, according to an article that defines "non-stupid" in terms of rationality and intelligence, "non-stupid" people invariably, persistently, and irrationally -- that is, against all evidence of experience and history per the author's own argument -- consistently make a fatal cognitive error. As a result of this error, they will consistently enable situations to occur in which everyone involved takes a loss.

So the punchline is "everyone is stupid?" Or just the author, who has a bad case of projection?
posted by kewb at 11:59 AM on September 21, 2013 [6 favorites]


The one issue I have with this piece is that it treats the categories as inherent and immutable rather than as phases we all flow through based on our skills and efforts in a particular area.

Richard Dawkins is a useful example. He started out behaving very intellegently; educating people about evolution in a way that made him successful. He has subsequently jumped into stupidity with both feet, as looking at his recent public statements will show.

People and groups confusing the outcomes of behaviours that work in context with inherent traits that are universally applicable is at the root of a whole lot of problems.
posted by Grimgrin at 12:00 PM on September 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


The other problem is that the article treats "gain" and "loss" as purely, transparently subject to objective and universally valid quantitative evaluation. Granted that the author is an economist, but this why economists are not particularly good at being sociologists or psychologists, no matter how much they sometimes pretend to be.
posted by kewb at 12:02 PM on September 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


We do not know how Nature achieves this remarkable result but we know that in order to achieve it Nature must operate with large numbers. The most remarkable fact about the frequency of stupidity is that Nature succeeds in making this frequency equal to the probability s quite independently from the size of the group. Thus one finds the same percentage of stupid people whether one is considering very large groups or one is dealing with very small ones,

Because young boys are more prone to disease than young girls, Nature produces a slight overabundance of boys at birth in order to achieve at more even distribution of breeding adults. In other words, Nature makes more boys because more boys are needed. If Nature produces a number of stupid people at least one reason would seem to be so that I could read articles like this.
posted by three blind mice at 12:04 PM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't think it's that hard to believe that humans are imperfect and that leads them to do things that don't make any sense.
posted by bleep at 12:07 PM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh, also, just because someone's got to do it:

Don't call me stupid!
posted by Naberius at 12:08 PM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


This analysis is fundamentally flawed from a mathematical basis. It focuses on people behaving stupidly, without any recognition that stupidity is an independent variable. Even if nobody existed to act stupid, stupidity would be an identifiable quantity. To codify this as a theorem, I have devised:

The Law of Infinite Stupidity
There are a finite number of ways to do something right. But there are an infinite number of ways to do something wrong.
posted by charlie don't surf at 12:10 PM on September 21, 2013 [12 favorites]


Corollary: Any one of the infinitely wrong ways of doing something is from some frame of reference the one right way of doing something else, given the equally infinite perversities of intentionality.
posted by kewb at 12:12 PM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Rats, came here to offer Naberius's link! One of the best movies ever.
posted by Melismata at 12:19 PM on September 21, 2013


The third law: A stupid person is a person who caused losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.

The author must have worked some of the places I've worked because "causing losses to another person or a group of persons while deriving no gain and possibly even incurring losses" was pretty much our unofficial internal mission statement.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 12:20 PM on September 21, 2013 [18 favorites]


I think there are some fundamental flaws in the arguments in this piece. For instance:
Geneticists and sociologists especially go out of their way to prove, with an impressive apparatus of scientific data and formulations that all men are naturally equal and if some are more equal that others, this is attributable to nurture and not to nature.
I don't think that's true, and saying that it is true is stupid.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:25 PM on September 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


"The probability that a certain person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person".

Take that grammarians.
posted by vapidave at 12:28 PM on September 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


'The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.'
posted by iotic at 12:30 PM on September 21, 2013 [9 favorites]


Oh this is gonna go great...

But before it does, I'll say:

There's no real doubt that some people come equipped by their biology with more cognitive horsepower than others...it's an unpopular view, and it's good, I guess, to be reminded of it...

