Carlo Cipolla, intelligence, who is smart, basic laws of human stupidity

Cipolla's graph with the benefits and losses that an individual causes to him or herself and causes to others.

Have you ever known someone who was educated, well-spoken and curious, but had a real knack for making terrible decisions and bringing others down with them? These people are perplexing because we're trained to see them as intelligent, but their lives are a total mess.

On the other hand, have you ever met someone who may not have a formal education or be the best with words, but they live wisely and their actions uplift themselves and others?

In 1976, Italian economist Carlo Cipolla wrote a tongue-in-cheek essay called "The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity" that provides a great framework for judging someone's real intelligence. Now, the term "stupid" isn't the most artful way of describing someone who lives unwisely, but in his essay Cipolla uses it in a lighthearted way.

Cipolla explains his theory of intelligence through five basic laws and a matrix that he believes applies to everyone.


First Basic Law

"Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation."

Cipolla believes that the mind can hardly comprehend the sheer amount of stupid people that exist in the world. In his first law he asserts that "any numerical assumption would turn out to be an underestimate."



Second Basic Law

"The probability that a certain person is stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person."

This is what I was getting at in the introduction. A person may have the characteristics of intelligence, but don't be fooled; stupidity is equally distributed among all groups of people.

"Whether one frequents elegant circles or takes refuge among cannibals, whether they lock themselves up in a monastery or decide to spend the rest of their life in the company of a beautiful partner, the fact remains that they will always have to deal with the same percentage of stupid people," he concluded.

Third Basic Law

"A stupid person is one who causes losses to another person or a group of people while they gain nothing or may even suffer losses."

Cipolla believes that true stupidity isn't a reflection of someone's IQ, but their behavior. We all know people who present themselves as being intelligent but may believe in wacky conspiracy theories or make terrible decisions with their money because they fall for get-rich-quick schemes.

In other words, you are what you do. Not what you say or think. Truly intelligent people take smart actions and care about the well-being of others.

Fourth Basic Law

"Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular, non-stupid people constantly forget that in any time and place and circumstance dealing and/or hanging out with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake."

Ever have that friend who made a lot of bad decisions but you still hung around them because they were a lot of fun? Eventually, no matter how hard you try to keep their drama at distance, it'll infect your life.

Fifth Basic Law

"Stupid people are the most dangerous type of people."

Intelligent people are predictable and are concerned for the well-being of others. The stupid are unpredictable creators of mayhem and don't care who their actions affect.

Cipolla created a matrix that describes the four types of people: stupid, helpless, bandits and the intelligent.

Cipolla's matrix.via Wikimedia Commons

Stupid people's actions are counterproductive to themselves and others.

Helpless people contribute to society and can be altruistic or moral. But they're often taken advantage of or give much more than they receive.

Bandits are opportunists that pursue their own self-interest even if it harms others.

Intelligent people contribute to society and leverage their contributions into reciprocal benefits.

Cipolla's basic laws may not be backed up by hundreds of pages of psychological research, but they help explain why seemingly intelligent people can make terrible decisions and why people who may not appear to be so bright can be beacons of wisdom.

The underlying truth of the matter is that intelligent people take smart actions and stupid people make dumb decisions. It doesn't matter how many books you've read or your social status. As Forrest Gump once said, "Stupid is as stupid does."


Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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