Monday, April 12, 2021

The Sixth Law of Stupidity: Why Humankind may be the Stupidest Species in the Whole Ecosystem


 Illustration by James Donnelly for the original 1976 paper by Carlo M. Cipolla "The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity" Recently, Ugo Bardi and Ilaria Perissi reviewed his work on the basis of modern Biophysical Economics arriving to validate and extend the laws. Not only, as Cipolla said, stupidity is common and dangerous among humans, but humans may be the stupidest species in the whole ecosystem!


I remember having met Carlo Maria Cipolla in Berkeley in the 1980s. At that time, I wasn't involved with biophysical studies, but I was already a fan of his work. His treatise on stupidity was truly a masterpiece of intelligence and humor. Then, his description of money forgers in Florence during the Middle Ages included also a mention of some of my remote ancestors, no doubt very enterprising people, actually too much! Cipolla was an incredibly brilliant writer and, in real life, he was charming, generous, and modest.

Cipolla's work on stupidity has been in my mind for a long time. His ideas on the matter were so simple and yet so deep. And he was expressing these deep concepts in a plain language that everyone could understand. The "third law," the basic one, is expressed as "A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons, while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.

So simple, and it happens all the time. We are surrounded by stupidity, embedded in stupidity, accomplices of stupidity, perpetrators of stupidity. It seems to be a sort of cosmic ether that permeates everything and, unlike the ether of physics, it really exists. But why is it so common?

Recently, we got together with my coworker Ilaria Perissi, and we started thinking about making a model of Cipolla's law. Ilaria has been modeling the production cycles of fisheries using the biophysical model called the "Lotka-Volterra" model and, together, we published an entire book, "The Empty Sea," on that subject starting from those studies. (as you can see in the picture, Ilaria is very proud of that book: her first book in English!).

As you probably know, the Lotka-Volterra model is supposed to describe the interaction of two populations: predators and prey. It is often called the "Foxes and Rabbits" model. But it is much more than that. It is a simple model that goes very deep into the concept of "potential dissipation" that dominates the functioning of complex systems in the real world. 

So, not surprising that the Lotka-Volterra model could give us some deep insight into Cipolla's intuition. According to our interpretation, stupidity occurs when the dissipation of an energy potential goes too fast: the result is what we call "overexploitation" in which people exploit a resource to the point of destroying it, and damage themselves in the process. Fortunately, we also found that these systems can adapt in the long run. In an evolutionary system, stupidity punishes itself, but it takes time. Unfortunately, we are still in the midst of what could be the greatest stupidity wave that the ecosystem ever saw in its nearly four billion years of existence.

Here is the introduction to our paper. You can read it on ArXiv (we are planning to publish it in a scientific journal soon). It is written according to the rules of formal scientific prose, but one of our purposes in writing it was to follow Cipolla's example and demonstrate that a scientific paper need not be incomprehensible and boring!

The 6th Law of Stupidity: A Biophysical Interpretation of Carlo Cipolla’s Stupidity Laws

Ilaria Perissi and Ugo Bardi
Dipartimento di Chimica РUniversità di Firenze.
Polo Scientifico di Sesto Fiorentino, via della Lastruccia 3
50019 Sesto Fiorentino (Fi) - Italy


Carlo Cipolla’s “stupidity quadrant” and his five laws of stupidity were proposed for the first time in 1976 [1]. Exposed in a humorous mood by the author, these concepts nevertheless describe very serious features of the interactions among human beings. Here, we propose a new interpretation of Cipolla’s ideas in a biophysical framework, using the well-known “predator-prey,” Lotka-Volterra model. We find that there is indeed a correspondence between Cipolla’s approach – based on economics – and biophysical economics. Based on this examination, we propose a “6th law of stupidity,” additional to the five proposed by Cipolla. The law states that “humans are the stupidest species in the ecosystem"


In 1976, the economist and historian Carlo M. Cipolla (1922-2000) wrote an essay titled “The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity.” Initially, it was only a pamphlet circulated among friends [1], but later it was published as a book [2]. Written in a tongue-in-cheek style, Cipolla’s text analyzed human behavior using a simple semi-quantitative model in the form of two individuals (“agents”) interacting with each other in performing an economic transaction.