...but it's also worth thinking about how much of human stupidity is overcomable and optional. I teach, and I've seen students who, so far as I can tell, were not naturally endowed with lots of cognitive firepower become pretty damn good thinkers by just studying how to do it, and practicing. They put their minds to it, and they got better. On the other end of things, I've known people who started off smart, but who ended up in the grip of some crackpot theory or other...some of which actually seemed to make them dumber. That is, roughly: people who were, initially, capable of encountering a problem, interpreting it, analyzing it, and, often, solving it, ended up in the grip of a theory that actually derailed their natural ability to think it through, and demanded that they accept some canned answer in every case. Or whatever.

C.S. Peirce--who thought very deeply about such things--seemed to think that we fall into most of our errors not because we don't have the basic processing power to avoid them, but because of things like reasoning dishonestly--paradigmatically, having a conclusion that we want ahead of time, and rationalizing rather than inquiring. That is, we cheat. He thought that reasoning is a moral task, and that when we err morally, it tends to be because what we let what we want to do unduly influence our thinking about what we ought to do. If something like that is right, then a lot of stupidity can be avoided by being more honest about our thinking. And that's largely a matter of free will, not of innate cognitive firepower.

Not to deny the point about biology, but the thinkers I've really admired are those who are willing to think honestly, even if where that led them was unpleasant or unpopular. Clever people who are sophists--who use tricksy moves to give the illusion that reason takes us where they wanted us to go all along...well, they're smart in some sense...but the real effect is that of being stupid. That is: a lot of stupidity is a kind of irresponsibility--and that's something that's largely under our control.

My $0.02...
posted by Fists O'Fury at 12:30 PM on September 21, 2013 [45 favorites]


It's interesting that the economist here defines stupidity in terms of econospeak (i.e., engaging in a negative sum game-theoretic strategy equals = stupidity). He obviously has never heard of spite (i.e., "If I'm going down, I'm taking you with me.") and has no clue how somebody could be both rational and spiteful at the same time.
posted by jonp72 at 12:35 PM on September 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


I read this when it first came out and I've been trying to remember where I saw it for over a decade. good find!

> He obviously has never heard of spite (i.e., "If I'm going down, I'm taking you with me.") and has no clue how somebody could be both rational and spiteful at the same time.

I'd say that that's perfectly well covered in his little thesis. If a person ends up causing a situation where another person "is going down and taking [the first person] with them", then this first person caused a loss for both parties - i.e., this person is stupid. The fact that the second person might not be stupid is irrelevant.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:40 PM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'd bring out the old "Picture how dumb person of median intelligence is, then realize half the people out there are stupider than that" canard, but that would be stupid of me.
posted by radwolf76 at 12:45 PM on September 21, 2013


become pretty damn good thinkers by just studying how to do it, and practicing

My BA in philosophy accomplished pretty much exactly this, and is one of the most valuable things I've done because of it.
posted by fatbird at 1:15 PM on September 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


having a conclusion that we want ahead of time, and rationalizing rather than inquiring. That is, we cheat.

lots of stupid in the world, no question. But this particular sin seems to reign most supreme in my particular corner of things. That is, among people I know. Sometimes even that ass I see whenever I look in a mirror.
posted by philip-random at 1:15 PM on September 21, 2013


First, I'm surprised this hasn't been posted before.

Second, I find stupidity to be only moderately negatively correlated with intelligence; i.e. I know a great many smart people who are profoundly stupid about any given discipline. There are certainly ways to become smarter on average, and there are certainly folks who seem congenital idiots, but I tend to think it more helpful to see stupidity in acts, rather than people.
posted by klangklangston at 1:30 PM on September 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


The link at the bottom of the article is said to be based on the same information, and is a proposal that would reduce all kinds of corruption, especially election fraud and sponsorship:

Dr Pluchino and colleagues developed a computer simulation, in which they studied the behaviour of politicians when randomly selected independents were introduced to a model parliament.

