The Unexpected Power of Stupidity


Thor May
Adelaide, 2015




Preface: This is a discussion paper, not a researched academic document. The reading list at the end is mostly a collection of contemporary links from the Internet and pretty accidental, not edited for quality. Where a topic is of broad general interest comes up with friends, I have adopted the practice of posting discussion starters like the present one on in the hope that others might also find them worth thinking about.







1. Your stupidity monster is different from my one


It turns out that stupidity is complicated. Your stupid act or mine may be boringly simple, but the whole mass of human stupidity acted out on a daily basis is a Gordian knot which may be beyond human comprehension let alone resolution, even as it strangles the life out of the planet. In fact I know it is insoluble because your simple minded stupidity, and yours, and yours … is beyond my comprehension. If we all understood each other perfectly 100% of the time, our judgements of other people’s stupidity would probably reduce by about 95%. We never understand each other perfectly, even after long acquaintance, and there is no prospect that we ever will understand each other perfectly (life would be extremely boring if we did). Therefore the best we can do with the stupidity monster is to sort out some of its more common disguises.


2. It’s me, stupid!


The person we are stupid with most often is ourselves. Whether it is getting plastered with booze, or putting off an urgent deadline, or ruining a perfect friendship with a careless remark, the idiot in the equation is usually ourselves, and the excuses are legion. How we manage these regular stupidities, with corrective action or resignation or self-deception or blaming someone else … goes a long way to defining the kind of person we are.

Personal stupidity is a clear social asset in many situations. Since all but the most pompous recognize the high frequency of their own stupidity in an impossible world, most are delighted to find themselves in the company of even more stupid characters. They become suspicious or even antagonistic towards individuals who appear to be flawless. It is usually not a smart move to walk into your local pub posing as a paragon of Supremely Rational Man. After all, why is alcohol so popular? I have an abiding suspicion too that many a love match is founded in the comfort zone of mutually recognized stupidities. Nor is it any mystery that the most loved and durable cartoon characters have been daffy animals and hapless human stereotypes.

It is the special stupidity of dictators and CEOs to have a team of publicity lackeys paint their public images in the colours of a superman, and hence become permanently despised. Of course, strategic stupidity is a matter of degree. The Darwin Awards (Dodds 2014) chronicle the tale of some drunk Polish men. To demonstrate machismo, one cut off his own foot with a chain saw. Not to be outdone, his companion cut off his own head with the chainsaw.


3. The very useful categories of Carlo M. Cipolla


There are countless university departments and professorial chairs devoted to the study of human intelligence. Considering this proliferation, it is remarkable that none of them have come up with a large-scale practical way of rendering populations more intelligent in their collective actions. Perhaps there is something not sufficiently smart about the research.

On the other hand, stupidity in its many guises does more damage on a daily basis than generations of clever ideas have ever been able to cope with. Human stupidity ranges all the way from planetary destruction to self mutilation by vengeful individuals cutting off their own nose to spite their face. Given the scale of stupidity’s ravages, it is a matter of wonder that it attracts so little systematic public research under its own name. Of course, the market capitalism which drives most economies depends critically upon the stupid individual choices of consumers. Inciting and fostering consumer stupidity is at the heart of creating imperfect market knowledge. Without  imperfect markets, consumer capitalism would collapse and we would all be out of a job. The marketing research behind the world’s $540 billion annual advertising industry could therefore be thought of as intensive psychological research into the black arts of manipulating stupid human choices.

Marketing apart, the naked study of stupidity phenomena is not unknown, though not very common. One of the best known contributions in this field has come from Professor Carlo M. Cipolla. He usefully sorts actors into one of four categories (the categories are not beyond challenge, and not always constant for any individual):

a. The helpless – “Tom takes an action and suffers a loss while producing a gain to Dick”. Tom is a helpless type.

b. The intelligent – “Tom takes an action by which he makes a gain while yielding a gain also to Dick”. Tom is an intelligent type.

c. The bandit – “Tom takes an action by which he makes a gain causing Dick a loss”. Tom is a bandit type.

d. The stupid – “Tom takes an action by which he loses or makes no gain, while Dick also loses”. Tom is stupid.