Cipolla reasoned in terms of the payoff of each transaction, arranging the possible outcomes as a quadrant divided into four subsectors. One of the two agents may gain something at the expense of the other, but it may also happen that both profit from the exchange. The worst possible situation is the one in which both lose something. The kind of agents who cause someone else’s loss while damaging also themselves in the process were labeled by Cipolla as “stupid people.”

From there, Cipolla went on defining the five “laws of stupidity” as 1) Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation. 2) The probability that a certain person will be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person. 3) A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses, 4) Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals, and 5) A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.

Today, Carlo Cipolla may well be better known for his quadrant and the five laws, that he probably thought of as a joke, than for his academic papers. One of the reasons for this popularity is that these ideas ring true: they make sense according to our everyday experience. Indeed, Cipolla’s ideas have been examined, discussed, and modeled in various ways for instance in terms of game theory [3] and of agent-based modeling [4].

Here, we wish to take a fresh look at Cipolla’s theory using a biophysical approach. That is, we will frame Cipolla’s quadrant in terms of a complex system similar to biological ones. We’ll use the model known as the “Lotka-Volterra” (LV) one, also known as the “predator-prey” or “Foxes and Rabbits” model [5], [6]. Our examination leads us to propose a “6th law of stupidity” that applies to the whole ecosystem and that has that “Humans are the stupidest species on Earth.”


Read the whole Paper on ArXiv



  1. probably one of the problems is that there is a big enough lag in the
    feedback loops - strategies that seem intelligent even for several
    generations, turn out to be stupid after it is too late to get out of the
    trap. More intelligent strategies meanwhile, are eliminated in early rounds
    thanks to the Maximum Power Principle - the eventually stupid strategy yields
    a temporary, immediate advantage. By the time the feedback loop closes in on
    the stupid strategy, the intelligent strategy has already been eliminated.
    Probably the only real defense against this trap is to have enough smaller
    versions of it available with shorter durations and tighter feedback loops,
    to allow more (ideally all) of the stupid strategies to self-eliminate on
    small-stakes games and allow intelligent strategies to survive a few rounds
    of losses against the short-lived stupid strategies. This would perhaps
    indicate that allowing, even mildly encouraging, self-destructive behaviour
    at smaller scales, instead of protecting everyone from everything, would
    yield a generally less stupid population and a civilization less inclined to
    jump into the trap on a grand scale that kills of whole populations or
    It would seem that the pre-modern lifestyle humans lived helped them follow
    just such a best-practices approach: life was full of tempting but deadly
    choices, and people were largely allowed to choose those paths and
    self-eliminate from the society and the gene pool often and early (to borrow
    the silicon valley cliche term, fail often, fail early?).

    Pre-industrial technology could not afford a surplus to keep supporting and
    subsidizing failure on a grand scale, so stupidity crashed and burned much
    more immediately and , more importantly, the lessons connecting stupidity to
    the consequences were much more immediate and learned by many. Thus, the
    tendency of almost all 'pre-modern' societies to tend toward conservatism and
    caution when it came to innovations chasing after easy wealth, etc.

  2. You can't teach now an old Civilisation a new trick

    Any "Opium War", practiced now with modern communications, cannot go forever.

    Truth is a property of Physics, not only a matter of Ethics.

    Take all humans South, telling them they're heading North;

    After a while, they'll go back to where they originally intended - North - by Physics.

    See natural bird migrations and the recent peace packs between Israelis and Arabs - as an example on how Truth being a property of Physics.

    All finite fossil fuels burned in the process are in vain - for good, though.

