Feeling stupid sometimes? Congratulations, we all do at times.

Stupidity is one of the few true global characteristics and of all times.

Now stupidity can be defined as acting against one’s own and/or social interest, be it in short term or in the long term. It is according to James F. Elles  a mentality which is considered to be informed, deliberate and maladaptive, which means that you know  that you are acting against your own interest (which distinguishes it from ignorance), that it is a choice and not an accident, and that it prevents you from learning from new information.

I think a brilliant piece of work has been done by the late historian Cipolla who wrote five basic laws of stupidity.

1.     We always underestimate the number of stupid people

2.     Stupidity is independent of any other qualities of people, which means that even very smart people can be stupid.

3.     One is stupid if one causes damage to others without gaining anything or even causing damage to oneself.

4.     Non-stupid people always underestimate the harmful potential of stupid people; they constantly forget that at any time anywhere, and in any circumstance, dealing with or associating themselves with stupid individuals invariably constitutes a costly error.

5.     A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person there is.


He also describes 5 groups, based on the benefits and losses to themselves related to the benefits and losses for society.

1.    non-stupid people: who think and act in their own interest and in the interest of others.

2.    naive people: people who contribute to society but who are taken advantage of by others.

3.    bandits: who only think and act in their own interest without taking the effect on society into consideration (e.g. criminals and bankers).

4.    real stupid people: whose thinking and acting is counterproductive for themselves as well as for others.

5.    helpless of ineffective people: their efforts have no effect whatsoever for themselves nor for society.


In my opinion stupidity is on the rise, despite the tremendous amount of knowledge and information we have to our disposition. Just look around, read a newspaper, watch TV or read the Internet. Or maybe stupidity has always been there but through advancing  technologies has a much larger impact. Airplanes have been crashing since their invention, but currently passenger airliners transport 800 people rather than 100.Trains have been derailing from time to time ever since the first steamtrains started rolling,  but these days their speed can reach more than 300 kilometers an hour. Sending the wrong old black and white picture to someone caused little trouble, but pushing the wrong button on your Smartphone might send an inappropriate picture to 40.000 followers within a tenth of a second. Now that is stupid!


On a larger scale: cutting the rainforests at a high pace, arming the enemies of my enemies (we have seen that before). Reading a lot about stupidity (and being experienced in it too), I am still looking for an adequate answer why.

I came to following idea: our always improving new, large, cognitive, rational, digital cortex and prefrontal cortex of the brain is still strongly influenced by the older, smaller, primitive, emotional, analogue limbic system underneath it.

The limbic system is responsible for our emotions, drives and motivations.

And apart from that, the brain possess a lot of perceptual biases as well. Biases that colour our perceptions and decisions.


So maybe even under the most rational looking or sounding decisions, there is a strong undercurrent of an emotion or primitive drive which at the surface might be looking rational and deliberate, but is just a camouflage for motivations we don’t like or we are not able to acknowledge.

The more rational we get, the more conflicts between rational and emotional we will experience.

In this way rational decisions can be perceived as stupidity, but are mainly primitive needs or drives to be fulfilled, disguised as rational behaviours.

Stupidity might even become a characteristic within organisations or companies resulting in people even starting to act and behave stupidly. This is called “functional stupidity”, and it is well-described in the article at the bottom of the reference list.


Interesting Web-reads:


Darwin’s awards:

 Hilarious concept with many good examples: an award given posthumously to people who have made the supreme sacrifice to keep their genes out of the gene pool. Style counts, not everyone who dies from their own stupidity can win.


James F.Welles: About stupidity:



Woods, D.D; Dekker, W; Cook, R; Johannesen, L; Sarter, N: Behind human error; Ashgate, 2010.

Specter, M:  Denialism; Penguin Press, 2009.

Fine, C: A mind of its own. How our brain distorts and deceives; W.W.Norton, 2006.

Trivers, R: The folly of fools. The logic of deceit and self-deception in human life;  Basic Books, 2011.

Pierce, C.P:  Idiot America. How stupidity became a virtue in the land of the free; Doubleday, 2009.

Lane, B: Losing it. Behaviours and mindsets that ruin careers; FT Press , 2012.

Whittingham, R.B: The blame machine. Why human error causes accidents; Elsevier, 2004.

Best, J: Why smart people fall for fads; University of California Press, 2006.

Schermer, M: Why people believe weird things; W.H.Freeman, 2002.

Mandel, D.R; Hilton, D.J, Catellani, P: The handbook of counterfactual thinking; Routledge, 2005.

Lehrer, J: How we decide; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009.

Chapman, M.R: In search of stupidity. Over 20 years of high-tech marketing disasters; Apress, 2006.

Goldberg, M.H: The complete book of greed; William Morrow , 1994.

Foley, M; The age of absurdity; Simon and Schuster, 2010.

Hutson, M: The seven laws of magical thinking; how irrational beliefs keep us happy, healthy and sane; Hudson Street Press, 2012.

Dobelli, R: The art of thinking clearly, Harper Collins, 2013.



Alvesson, M; Spicer, A: A stupidity-based theory of organisations; Journal of Management Studies, 49:7 November 2012, pg.1194-1220.

About Henk Kraaijenhof

My name is Henk Kraaijenhof and I started this blog as a random collection of concepts, ideas, stories and events that are important or interesting to me in my work as an international performance consultant in a wide range of fields, and sometimes outside of my work. I will try to post a new entry every 3-4 days. Feel free to comment if you like.
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