The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Friday, August 20, 2021

Human Stupidity Explained: A Study Published on "Systems"


The original representation (1976) of the four "quadrants of human interactions" according to Carlo M. Cipolla. Clockwise from the top left quadrant: the behavior of hapless, intelligent, bandits, and stupid people. According to Cipolla, stupid people are the most dangerous people in the world.

We (myself and Ilaria Perissi) just published a new study on human stupidity in the scientific journal Systems. It is an open-access paper and you can download it for free at this link. I had already announced this paper in a post this April as a preliminary version published on ArXiv. Now, it is a regular paper appearing in a regular journal. 

Among other things, I can tell you that the experience of publishing this paper has been interesting (in the sense of the ancient Chinese malediction: may you live in interesting times!) It highlighted one of the many problems of the current system of scientific publishing: when you try to publish something that crosses the boundaries of established fields, you find yourself facing reviewers who think that it is their sacred duty to prevent your insults against orthodoxy from seeing the light of the day. But it is a long story and let me not harp on this.

So, what is the point of our paper? The paper is written in a light mood, but I think it makes an interesting point: what is the reason for human stupidity?

Let me explain: we all know that we are surrounded by stupidity: it truly pervades everything (the recent example of the end of the occupation of Afghanistan is just one of the many). This point had already been noted in the 1970s by Carlo Cipolla, an enlightened economist and historian. Cipolla had proposed "five laws of stupidity." 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."

That rings true, no doubt. But why, exactly? Cipolla didn't say that, he proposed the law but could not find a biological or physical reason for it to exist. So, we used a simple dynamic model, the Lotka-Volterra one, to explore how the interactions among people are regulated by a "financial potential" that governs the exchanges of goods and money. 

You may have heard of the Lotka-Volterra model as the one dealing with foxes and rabbits in biology. In reality, it is much more general than that (and incidentally, neither Lotka nor Volterra ever mentioned rabbits when they developed it independently, in the 1920s). It is a model that can be applied also to socio-economic systems, the interdisciplinary element that enraged the referees of our paper. The beauty of this model is that it is relatively simple and that it works! We applied it to such different fields as gold digging at the time of the gold rush and whaling at the time of Moby Dick (see, e.g., this paper). 

With a little twisting, we could use the Lotka-Volterra model for a qualitative description of Cipolla's "quadrant" that describes the four types of human strategies: intelligent, helpless, bandits, and stupid.


So, why do stupids exist? Simply because they exploit their resources (other people) so fast that they don't have the time to reform (or people do not have the time to regain their wealth). It is the phenomenon called "overexploitation." 

The idea came to us after having studied the history of whaling and of several other fisheries (that we report in our book "The Empty Sea"). A stupid whaler kills all the whales and is left with no resources to exploit, and then he goes bankrupt. It is exactly what happened in the 19th century when excessive hunting depleted the whale stock so much that the whaling industry collapsed. 

Why did whalers (and many other categories) behave in such a stupid way? Because they operated on a too short time scale, emphasizing short-term gains. This is the basis of the problem of overexploitation that has led us to the situation in which we are. 

But we also have something optimistic to say. People can learn! And systems can adapt. The Lotka-Volterra model, in the version called "competitive," shows how even a short-term attitude may self-correct in the long run. After several interactions, the system reaches homeostasis: predators (exploiters) and prey (exploited) find an agreement for mutual benefit. The beauty of this point is that you don't need to be especially smart to adapt. On the contrary, if you are truly stupid, you may adapt faster to a quick changing situation. In the end, it may well be that the origin of human stupidity is human intelligence. We are too smart for our own good.

Unfortunately, no matter how stupid we are, adaptation takes time. In the worst case hypothesis, the time needed may be infinite, since the exploited resource may be non-renewable, or gone extinct, like the dodo. Fortunately, that is not the case for whales and we may still hope that they will return to the oceans in large numbers. But for the ecosystem of our planet, it will be a long and difficult story. The problem is always the same: too much intelligence makes us too good at destroying things!

 My Coworker Ilaria Perissi with our recent book "The Empty Sea," her first book in English.





From "The Seneca Effect" April 2021

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 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.



  1. It's funny I knew I knew your name. Then you mention living in Berkeley. I met you at Fat Apples around 1992 I think it was. Great post. Great blog. I have downloaded the paper to read later. Best wishes.

    1. Fat Apples? Yes, I remember I was there, but I don't remember anyone with five guns, there!

  2. Are you sure about nobody has win anything with the invasion of Afghanistan ?

    1. Of course it was a lot of money for many people. It just wasn't very smart seen from the viewpoint of taxpayers

  3. Hello Ugo.
    So I read the paper (ignored the formulas), and I think you might have described the core concepts of Asimov's fictional psychohistory. Unfortunately.

  4. There are many examples of stupidity, but I think one of the worst is to supplement animal food with antibiotics on a regular basis, just to earn some Euros more. The bacteria is smarter and today surgeons must cancell some surgical operations because of multiresistent bacteria, especially in southern Europe.

  5. Homo Sapiens Sapiens as animals go are very, very clever.
    Unfortunately wisdom has been much more elusive.

    As a side note it seems to my limited perspective on the history of cultures and civilizations, that there have been some that have prioritized wisdom over knowledge.
    None of these cultures ever came to be a dominant power outside their own limited circle. I suspect it is mainly due to the "short term" thinking of the cultures that prized putting knowledge to use for quick profit, expansion and comforts. A people with a more long term view of The World were simply in their way and in no position to withstand their onslaught. The almost assured outcome of the difference in a world view of life as a circle (continuous renewal) vs a linear vector of progress, with a supposed unlimited increase in wealth until achieving the final destination of Utopia(Utopia being either earthly or supernatural) is the state of the planet we now inhabit.
    For what it's worth.

    1. There were several with Wisdom, but not Knowledge, several that are now called Indigenous IIRC. And several that had cutting edge Knowledge without Wisdom now called Imperial maybe. Unfortunately we need both simultaneously. And soon ...

  6. FYI re the Chinese curse:

  7. I don't think this post got sufficient attention so I reread the paper.
    My dumbed down version is that interactions that cross the vertical line (exploitative) tend to result in repeating waves that are unpleasant but recoverable.
    Interactions on the right side only result in ever smaller swings leading to a steady state.
    Interactions on the left side only lead to a Seneca Cliff.
    Approximately correct or am I wrong again?

    1. I think so, yes. You are basically right. We are now working to a more powerful model, but it is still just an idea

    2. OK so I can't sleep. Consider this in your model
      1 Humans with their farm animals,pets, & parasites
      2 Humans with dodos and bisons, whales & corals
      3 Humans and Artificial Intelligence. Oops.

  8. Hello Ugo
    This comment is a just a followup to our conversation, so no reply needed unless you wish.
    Wondering if you have had any further thoughts as I watch an amazing amount of stupidity from our political classes?
    It seems like an unpublishable paper in any academic journal, but maybe not.