“Always and unavoidably each of us underestimates the number of stupid individuals out there”. However arrogant and pretentious this motto may sound, it is actually to be attributed to the Italian historian and academic C. M. Cipolla (1922 – 2000). After graduating in economic history, in 1976 he drafted an unusual Christmas gift for friends, entitled “The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity”, a libel which will be later translated into thirteen languages and published in Italy with the title: “Allegro ma non troppo” in 1988. Halfway between a formal exercise and an anarchical twist of wit, commitment and divertissement, he sets himself the purpose of formulating a general theory about human stupidity. Researcher’s will is, therefore, to make this connotation calculable and quantifiable; connotation which would usually be inexpressible in mathematical terms.

Synoptic and immediate, nearly of an Asimovian signature, Cipolla develops the five fundamental laws of human stupidity. There is no “Zeroth Law”, if not the principle according to which stupid are to be considered as a disorganized and devoid of order group, nevertheless surprisingly coordinated and more powerful than major organizations, such as mafias or industrial lobbies.

That precious Ariadne’s thread unfolds in four additional ideas, to complete the primary law, set at the beginning: first of all, there are no links between someone’s character and his stupidity index: the latter manifests itself regardless of the former; moreover, the fool is, by definition, the one who damages others without gaining advantages for himself or even losing something; not-stupid people always underestimate the harmful potential of fools; lastly, stupid are the most dangerous kind of people that exist.

Shall we disentangle ourselves even better in that maze composed by our interactions? It is therefore worth groping in the mathematical field, picturing a Cartesian plane in our minds.

Cipolla identifies two relevant factors in the reckoning of human behaviour: damage or benefits brought to themselves and caused to others. Placing on the x-axis the first parameter, and on the y-axis the latter, we will be producing a classification of four types of specimens: “smart” ones, who benefit themselves and others; “unwary” people, who consider others before themselves; “fool” ones, who damage both categories and the “outlaw”, looking for his own advantage at others’ expense. Let’s notice that Cipolla considers fools even more dangerous than bandits.

Having doubts about one’s own behavioural choices is peculiar to the human being. Ethics and moral have been questioning that for centuries, but in a predominantly humanistic field of studies, a breath of scientific insight could lead to integrate and provide an innovative source of reflections. However hilarious and paradoxical, Cipolla’s short essay appears as a larval attempt to provide a renewed key for understanding the wildly popular dichotomy between “good” and “bad”, “better” and “worse”.

Cipolla’s work also paves the way for a meta-ethical research, by focusing not only on the quest for principles which govern our choices, but also by questioning the criteria to be followed in order to make the choice of such principles.

The application of scientific criteria to sort human actions has now become common use in our modernity. A recent study carried out by Korean neuroscientists Ju-Young Kim and Hackjin Kim uses functional MRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to demonstrate how the activation of a certain area of the brain depends on the purpose of the lie: taking action from selfishness or altruism requires a different cognitive commitment.

The inexorable scientific verdict falls, therefore, even on lies, evaluating their cognitive effort and your major intentions once you have considered the available benefits.

Could these new considerations lead to a change in our decision-making approach? Is there a chance that rationally computing our actions – in any context – may lead to better choices? Leaving aside the questionable concept of “better”, in the meantime it could be profitable to reconsider your decision-making method from an external point of view and, at the same time, let the awareness of new potential approaches settle.

By Noemi Manghi

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