Their model relied on four categories of people in the parliament. These were: 'intelligent' people (actions serve both personal and social interests), 'helpless or naive' (loss for self, but gain for others), 'bandits' (benefit themselves, but not others), and 'stupid' (actions produce a loss for everyone).

The model, involving a parliament made up of two parties, had 500 individuals who could each propose and vote for or against acts.

Dr Pluchino and colleagues found that in all cases studied, adding random legislators improved the performance of the parliament. Specifically, there were more acts passed with social benefit.

posted by Brian B. at 1:30 PM on September 21, 2013


Second, I find stupidity to be only moderately negatively correlated with intelligence;

I think the problem is that intelligence is a trait (or, perhaps, a tendency) while stupidity is a state. I have never met anyone who was intelligent about everything, and I know some ferociously intelligent people who still manage to "go through the revolving door in the wrong direction" -- being so staggeringly wrong and so immune to correction that they walk into disaster with their eyes open. In fact, I suspect that the most intelligent people mistake their specific ability for general competence and are most intransigent when face with their error. Which is, I hope you will admit, stupidity topped with stupid sauce.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:39 PM on September 21, 2013 [8 favorites]


I would add that you can't spell "stupid" without you and I, but that would be precious. And stupid.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:39 PM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


First, I'm surprised this hasn't been posted before.

It has, but since the stupid link is dead, no foul.
posted by IndigoJones at 1:51 PM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


The other problem is that the article treats "gain" and "loss" as purely, transparently subject to objective and universally valid quantitative evaluation.

No, it's just that calling someone "stupid" is obviously a subjective judgement. He's merely explaining his criteria for calling someone stupid: If you cause what I judge to be harm to another person while gaining no benefits that I can see, I'll call you stupid, even if you think you and/or the other person benefited.
posted by straight at 1:52 PM on September 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


This is probably not meant to be taken entirely seriously, but to the extent that it is, there are several unconsidered positions presented here as premises whose foundational insufficiency renders the entire endeavor nothing more than a banal exercise in reaching pretentiously invalid conclusions by virtue of proceeding from analytically worthless assumptions. Here are a few examples:

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

I feel comfortable refuting this merely by disagreeing.

people whom one had once judged rational and intelligent turn out to be unashamedly stupid.

You can't treat rationality as though it's collinear with intelligence, because the appropriateness of its exercise is highly context-dependent: situations which one person might regard as calling for strict rationality might bring out a non-rational orientation in another person. Rationality is a way of thinking about problems, not a synonym for intelligence.

day after day, with unceasing monotony, one is harassed in one's activities by stupid individuals who appear suddenly and unexpectedly in the most inconvenient places and at the most improbable moments.

If he's talking about undergraduates, I would tend to agree actually.

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

This is empirically false, full stop.

Whether I considered a large university or a small college, a famous institution or an obscure one, I found that the same fraction s of the professors are stupid. So bewildered was I by the results, that I made a special point to extend my research to a specially selected group, to a real elite, the Nobel laureates. The result confirmed Nature's supreme powers: s fraction of the Nobel Laureates are stupid.

I expect this person would say that if you took all the non-stupid people out of group A, forming group B exclusively from non-stupid people, further measurement would confirm that s percent of group B is also stupid.

A stupid person is a person who caused losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.

This reflects a myopically econometric conception of the relationship between action, thought and value. This kind of thinking is analytically useless except to confirm extant prejudices because (as is trivially easy to observe) people evince differing schemes of valuation that are, again, highly context-dependent.

Essentially stupid people are dangerous and damaging because reasonable people find it difficult to imagine and understand unreasonable behavior.

And now he's playing word games in order to avoid dealing with a basic inconsistency: if intelligent people are so smart, why do they have so much trouble understanding stupid people, whose behavior and thought processes should be amenable to legibility? The only way for this to make sense is to assume that he's not actually talking about intelligence here, but rather rationality, and conflating the sort of rationality he favors with intelligence. Tiresome.