    Swap the polarity of a DC motor and it will reversely rotate.

    Reverse the polarity of the battery leads in your car and it's likely the car will be severely damaged.

    Truth is indeed a property of Physics.

    Burning the little left of the incredibly energy-dense, perfectly portable, finite, one-off fossil fuels for endless Opium Wars is something that shouldn't be appreciated, glorified and entertained by all humans - minor, young, grown-up and old.


  3. Interesting Paper - Thanks for the link. A little light reading. I recall that a more specialised research or focus was by Dunning and Kruger (1999) about cognitive ability and stupidity. Or to misquote the findings - " The trouble with stupid people is that they do not know they are stupid".

  4. In my native language, stupid is called 'prost'. As a word, it comes from the Slavic languages, where it initially meant 'simple'. Cognitive simplicity means not being able to conceive but one course of action/ a single perspective. Once you started traveling a certain path, there's no other choice, no left, no right, no turning back. You keep going until the very end. Stupidity is the absence of doubt and of reflection. Hence the more stupid one is, the more vehement they're going to be.

  5. Anyone else notice the stupid typo in that "The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity" link? Towards the end of the essay there's the line "..and the helpless with overtones of stupidity (area H1) manage to..". That should be "H2" not "H1".

    1. There may be a 7th law "stupidity is contagious." But would you please explain where exactly is that wrong link?

    2. The "Helpless with overtones of stupidity" is, according to the H-I-B-S graphics above the referenced paragraph, would be the H2 area. 7th Law indeed.

  6. Anyone else notice the stupid typo in that "The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity" link? Towards the end of the essay there's the line "..and the helpless with overtones of stupidity (area H1) manage to..". That should be "H2" not "H1".

  7. Your new paper prompted me to search for earlier papers on the subject of stupidity. This one truly stands out.

  8. Professor Bardi, have you noticed that bitcoin - or more generally the proof-of-work cryptocurrency "ecosystem" - is a glaring example of these stupidity laws?

    A bitcoin enthusiast will probably retort that video gaming, including online gaming in both the local and cloud flavors, presently accounts for an energy consumption of roughly the same magnitude. What they are missing is that whereas total gaming activity is bounded by the facts that the number of human beings is finite and that each person can play only one video game at a time, total mining activity is not bounded since the number of ASIC processors doing bitcoin mining can increase indefinitely, as long as the price of bitcoin is high enough to reward the investment.

    As a side note, I would be inclined to use "idiocy" instead of "stupidity" in this case, from the original meaning of the former: the state of someone who lives in a world of his own, his "idios kosmos", and not in the world as it really is, the "koinos kosmos", which faces constraints in either energy and material inputs (the peak everything scenario) or in energy and material outputs (the climate change scenario), or, as is probably the case, in both.

    1. I am watching the bitcoin cycle. It is an interesting story, but I still can't figure exactly how it will play in the future. For sure, most of those who use it don't really understand it. And thanks for the citation from Greek. I'll use it in a future post!

  9. I add that, if you are not familiar yet with the issue of bitcoin energy consumption, the place to start is

    Another misleading comparison is with gold mining. While mining gold consumes energy, paying for goods and services with gold already mined consumes negligible amount of energy, whether by handing down a gold bar or by transferring ounces in custody in In contrast, each bitcoin transaction consumes 936.70 kWh!!!

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

    This statement is so stupid in itself that is hard to believe you consider it important.
    What you call stupidity is the basis of human society. If I see someone stealing or doing something damaging to the group, I try to stop him or at least report him. According to your definition, I am stupid. I guess the right thing to do is to help the robbers and get a share of the booty?

    Actually, given the current state of the western civilization, it's obvious that most people don't care about their civic duties and just like you they decided that instead of acting "stupid" they prefer a share of the printed money - for as long as that will last.

    There is a folk saying that says: "where there is mind, there is also stupidity". The question is if there is any mind left in any so-called intellectual in the academia?