I read today about the theory of human foolishness developed by Italian historian Carlo M. Cipolla, mentioned by Elena Gold on Quora. Cipolla was born in 1922 and died in 2000. He grew up during a turbulent period in Italy, that of classic fascism. Somehow, he managed to grow up without sharing the ideology of fascism and became a professor of economic history at UCLA after the war.
His “Basic laws of human foolishness” (“Le leggi fondamentali della stupidità umana“, 1976) are an astute study of human nature and how destructive foolish behavior can be.
Basic laws of human foolishness
Cipolla has identified 5 main laws of foolishness.
1st law: A person always underestimates the number of fools around him
We have all seen people who look smart and rational and yet do foolish things (I confess I, too, do foolish things all the time). However, this is not what Cipolla’s talking about. His first law is closer to the famous Murphy’s Law (if things can go wrong, they will do so at the worst possible moment in the worst possible way) and can be summed up as follows:
Fools pop up in the most unexpected places at the most inopportune times to ruin your plans.
2nd law: The probability that a person is a fool doesn’t depend on their other qualities
Cipolla studied several groups to see how many fools there may be in each of them. The theory was that the more educated a group was, the fewer fools there would be among it.
He first analyzed a group of low-skilled employees. As it might be expected given the 1st law, the number of fools turned out to be greater than he expected (1st Law). He attributed this to social conditions: poverty, segregation, a lack of education, etc.
Moving up the social ladder, he was surprised to see the same ratio among white-collar workers and students. Even more impressive was to see the same number among professors.
Whether he took a small provincial college or a large university, the same proportion of teachers turned out to be fools. He was so amazed by the results that he decided to experiment on the intellectual elite, the Nobel laureates.
The result confirmed the 2nd law: the same certain number of Nobel laureates were fools.
The implications of the 2nd Law are daunting: whether you live in Manhattan, on a remote island, lock yourself in a monastery, or spend the rest of your life in a Vegas casino, you will have to deal with the same number of fools everywhere, which (1st Law) will always exceed your expectations.
3rd law: Who is a fool?
By now, you may be wondering just what criteria Cipolla used to call someone a fool. It’s an excellent question, as we are all fools in someone’s eyes, just like we consider foolish some others.
The 3rd law answers that indisputably. For Cipolla, a fool is a person whose actions lead to losses for another person or group but at the same time do not benefit the acting subject. Indeed, it may be that their actions actively harm them. So, someone who is acting in a way that is both destructive and self-destructive is a fool.
Cipolla divides people into 4 groups, which he calls the helpless, the intelligent, bandits, and fools. For me, a better terminology would be the altruists rather than the helpless but here is his original graph:
- If someone takes an action that benefits another but harms themselves, then they are an altruist (helpless, in Cipolla’s terminology).
- If a person does something that benefits both themselves and another, they are smart (intelligent), because that’s the smart thing to do.
- If someone is willing to harm others as long as they benefit themselves, then they are bandits.
- Finally, we come to fools. Whatever a fool does, it harms everyone, including themselves.
4th law: Non-fools always underestimate the destructive potential of fools.
Non-fools constantly forget that to deal with a fool, at any time, in any place, and under any circumstances, is to make a mistake that will cost them dearly in the future.
Unsurprisingly, altruists are typically unable to recognize the danger of fools, since they can’t bring themselves to imagine that someone may wish to willingly harm others. They live according to the Socratic maxim that no one is willingly evil.
What’s more surprising is that fools are also underestimated by both smart people and bandits.
In the presence of a fool, smart people may relax and enjoy their intellectual superiority instead of urgently mobilizing and minimizing the damage that a fool will inevitably cause.
Bandits will assume that, like them, a fool is simply looking out for their self-interest. They can’t imagine why someone may act in a self-destructive way.
Worse, bandits may actually ally with fools, imagining that they can use them for their own benefit. Unfortunately, by doing so, they provide the fool with a field to roam and cause irreparable damage — a situation exemplified by Mussolini and the rise of fascism in Italy.
5th law: The fool is the most dangerous personality type
As a result of the above, a fool is way more dangerous than a bandit, especially when they get into governing bodies and gain political and social powers.
Fools are dangerous because rational people can hardly imagine the logic of unreasonable behavior.
A smart person is able to understand the logic of a bandit because the bandit is rational — they are simply greedy and at the same time not smart enough to get what they want in a way that also benefits others.
The bandit is thus predictable and societies can build a defense against them. However, it is impossible to predict the actions of a fool as they will harm you for no reason, without purpose, without a plan, in the most unexpected place, at the most inopportune time. There is no way to predict when they will strike. They are a creature without rules that anyone else can understand.
That’s why a fool’s attack usually takes everyone by surprise. Even when an attack becomes obvious, it is hard to defend against it because it has no rational base or structure.