A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.

This is utterly moronic. Adverse events that occur by mistake are not demonstrably worse than those that result from conspiracy or careful planning. In fact, it's not clear that it would be possible to attribute the etiology of events to one or the other without already knowing how they came about.
posted by clockzero at 1:56 PM on September 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Don't call me stupid! posted by Naberius

Don't call me, stupid!

TFIFY
posted by mule98J at 1:59 PM on September 21, 2013


The Law of Infinite Stupidity

"Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former."
- Albert Einstein
posted by wilko at 2:12 PM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Corollary: Any one of the infinitely wrong ways of doing something is from some frame of reference the one right way of doing something else, given the equally infinite perversities of intentionality.

I am not sure this is strictly true, since the set of wrong ways includes a subset of no solutions.

However, you do have a point. Each incorrect solution may be thought of as a correct result within a different first-order logic system. For example, violating a fundamental axiom and assuming this is correct, constructs a new system, e.g. assuming that two parallel lines do intersect creates non-Euclidean geometry. I believe I might be able to codify this using the Löwenheim–Skolem theorem, however, I am not inclined to create a system that shows under which conditions stupidity might not be considered stupid.
posted by charlie don't surf at 2:31 PM on September 21, 2013


I wish this essay had been couched in terms of actions or responses than in terms of "people." We all act "helplessly", "intelligently", like "bandits" or "stupidly" depending on the situation, and we may even have a general tendency to act like that all of the time.
posted by maxwelton at 2:52 PM on September 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


I recently got interested in this topic, thinking about the peculiar missteps of google inc, like their wierd billboard-puzzle recruiting, and the endless bait-and-stop projects. Smart and stupid do not form an axis, rather, smart, less smart, and not smart each have their own characteristic stupidities.

I found a pretty good book Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid, a collection of papers on the innumerable aspects of smart-stupid, and of course there is Khaneman. One point is thinking you're smart makes you less able to learn from the activities and experiences of others.

It seems the unsmart learn early that their best bet is copying successful behaviour. But I didn't see any 'research' about what the less smart do.
posted by hexatron at 3:05 PM on September 21, 2013


Fun article, fun FPP. Nice find, CP.

If you take this article seriously enough to attempt rebuttals you are:

a) H
b) I
c) S
d) B

Please select only one answer.
posted by sidereal at 5:15 PM on September 21, 2013


D'oh! Stupid Flanders!
posted by Seekerofsplendor at 5:36 PM on September 21, 2013


Ignorance can be overcome by learning, but REAL Stupidity, the WORST kind of Stupidity... must be learned.
posted by oneswellfoop at 5:58 PM on September 21, 2013


Hey! You got your Dunning in my Kruger!
posted by scruss at 6:27 PM on September 21, 2013


I have considered it a masterpiece since Coevolution Quarterly published it. The family of the late Dr Cipolla, in their infinite stupidity has seriously tried to suppress it in the interwebs. Gld it's back.
posted by INFOHAZARD at 7:28 PM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ignorance can be overcome by learning, but REAL Stupidity, the WORST kind of Stupidity... must be learned.

The way I heard it: Ignorance can be cured, but Stupid is for life.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:51 PM on September 21, 2013


The family of the late Dr Cipolla, in their infinite stupidity has seriously tried to suppress it in the interwebs.

Well it's in my Evernote now, so boo yah!
posted by sidereal at 8:56 PM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is utterly moronic. Adverse events that occur by mistake are not demonstrably worse than those that result from conspiracy or careful planning.

The way I have always understood it, you can reason with the bandit, find some way to satisfy mutual interest. There's no reasoning with stupid, it's a force of nature.

