Having just endured an election season, I figure it’s a perfect time to pick back up the topic of Carlo M. Cippola’s essay “The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity” from last month. This time I’ll focus on the mindless chowderheads that comprise the ‘stupid’ group.
Quickly, let’s review Cipolla’s definition of ‘stupid’ and the group’s qualities:
- A stupid person is someone who causes damage to another person, or a group of people, without any advantage accruing to himself (or herself) — or even with some resultant self-damage.
Now realistically speaking, everyone is capable of stupid actions as defined here. However, the difference between most of us and a truly ‘stupid’ person is that for them it’s more a regular state of being rather than the exception. I would argue that this is a category that is actually pretty modest in size, and that a good chunk of the people that we see as ‘stupid’ in our day-to-day lives are actually those in the ‘helpless’ and ‘bandit’ categories that lean towards the borderline of the ‘stupid’ category. They may do stupid things more often than average, yet the overall proportion of the stupid behaviors & actions is still less than other behaviors & actions from the other 3 categories. Such people may be frustrating, but aren’t quite the walking disasters that the ‘stupid’ individuals represent. Those squarely in the ‘stupid’ category, however, stand out and are hard not to notice. They are the people whose very presence tends to create difficulty for anyone they’re around. How about some examples?
- That person at work who makes constant mistakes and messes everywhere he/she goes yet manages to keep their job because of excessively restrictive firing requirement policies (common in gov’t), nepotism or social connections, a manager’s misplaced sense of obligation, or simply because the manager is too chickens*** to do what’s best for the workplace. Quite often the person in question tends to be put in places or assigned projects where they can “do the least amount of damage”. Perversely enough, sometimes that happens to be some type of management position, often one that’s technically supervisory in nature but in reality just requires a pulse. Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss would be one such example… as would a disturbingly high number of managers in government employment that I’ve had the misfortune to have to deal with.
- The horrible driver who talks on the phone at all times while driving, never paying full attention to the road yet sloppily weaving through traffic like a drunken Nascar driver. And yet has the nerve to wonder why they are so ‘unlucky’ in how many accidents that ‘happen’ to them and why their auto insurance rates are so high.
- The lecherous dumb-ass who had three kids with three different women by age 23 (he having ran out on the first two women), and managed to get fired at his job for sexual harassment by hitting on yet another woman at work after only a few months at the job. He even talks about the first two women and kids he ditched like it was some weird badge of honor. This is a real-life example from my time at one of my several McJobs in my teen years during the 1990’s… and amusingly enough, he was actually an assistant manager at this particular fast food joint. To this day I still can’t help but have a slightly negative perception of Lynyrd Skynyrd superfans because of this particular superfan example. In fact, if you picture a skinny version of ‘Clevon’ from the beginning of Idiocracy, that image would fit this guy to a ‘T’.
- The stoner that decided he wanted a convertible, so he sloppily cut the roof off of his car. In the fall season. In ALASKA. A few months later you see him and the unfortunate friends of his freezing his ass off in the car with some plastic sheeting strapped and lashed to the door and windshield frames. Yet another real-life example I remember from my late teens (Ok so this last one was based on one spectacularly dumb act that I knew of, but that along with some of the things he said made it clear such lack of sense was a regular thing)
As much as I tried to, I couldn’t think of any clear-cut examples of politicians in the ‘stupid’ category. While many if not most of them had caused damage to a great many people through their actions and decisions, most still manage to consistently come out ahead themselves. Therefore they fall more in the ‘bandit’ group, though I’d argue closer to the ‘stupid’ end than the ‘intelligent’ end given the magnitude of the damage. Even George W. Bush couldn’t technically be considered ‘stupid’ under this definition, since he’s managed to come out ahead personally even if most of us suffered under his term. And I suspect that he and Obama the other presidents of the past couple decades (at least) have largely been acting on the advice of special interests and connected insiders, and being an opportunistic shill for personal gain is more of a ‘bandit’ behavior than ‘stupid’.
In my opinion, perhaps the best example of a political leader that comes close to ‘stupid’ would be Adolf Hitler. While early on I suppose he (mostly) played a shrewd game, later on it’s easy to see how he consistently and regularly caused avoidable damage to himself and others. And while he may have been charismatic and skilled at manipulation and politics, the Second Law of Human Stupidity does state: “The probability of a person being stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.” So being good at some things still wouldn’t exempt him from being stupid. And if you think about it, most people that had extensive dealings with him got burned one way or another (Stalin, Mussolini, Tiso, as well as various leaders & participants in the Nazi movement that were perceived as ‘potential’ threats), which lines up well with the Fourth Law of Human Stupidity: “Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid people… they constantly forget that at any moment, and in any circumstance, associating with stupid people invariably constitutes an expensive mistake.” And I think the best justification for lumping him in the ‘stupid’ category would be the Fifth Law: “A stupid person is the most dangerous person in existence.” It’s hard to find anyone else that better fits that statement.
So what is the essential quality or qualities that makes these people ‘stupid’ and do the things they do? What is the common connection between them? My best guess is that it boils down to this: an insufficient amount of self-awareness, self-reflection, and self-control.
- Self-awareness is critical in understanding how one arrives at one’s decisions, why we do the things we do, and in making honest appraisals of our abilities and limitations. A lack of self-awareness leads to making similar mistakes over and over, not taking time to determine what our goals are or what they should be, or overestimating our abilities to the extent it gets us into trouble (like the person who thinks they’re such an awesome driver they can yak on the phone and put on make-up while driving in the fast lane).
- Self-reflection is tied to self-awareness, though it is more about the act and willingness to deliberately examine the nature, purpose, and motives of themselves and humanity in general. As the act of self-reflection tends to build self-awareness, refusing to engage in any self-reflection contributes to a continued lack of self-awareness.
- Self-control is necessary in being able to manage one’s impulses and desires in order to achieve a positive outcome or avoid a negative outcome. A lack of self-control tends to lead one into destructive behaviors and making avoidable, costly mistakes (like say cutting off the roof of one’s car on a whim, or refusing to engage in safe sex after knocking up and running out on two different women).