History confirms that a country develops when there are enough smart people in power to restrain active fools and prevent them from destroying what the smart people have produced. When fools enter the public scene, however, they inflict damage without benefiting anyone. Wealth is destroyed and society as a whole is impoverished.
Depending on your political affiliation, I’m sure that most of you are thinking of various politicians at this stage. However, Joe Zbiciak has the perfect example, based on a (joke) Star Wars JL421 Badonkadonk Land Cruiser/Tank Amazon review (be sure to check out all reviews for a good chuckle):
“The Donk is OK, not recommended for a drunken rampage, March 3, 2006
Reviewer: Billy Bob McRobert “Billy Boy” (Al’s Trailer Court, KT)
If I had it to do over again, I’d leave my insurance settlement money under my matress a while longer instead of spendin it on one of these things. A Badonkadonk … more like a Badonkajunk.
I bought one of these Donks ’cause I thought the cops wouldn’t hastle me in it. Since it aint road legal I figured it wouldn’t matter that I don’t got a driver’s license anymore (It’s that kinda “outa the box” thinkin that’s got me where I am in life). I figured when the cops said “Billy, you know you aint supposed to be drivin a car anymore” I could say “I aint drivin a car, I’m drivin a Donk” and then crank up “Freebird” on my 400 Watt stereo as I lay down a thick patch of rubber with the 6hp fire-breathin power plant and maybe let out a rebel yell as I go up on 2 wheels and squeeze between the 2 squad cars they had set up as a road block. Then when they pulled out their guns and tried to stop me the bullets would just rikoshay off my trusty Donk as I glance matter-of-factly into the rear view mirror and flick the ash off my Marlboro in symbolic contempt of the agressors what I had just thwarted.
Nothin was further from the truth though: I had just stayed late over at my sister trailer and was fixin to head back across the court to my trailer. I will admit that I had been drinkin, but her trailer was just a few loops over from mine and it was after 3AM so I figured I weren’t gonna hurt nobody, especially in the old “Donk”. As chance would have it, I just happened to be wearing various article of my sister’s clothing and started to recognize the familiar smell of MacDonnald french fries. As I turned the corner into my own loop, the smell was unmistakable … as was the conclusion that I deducticated in my mind … my sister had been gettin cozy with that retard Lucas Tubbs who works the MacDonnald’s drive through.
Well, I have to tell you I became engorged with rage! I whipped the old Donker around and started headin for MacDonnalds to show ol’ Tubbs what I thought of him sneakin around my sis. I only made it as far as the trailer park entrance though, cause I got high-centered on the speed bump there. Folks tell me that I crawled on top of the Donkster and started yellin obsenities at that point, but to be honest I don’t recall that part. It must have been true though because the police showed up very quickly. When I saw the squad car, I scurried back into the Donk, locked the hatch, started up the engine, and floored it! It was the right thing to do because, in their vain effort to extracticate me from my vehicular conveyance, the cops jumped on the roof of the Donk tipping the balance just far enough that the wheels grabbed hold and I was able to get off of the speed bump. Hot pursuit was on!
The cops’ squad car must have malfunctioned because the officers proceded to pursue me on foot. By the time I got to Main Street I had a comfortable lead on them. I turned South, as that was the proper mode of direction to arrive at the MacDonnalds. At that point my drunken rage peaked and I knew what I had to do to save my families honor: I was gonna crash my tank into the MacDonnalds drive through! I rev’ed up the engine and floored it! As I got closer and closer, I could see ol’ ‘tardy Tubbs’ face paint a life-size portrait of confusion on a tattered canvas of fear and surprise. I thought to myself “All will be made right again” as I flew by the intercom, scraping sparks of anger and bitterness as I careened past. I was overjoyed to see that, even though he had plenty of time to see me coming and move out of the way, ol’ ‘tardy Tubbs was still in my direct line-of-flight. I braced for impact as the Donk hit the order window plexiglass, bounced off, and rolled over on its side. I must have hit my head on the pivoting control stick because I blacked out momentarily. I awoke to the sound of my tiny wheels spinning madly at 40 miles per hour. With my battle tank inoperable, my hopes of even slightly inconveniencing Lucas Tubbs dashed, and my sister’s fine clothes soiled with sweat and blood, I had no choice left but to piss myself and start flailing my arms and legs madly.
The police that had been pursuing me arrived moments later. I do not agree with their assessment that I was a danger to myself and others, but I don’t recall that part of the evenning very well so I can’t say for sure. Either way, I don’t think the use of the Tazer was justified. However, I now have lawsuits outstanding against MacDonnalds for faulty drive through design, the manufacturer of the Tazer, and the local police. One of these suits needs to pay out to replace the money from the insurance settlement and pay the court mandated restitution to MacDonnalds and the local police.
In the end, I blame all my problems on the Donk. I hope they have good insurance. I’m comin for them next.”