There is also an emotional component. Somehow, knowing that my mp3 player is still being enjoyed after it was masterfully taken from me is better than knowing it is sitting at the bottom of the ocean due to fucko's idiocy.
posted by Meatbomb at 9:04 PM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


And of course, here is Zappa's take on stupidity:

"Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it is so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe. I dispute that. I say there is more stupidity than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe."
posted by key_of_z at 9:09 PM on September 21, 2013


"Stupid people should have to wear signs that say, "I'm stupid." That way you wouldn't rely on them, would you?"

But seriously now, we all do stupid shit. I get yelled at ALL THE TIME for saying I'm stupid ("you should never, ever say you're stupid!" quoth the mom, boss, shrink, etc., etc. ) but you know what? In some cases I am and I did something dumb and I'm not gonna lie to myself that I'm a freaking genius at this moment in time.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:19 PM on September 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


This strikes me as schizoidal thinking - the lack of empathy, and attempts to hyperrationalize and mathematically describe human interaction. One of the characteristics of a covert schizoid is utter disdain for (if not necessarily noncompliance with) social rules and regulations that appear to them to hold no value.

In this particular case, he does not acknowledge and apparently has not considered that the Stupid place a high positive outcome value upon themselves Complying With Rules, and also forcing you to Comply With Rules, regardless of the outcome. They also place a negative outcome value on Questioning Rules, because in their value system, that sort of thing leads to Trouble. They are capable of carrying out the most monstrously evil and pointless acts for no reason other than they believe they have been ordered to.

Anyone who has had the misfortune of being under the authority of the Stupid knows the frustration of it. And yet these people are equally frustrated by the deviancy and disobedience of others. If they were capable of reflection (ironically, they are not) then they might construct their own systems of obedience vs initiative: in one axis, willingness to obey the Law, in the other, willingness to be proactive. In the obedient/proactive corner, they would place themselves; in disobedient/proactive, the intellectual criminals and drug addicts and perverts and heretics; in disobedient/reactive, dumb criminals; and in obedient/reactive, the vast majority of humanity whom it is their sworn sad duty to serve and protect.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 11:22 PM on September 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


Stupid people don't know they're stupid.

So, uh, what are you if you know you're stupid?
posted by converge at 1:26 AM on September 22, 2013


Better off than many.
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:33 AM on September 22, 2013


The way I have always understood it, you can reason with the bandit, find some way to satisfy mutual interest.

Unless the bandit's interest is something you simply don't want to part with, or, worse, involves your pain or humiliation as corollary to their pleasure or dominance.

Never attribute to malice what could also be the result of stupidity; but do not mistake actual malice for some subcategory of stupidity.
posted by kewb at 3:12 AM on September 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


converge: "Stupid people don't know they're stupid.

So, uh, what are you if you know you're stupid?
"

Smarter than the average bear?
posted by chavenet at 3:45 AM on September 22, 2013


I like the analysis of the article as schizoid thinking. It puts a finger on what's off-putting about it (beneath the Murphy's Law appeal). To just say that "some people are stupid" is, well, stupid; it shrugs off further analysis. It's a great observation that much of the problem is the conflict between people who insist on following (dumb) rules and people who won't.

Though seen that way, the "stupid" people are really just Authoritarians. And Authoritarian people can be quite intelligent and reflective.

Another problem with the original article is that "intelligent" is a poor term for the opposite of (what the article defines as) stupid. The article itself makes it clear that the categories are defined in terms of social benefit, so that quadrant is really "win-win" or "cooperative" or something. Labeling it "intelligent" suggests that it's a matter of smarts or rationality, which is clearly false (and which the author has actually taken pains to refute at the beginning, noting that professors are just as prone to "stupid" behavior).
posted by zompist at 1:13 PM on September 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Stupid people don't know they're stupid.

There's no reasoning with stupid, it's a force of nature.


Agreed. Pride plus ignorance is stupidity. There's least harm in ignorance as long as we have enough common sense to first do no harm.
posted by Brian B. at 1:17 PM on September 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


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