Cipolla places action types 1, 2, 3, 4 into a graphed matrix and proposes some broad observational “laws” as general heuristics for navigating life’s tribulations. He notes that while the consistency of individuals participating in these categories is not constant, some people are more predictable than others: “The frequency distribution of the stupid people is totally different from that of the bandit. While bandits are mostly scattered over an area stupid people are heavily concentrated along one line, specifically on the Y axis below point O. The reason for this is that by far the majority of stupid people are basically and unwaveringly stupid”

Here is a summary of the ‘laws’ (for detailed explanations, see the original article, linked in the reading list).

1. The first basic law of human stupidity:  Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.

2. The second basic law: The probability that a certain person might be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person. (For example, IQ  or education has no influence upon stupidity).

3. The third (and golden) basic law: Human beings fall into four basic categories: the helpless, the intelligent, the bandit and the stupid (i.e. the a, b, c, d matrix above)

4. The fourth basic law: 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.


4. Other thoughtful attempts to corral stupidity


Cipolla’s laws are a useful starting point for thinking about our personal encounters with other people, and perhaps making a wry joke or two. However, stupidity is such a pervasive and chameleon part of our experience that no set of categories will every entirely capture it. Giancarlo Livraghi (2009) has picked up on the Cipolla concept and gradually expanded his ideas into an entire book, The Power of Stupidity, which is available online. Less ambitiously, but with a sophisticated academic focus, Mats Alvesson and André Spicer (2012) have looked in some detail at stupidity in institutional settings in their paper “A Stupidity-Based Theory of Organizations”. This is recommended reading.

Noam Chomsky (Lewis 2015) gives a more anecdotal account of some scary real life examples of institutional stupidity. There is some irony in Chomsky’s comments since in another field, academic linguistics, his own theories generated a near-cult following which gave rise a good deal of mindless research stupidity; (this is my field and a personal observation which may be hotly contested).

Khazan (2013) gives a journalistic account of “The Stupidity of the Crowd”, the phenomenon of an irrationally popular restaurant or fashionable research field whose very popularity may lead individuals to make unwise decisions which they would not have made starting entirely on their own. 

Achenbach (December 30, 2015) brings up the daunting prospect of super-stupidity in the future propagated by machines with superhuman abilities through built-in artificial intelligence, but idiotic responses in certain situations where they lack human common sense. Even at a fairly simple level, the Great Financial Crash of 2008 was partly precipitated by computers programmed to instantly put in buy and sell orders according to certain useful but not decision-sufficient indicators on the financial market boards.


5. Zones of stupidity




Since stupidity (your opinion of it or mine) can be a vector in almost all human behaviour, wrapping one’s head around it as some kind of credible constant is extremely elusive. Some approaches have been outlined above. My own perspective starts from notions of personal competence and role participation.

We all participate in multiple life roles. Some may involve family participation or other intimate relationships. Others are concerned with occupational activity. A third group encompasses hobbies, personal interests, sports and so on. Sooner or later we all have to interact with officials in community and national organizations. This list is illustrative, not exhaustive. In any of these roles we may have only brief or intermittent participation. In other roles, our choices and actions turn on sustained or intensive encounters with other individuals and situations.

It is probably an extremely rare individual who is competent in all the roles they are required to act out. Where they are incompetent, you could say that they enter a zone of potential stupidity. Some may navigate such zones of potential stupidity with far more aplomb than others, either because they are good actors or because they are very quick learners. Maturity and experience has an effect on mitigating this kind of agility. Sooner or later most of us come adrift in a zone of potential stupidity. We may navigate a way out with relative efficiency. We may become entangled and suffer dire consequences or we may inflict dire consequences on others. Formal education, competence in a professional occupation, measured IQ, status, popularity or wealth are all poor predictors of whether a person will act stupidly in an unfamiliar role (e.g. Hyde 2015).

One of my siblings is a professional social worker. The clients she interacts with can come from any social strata. Those who started life with severe economic or cultural disadvantage have a different horizon of expectations from citizens who are from more privileged backgrounds. They manage these expectations in different ways, sometimes in ways which seem incoherent or stupid to others living secure and comfortable lives, but which make a kind of sense within their particular sub-culture.

