The Stupidity Quotient

Ioannis Alexiadis
5 min readOct 18, 2022

Human stupidity has been widely studied by literature and since Carlo Cipolla’s “Basic Laws of Human Stupidity” we know how to define a stupid person. But how stupid is she actually? The stupidity quotient offers you interesting insights for dealing with idiots of various types.

This article is an excerpt from the ebook The Stupidity Quotient.

Carlo Cipolla’s laws of human stupidity

The economic historian Carlo Cipolla derived five fundamental laws of human stupidity from his study of people:

  1. Always and inevitably, everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation
  2. The probability that a certain person is stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person
  3. A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or a group of persons while deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses
  4. Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals
  5. A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.

Cipolla defines a stupid person as someone who harms others without being able to take any advantage or even harming himself in this process. In a diagram that shows one’s harm/benefit on the X-axis and the harm/benefit caused to others on the Y-axis, four quadrants arise. Intelligent persons benefit society and themselves, for example as entrepreneurs who get rich by helping people to solve a problem. The criminals take profits by causing harm to others. The helpless are exploited by criminals. They suffer a loss from which the criminals benefit. As described above, the stupid suffer losses without anyone being able to take a profit from their actions. That is exactly what makes them unpredictable and dangerous.

Carlo Cipolla’s diagram on which the definition of stupidity is based

IQ as a pseudo-scientific measure of intelligence

The intelligence quotient (IQ) is used by authorities, the media, and companies without questioning its logic and relevance. Nassim Nicholas Taleb recently pointed out the pseudoscientific character of IQ in an online article. IQ does not measure a person’s intelligence. It is a measure of mental limitations, as its significance is only valid if the value is low. Taleb has examined IQ studies and found massive statistical flaws. With a high IQ value, the variance increases, and the validity of the intelligence quotient decreases to a minimum. But even with a low IQ, this filter is useless, as there are other, simpler methods of filtering out people, for example, the résumé when selecting applicants.

Instead of trying to measure intelligence, it is, therefore, more advisable to follow the Via Negativa. Stupidity is much easier to determine than intelligence. The goal for anyone is to be a non-idiot.

Unintelligence is not stupidity

Stupidity is not the opposite of intelligence. Failure at a certain task is due to a lack of competence in this area. Someone who acts unintelligently causes more harm than good with an action. This action would represent a point in Cipolla’s diagram. A person can be intelligent in one field of activity while completely failing in another.

Stupidity describes something completely different. A person cannot be capable of all tasks across all domains and will fail regularly. But he learns from his inability.

If I lack intelligence regarding a certain task, as a non-stupid person, I will avoid doing it without a hedge. If I have failed in the past, I will act more cautiously in this context. The same does not apply to a fool. He repeats his dangerous behavior. Stupid people are consistently unintelligent. An idiot insists on doing something he is incapable of doing and causes harm because he is blind to his inability or does not care about it. It is his attitude that characterizes a fool, and not primarily his physical or mental skills.

The stupidity quotient

When a stupid person consistently displays harmful behavior for no benefit of his own, his or her activity lies in the third quadrant of Cipolla’s diagram.

Cipolla suggests adding the weighted average value of a person’s actions as a point in the diagram for assessing individuals. Since the stupid person consistently performs stupid actions, this point will inevitably be in the third quadrant. A single action with a very high negative y is not proof, but a very strong indicator of stupidity.

What I am missing at this point is a measure that includes the consistency of the harmful behavior. A stupid person will not cause the same damage as the head of the dog owners’ association if he takes the position of the US president. Stupidity scales. These differences in magnitude are not included in a weighted average and can be better represented with a graph.

The stupidity quotient (SQ), which we represent with the symbol β, expresses the ratio of internal damage caused to external damage caused. It is not a hierarchical measure but serves to divide idiots into different categories. With a small β, the stupid person mainly harms himself and people in his immediate environment. If β is large, other people carry the main damage and the responsible person gets off lightly.

The relationship looks like this:

y = βx - s

With

y: external damage

x: self-harm

β: Ratio of self-harm to third-party damage caused by the idiot with his behavior.

s: skin-in-the-game barrier, damage that the stupid person inflicts on himself before the damage is passed on to others (positive s); or amount of external damage before the stupid person harms himself (negative s).

If x is positive, the fool can become a hero or be very successful, according to this equation. In the case of the fool, such outcomes are due to sheer luck and are only realistic for a short time. In the long run, the x will inevitably move into negative territory, dragging the y with it.

A fund manager who chooses a risky investment strategy can make big profits in the short term through luck, but if he acts so carelessly in the long term, he will lose his clients’ money. As another example, let’s assume that a stupid criminal kills a shopkeeper for 100 dollars. In the short term, his x is positive, but in the long term, he has to go to jail, and his x becomes negative. Therefore, we can also define the following conditions for our equation:

y = βx - s | (x <0; y <0)

Literature:

Carlo M. Cipolla (2019). The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity. London: WH Allen.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2019). IQ is largely a pseudoscientific swindle. Medium.

More information about this book

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