“The stupid person is the most dangerous type of person that exists”, wrote the historian Carlo Cipolla. Limit or exceptional situations demonstrate this. The sensible, intelligent and thoughtful behavior can keep us afloat and help us weather the gale, but foolish, stupid and impulsive behavior can definitely sink us in the midst of a storm.
Since we are social beings, we often have to consider the behaviors of others. Sometimes, as Juan Rulfo said, “We save ourselves together or we sink apart.” Under these conditions, when human ties are essential to avoid disaster, stupid behaviors can dangerously tip the scales.
What is human stupidity?
Cipolla manages to evade subjectivity by analyzing human relationships in terms of gains and losses. Thus he separates human stupidity from individual expectations to provide a more objective definition of stupidity. He considers that “A stupid person is one who causes harm to another person or group of people without obtaining, at the same time, a profit, or even harms himself.”
He also explains that there are super stupid behaviors: “There are people who, with their implausible actions, not only cause harm to other people, but also to themselves.” Unlike the evil one, who can harm the others for his own benefit, stupid behaviors only do damage around them and wreak havoc. Therefore, nobody wins. It is meaningless behavior.
Therefore, to classify a behavior as stupid, we could refer to three conditions:
1. Lack of practicality. The person knows what he is doing, but he does it wrong. His behavior is neither practical nor functional, it is not an effective response to the situation, so often not only does it not solve the problem, it creates others.
2. Metacognitive myopia. This concept by psychologist Klaus Fiedler refers to the stupid person’s inability to think about his thinking. This person is not capable of analyzing his reasoning process, he cannot make inferences beyond the given elements, so he is perfectly stupid.
3. Motivated ignorance. The stupid person chooses motivated ignorance more or less consciously; that is, he refuses to know more, to deepen and try to understand. Despite this, as he has a huge ego, he often ends up in situations that require more skills and knowledge than he possess. The result is a disaster.
Stupidity to power
Stupid people can cause enormous damage. Cipolla explained that “Some stupid people usually cause only limited damage, but there are others who end up causing terrible damage, not only to one or two individuals, but to communities or entire societies.”
“The ability to harm of a stupid person depends on different factors”, one of them is “The position of power or authority that he occupies into the society. The ability to harm the others is dangerously enhanced by the position of power he occupies”, he said.
In fact, it is not unusual for people with an excessive ego and poor knowledge to reach positions of power from which they can make terrible decisions that drag with them those who depend on them directly or indirectly.
Why does this happen?
“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt”, said Bertrand Russell. The smartest people are aware of their limits and are often reluctant to exercise power, which is why it is often in the hands of more daring people, but with fewer intelligence, knowledge and capacity.
In his basic laws of human stupidity, Cipolla explained that the most intelligent and rational people tend to underestimate the harmful potential of stupid people. “Stupid people are dangerous and dire because rational people find it difficult to imagine and understand stupid behavior”, he added. “Generally, the attack takes us by surprise and even when it is expected, it is impossible to organize a defense.”
Stupid behaviors do not follow rational logic, making it difficult to anticipate them. So it is not unusual for many people to end up being sucked into the destructive spiral of stupidity in their wake.
How to protect yourself from stupid people?
When life puts us on the ropes as a society, especially in times of crisis, wars and pandemics, human stupidity comes out in all its glory. Unfortunately, sometimes we can’t do much to combat it. It is extremely difficult to dialogue with stupidity. However, we can make sure not to swell their ranks.
“Intelligence and stupidity are not the opposite of each other, nor is stupidity the lack of intelligence, but intelligence is the product, more or less failed, of a continuous series of attempts to dominate or escape, the constitutive stupidity of everything that’s human”, wrote Matthijs Van Boxsel.
That means we can all behave stupidly in certain circumstances. A study at the University of Oulu revealed that believing that we are too smart can cloud our reasoning and cause us to make decisions that are harmful to ourselves and others.
Therefore, we must ensure that we remain free from the toxic influx of an excessive ego accompanied by metacognitive myopia. We can achieve this by developing critical thinking, but also humble and empathetic. Asking ourselves, before making a decision, not only what is good for us but also what is good for the others.
Dutton, E. & der Linden, D. (2015) Who are the “Clever Sillies”? The intelligence, personality, and motives of clever silly originators and those who follow them. Intelligence; 49: 57-65.
Fiedler, K. (2012) Meta-Cognitive Myopia and the Dilemmas of Inductive-Statistical Inference. Psychology of Learning and Motivation; 57: 1-55.
Perkins, D. N. (2002) The engine of folly. En R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Why smart people can be so stupid (64–85). Yale University Press.
Cipolla, C. M. (1988) Allegro ma non troppo. Barcelona: Crítica.