Of course there are large numbers of individuals, rich or poor, privileged or underprivileged, who are particularly poor at making complex judgements. If these poor decision makers are managers or medical doctors, they are probably unaware of their own chronic incompetence (Livraghi 2009), and their stupidity is a constant threat to all around them. If the poor decision makers are underprivileged, unemployed, in poor health and perhaps drug dependent, then their stupidity is mostly a threat to themselves, but also a costly burden on welfare services and sometimes the prison system. Somewhere along this spectrum from the incompetent professional to the incompetent dropout, many of us at one time or another find a temporary resting place before breaking into a more productive paradigm.


6. Entanglement in hierarchies of stupidity


I wrote a doctoral dissertation once, “Language Tangle” (in retrospect a rather futile undertaking) which dealt with knowledge worker productivity, specifically in educational settings. I will use some of the issues it raised to illustrate the complicated nature of hierarchies of productivity, which in huge numbers of cases devolve into tangled hierarchies of stupidity.

Knowledge workers are employed for deploying their brains rather than their hands. You can count how many bricks a man lays in a day and set that down as his productivity. His financial worth to an employer can be calculated sensibly, and he can be replaced without too much trouble. This kind of person as “labour” pretty well defines the boundaries of conventional economic thought when productivity is discussed. Economists and financial managers are reduced to stupidity when trying to talk about the productivity of a knowledge worker like a CEO, which is one reason that setting CEO salaries is a form of banditry. Regardless of supposed qualifications or the hours worked. the replacement for an existing CEO might send the company broke, or alternatively transform the company into a major enterprise (ditto for presidents and prime ministers).


When I looked at knowledge worker productivity through case studies of twenty personally familiar institutional environments in seven countries, I was struck a) by the absolute stupidity and inefficiency of most existing paradigms for educational productivity, and b) the near impossibility of modifying those stupid paradigms to produce more useful outcomes. This is no place to summarize an entire dissertation, but some outline points will give the flavour of what emerged.

1. In spite of the elaborate mathematical definitions in economics text books, real “productivity” is pretty well determined by what you choose as an objective. Someone obsessed with bottle tops will maximize his productivity by collecting the maximum number of bottle tops in the shortest time with the least cost to himself.

2. Schools, colleges and universities (research roles apart) notionally exist for students. They supposedly don’t exist to give people jobs or careers, or to make a profit for unseen parties. Students are therefore the most important people in these places.

3. A productive student is one who learns what is required in the most efficient way possible, remembers long term what she learned, can deploy her new knowledge in useful ways, and graduates with the will and ability to explore her field of knowledge further.

4. An educational institution, like all large organizations, has numerous layers of staff. The most critically important of these staff are teachers, lecturers etc, since they play the most direct and essential role in maximizing student productivity. A productive teacher is one who effectively enhances student productivity.

5. Administrative support staff in an educational institution, from clerks to accountants to the principal/director/vice chancellor/president all have different ideas about what is productive activity, and often little reflective understanding of the student role. One man feels productive if he moves the maximum number of forms across his desk; a head of department may feel productive if the maximum number of students graduate with an appropriate diploma (regardless of what is actually learned); a vice chancellor may feel productive if the university brand name rises in world rankings and income from fee paying students goes up.

6. A consequence of the layers of institutional activity just described is that there are always competing hierarchies of productivity.

7. Since schools are about students, student productivity should take priority in any competing hierarchy of institutional productivities. My research finding was that almost invariably student productivity ranked near the bottom for priority in competing hierarchies of productivity. Students come and go. They have little power. Nowadays teaching staff also come and go (e.g. 60% of Australian university academic staff are basically casualized on short term contracts). They have relatively little power and are pressured constantly by administrative financial demands. It is the administrative cohort, supposedly the support staff who are the constants in these places. Administrative priorities for their kind of productivity supplant the productive priorities of teachers and above all, students.

The failure of educational institutions to be productive in terms of actually educating students effectively might seem like a uniquely stupid outcome. It is certainly stupid, but it is not unique. None of the role players just described were necessarily stupid at their allotted tasks. Some may have been brilliant. It was the assembly of their individual activities into a wider objective which led to undeniably stupid outcomes on a higher plane of analysis.

If we broaden our gaze to complex institutions, enterprises and societies anywhere, the same kind of conflicted hierarchies of productivity will become apparent. When economists lobotomize the analysis by reducing “productivity” to the single metric of dollars, they are perpetrating a major kind of analytic stupidity which conceals what needs to be addressed.


7. The subversive stupidity which grows from conflicted motivations


The preceding section was about institutional outcomes. Institutions of course are comprised of individuals. Individuals have personal, and typically private, ideas about when their roles are productive. For example, in terms of conventional economic analysis some studies have found that only 10% of managers are effective in their roles (Pereira 2012). This will hardly come as a surprise to most of us. Are 90% of managers regularly fired? No, of course not. That would be stupid, or would it? (Hamel 2011). The reality of course is that all of these managers, good and bad, have personal agendas. Their first personal priority might be getting a promotion, or impressing a woman, or keeping their job long enough, through embezzlement if necessary, to pay off a Lamborghini. If you have spent any amount of time in company or institutional meetings you will realize that the witless rhetoric echoing around the room about visions, goals and marketing achievements is usually a kabuki performance which only the stupid will take to heart. It may be a necessary form of performance stupidity to keep the auditors happy, but the really important action is always happening somewhere else.

Just as the incompetent manager conspires to misinform those around him to keep his job, we regularly misinform ourselves to find instant gratification, put off hard choices, or even to keep our sanity. Our minds are not single, immutable entities. The delvers into human psychology like Freud (and the academic tribes which followed) who invented the concept of “Ego” were soon driven to postulate a host of ghostly subconscious influences. Philosophers of mind had long been there. “I” is a shifting collage of consciousness, a chameleon entity remanufactured by subconscious processes to fit the social moment, stupidly or not. The leader confessing humbly to his god will leave the church’s nave and order atrocities without a blush. Which momentary colour of his personality is stupid? The weary worker with a beer gut knows he is on a short leash to a heart attack, but will never turn down another drink with his friends. What part of his mind and actions is stupid? The couple in a failing marriage may agree with the counsellor that their quarrels are destructive, but argue anyway. Are they better off divorcing? What part of them is stupid? 


8. Surviving stupidity


During World War II the English language acquired a new acronym, SNAFU – ‘situation normal, all fucked up’. The acronym has survived because it captures something basic about the human condition. Our little exploration of stupidity has illustrated the perpetual generation of snafus, and nothing about that is likely to change short of a species enslavement in the service of a robot takeover.

Though a common consequence of stupidity is the eternal snafu condition, a common reaction is to think of stupid behaviour as a one-off fail, to be buried as quickly as possible, or the halo of a tragic individual who needs to be avoided at all costs. However, there may also be some profit in thinking of stupidity as probable cost of living or cost of business which can be broadly planned for. After all we have both mechanisms and institutions to curb the cost of accidents: for example, safety equipment and insurance. Can something similar be applied to mitigate the effects of at least some kinds of stupidity?

Firstly, it is pointless to talk about the elimination of stupidity. What can usefully be reviewed both as a private project and in public management are stratagems to minimize stupidity where it can do harm (governments, businesses etc), and corral in environments where a bit of stupidity can count as fun but too much might spell catastrophe (a holiday on the wild side).

Secondly, we probably need to optimise personal and civic mechanisms to manage stupidity where it inevitably intrudes. In fact attempts at such management are already found in some contexts. Schools are an excellent example. There are schools, and classrooms within any school which work pretty well. There are also schools, and classrooms within any school, which are rolling disaster areas, perpetually threatening to descend into a vortex of chaos. A basic reason for this educational paradox is that a percentage of children and teenagers are prone to act in stupid ways with little regard for consequences. For them personally, the stupid behaviour is mostly just a part of growing up. For the teachers and leaders of the institution, the management of child stupidity is a practical and psychological challenge. The solutions range from near-fascist suppression to subtle psychological manipulation to a hapless pretence that kids are just uncontrollable anyway.

Of course the school example is also a metaphor for what occurs in countless other environments in almost any culture. Just as with schools and teachers, some cultures and countries do a better job of handling the consequences of stupidity than others.

Everyone has their own formula for surviving in an imperfect world heavily populated with apparent fools. We also have an idealized self-perception of how we deal with the tribulations of stupidity, and probably a less attractive track record of how we have responded to actual situations.

I tried to list my own mental mechanism for getting past stupidity, my own stupidity and that of others. Such a to-do list is nice, but to tell the truth my own to-do lists often seem to be aborted by whatever else comes around the corner on a given day. Are you more pedantic about this? Anyway, here is a collection of survival tools which come to mind:

a. Humour. The dramatist, Edward Albee, famously had one of his characters say “I have a fine sense of the ridiculous but no sense of humour”. Now that (to me) sounds like pompous stupidity. On the other hand, I’ll forgive much stupidity from someone who has a fine sense of the ridiculous, especially applied to themselves AND a fine sense of humour.

b. Empathy. There but for an accident of time go I, I say as you walk under a ladder and get a bucket dropped on your head.

c. Honesty, especially self-honesty. This is not always easy when it has consequences. The single most corrosive characters within organizations who are those who won’t admit it when they made a bad call. Culture is important in this too. I worked in an airport once in an operational role. That is a high pressure environment, and mistakes, even stupid mistakes sometimes, sort of came with the territory. However, it was a no-blame culture: mistakes were immediately acknowledged and ways analysed dispassionately to avoid them next time. As a result, serious failures were rare. By contrast, the medical field, especially hospitals worldwide, are notorious for blame cultures. Consequently medical error is terrifyingly high. One recent study (Allen 2013) concluded that medical error was the third leading cause of death in the United States, or about one sixth of all deaths. Australia is apparently worse. Your country? Now that is stupid.

d. Patience and persistence. It is wearisome, but where stupidity is a daily fact of life, becoming apoplectic over every bit of foolishness amounts to a short course in self-destruction. It seems to be rare for everything to work as advertised if  I have to interact with large organizations, or tradesmen, or anybody tasked to do more than pour a drink. Am I just unlucky, or is this a common experience?

e. Adaptability. We are supposed to be here as a species because we evolved the wit to adapt to hostile environments while dumber critters perished. There is nothing quite as hostile as the environments which humans persistently create for themselves and others, starting with war and working down to the hunger games of unemployment. The political elite is forever telling us that we must adapt to their stupidity or perish. Most of us do adapt in the short term, more or less, though not always in ways that the political elite finds congenial. In the long term of course we are all dead. Adapting to stupid work environments can be even harder than adapting to stupid politicians, so that we may wish we were dead, but probably adapt by working badly.  

f. Variety.  There is a reason that so-called command economies (e.g. the classical Communist model) have been so lack-lustre historically as templates for happiness and prosperity. The reason is that stupid mistakes – and there are always stupid mistakes – get multiplied up to the scale of whole populations. Just as a stupid no-hoper frittering away his life in a bar may be harming nobody much but himself, the stupid no-hoper in charge of a province or ministry can cause misery and even death to millions. It has happened, and in some places continues to happen.

Where there is diversity of almost any kind – ecological diversity in nature, a diversity of competing businesses, a diversity of lifestyles and opinions – then there is hope. For example, the vast majority of new businesses go bankrupt in the first five years. Sometimes that is just bad luck, usually it is some kind of business stupidity. A few businesses survive, prosper and grow.

And so it is with personal lives. Fortunately, there is a great diversity of opinion about what is stupid in a personal life, both long term and short term. To have one authority arbitrate absolutely on that level of stupidity is, well, stupid because the arbitration incites a ferment of unhappiness. Different societies have evolved different degrees of toleration for departures from the norm of daily actions and life aims. This is changing constantly, and is subject to many contradictions. For example, medical research strives to increase average lifespan but a majority of older people (not me, yet!) say that they don’t want to live longer. Who is being stupid?

g. Subversion. When all else fails, subvert the system. This is the Swiss pocket knife of solutions. Ant colonies may be ecologically successful, but who the hell wants to be an ant?  When you are a miserable cog in a job that is chewing up your spirit, when you are stuck in a marriage with someone you don’t even recognize anymore, when tin pot dictators of every grade are pushing you this way and that … are you stupid to stay or stupid to go? If you lack the courage, or absolutely have no choice, there may not seem to be a way out. This is the point at which your wonderful human mental machine kicks in. THEY may think you are stupid as you “accidentally” sabotage boxes on the production line, lie about taking sick leave, or “forget” to do anything as expected. You are actually choosing having a kind of fun time in the zoo, which is not stupid at all.





Reading List*  (other suggestions welcome)


Alvesson, Mats and André Spicer (7 November 2012) "A Stupidity-Based Theory of Organizations". [highly recommended] Lund University; City University. Journal of Management Studies 49:doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6486.2012.01072.x joms_1072 1194..1220. online @

Cipolla, Carlo M. (n.d.) "The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity". Cat -v website online @

Dunn, Claire (January 17, 2015) "This is why your staff don't care". Brisbane Times online @  

Hamel, Gary (December 2011) "First, Let’s Fire All the Managers". Harvard Business Review online @  

Hyde, Marina (7 November 2015) "Even if being president were brain surgery, you wouldn’t want Ben Carson doing it". The Guardian online @

Malhotra, Aseem (1 November 2015) "How too much medicine can kill you". The Guardian online @

May, Thor (November 2011) “Choose When to Live and When to Die - Some Notes on Diet and Exercise”. online @  

May, Thor (November 2014) “Are Diet and Exercise Really Personal Choices?”. online @

May, Thor (2015) “So we had a few failures. Was that the end of university?”. [Avoiding hasty judgements about stupidity] online @

O'Malley, Nick (November 4, 2015) "Donald Trump's ripping account of America's crippling launched". [Stupidity as a political weapon - an American favourite] Brisbane Times online @

Paola, J.D. (December 25, 2013) "The Stupidity Index– Power of Stupid, Idiocy, Lunacy, Folly… Stupidity-Based Theory of Organization and Management". Bizshift-Trends blog online @

Pereira, Cyril (21 February 2012) "Only 10% of managers effective? What a shock!". Asia Sentinel online @

Ria Novosti (29 September 2013) “Locomotive Runs Over Ukrainian Couple Having Sex on Railroad Tracks”. Ria Novosti News Agency, online @

Rosenberg, Tina (4 November 2015) "How one of the most obese countries on earth took on the soda giants ". [The deadly battle to beat dietary stupidity] The Guardian online @


Schwartz, Martin A. (2008) “The importance of stupidity in scientific research”. [recommended]. Journal of Cell Science 2008 121: 1771 doi: 10.1242/jcs.033340, online @  

Tettamanzi, Andrea G. B. and Celia da Costa Pereira (21 Nov 2014) “Testing Carlo Cipolla’s Laws of Human Stupidity with Agent-Based Modeling”. Universite Nice Sophia Antipolis, I3S, UMR 7271 06900 Sophia Antipolis, France. HAL Archives - HAL Id: hal-01085988 online @


Thacah Jokes (November 2015) "What hashish does - هذا ما يفعله الحشيش ". Thacah Jokes - نكت تحشيش‎ Facebook site online @

Wikipedia (2015) “The Darwin Awards”. Wikipedia online @

Wikipedia (2015) “Waiting for Godot”. Wikipedia online @


Professional bio: Thor May has a core professional interest in cognitive linguistics, at which he has rarely succeeded in making a living. He has also, perhaps fatally in a career sense, cultivated an interest in how things work – people, brains, systems, countries, machines, whatever… In the world of daily employment he has mostly taught English as a foreign language, a stimulating activity though rarely regarded as a profession by the world at large. His PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of finding his way out of working class origins, through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia to England in 1972).


The Unexpected Power of Stupidity  ©Thor May Noevember 2015