The five laws of stupidity and risk management

The five laws of stupidity and risk management

Feb 9th, 2022

The five laws of stupidity and risk management are deeply interconnected. As a matter of fact, stupidity is often the root cause of many accidents, in any industry or human endeavor. Haven’t we all heard phrases like: “… it was a stupid accident”, “it was a stupid mistake…”?

stupid accident

Like usual, we will ensure that the glossary is crystal clear before we discuss the subject. And like usual, you will see that a clear glossary is absolutely vital.

The classic definition of stupidity

If we go by the dictionary definition, stupidity is the quality or state of being stupid. Thus the question is: what is stupid?

Well, still following the dictionary, stupid is defined by at least one of the three negative qualities below.

Stupid means NOT:

  • intelligent,
  • sensible or logical, and finally
  • able to think “normally” because fatigue, substances, etc.

However, if we go to the origin of the term, well before it entered the English language around mid-1500, we learn it came from the Latin verb stupere.

Stupere indicated being numb or astonished and is related to stupor. Now, in medicine stupor indicates the lack of critical mental function and a state in which an individual is mostly unresponsive. Incidentally, in Roman theater, the stupidus was the scapegoat in any intrigue.

Let’s add that a deer freezing in front of an incoming vehicles instead of running away is a perfect example of a fatal Stupor state.

We are sure you can already see how the notion of scapegoat and freezing in front of imminent threat relate to many industrial accidents.

However, let’s examine a more modern definition of stupid and stupidity.

Modern definition of stupidity

In 1976, Carlo Cipolla, professor of economic history at UoC Berkeley, published a paper where he laid out an interesting definition of stupidity and five laws governing it.

The interesting innovation Prof. Cipolla brought in relates to the “societal” aspect of stupidity. Indeed his essay created a five classes people taxonomy as follows:

  • intelligent,
  • helpless,
  • bandits, 
  • stupid and finally
  • ineffectual.

The key to Prof. Cipolla’s taxonomy is based on an evaluation of the damage/benefit the subject individual gets through his/her actions and the damage/benefit the subject individual provokes to others.

The five laws of stupidity and risk management


Following Prof. Cipolla’s definitions:

  • Intelligent individuals create benefits for themselves as well as for others.
  • Helpless people create benefits to others, none for themselves.
  • Bandits create losses to others for their exclusive benefit, and finally,
  • Stupid people generate self-losses and losses to others.

We are sure you can go back to accidents case stories and use this taxonomy in relation to one or more key individuals involved in those stories.

Now that we have a solid, modern and, we dare say, ethical definition of stupid/stupidity, let’s examine the five laws of stupidity and risk management.

The five laws of stupidity and risk management

Here are the five laws Prof. Cipolla described in his paper together with our comments related to risk management:

1- Cipolla: Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation. Riskope: beware of anyone trying to “force their point of view” during risk assessment workshops or reviews. Their egos may push them into self-public damage stances.

2- Cipolla: The probability that a certain person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person. As a result the rate of stupid doctors, engineers, lawyers is identical to the mass of the population. Riskope: even super expert, specialists can be stupid. Let’s ask ourselves every morning: am I becoming stupid? NB: it seems that Prof. Cipolla thought that stupid people are always stupid… but we see this as a more dynamic situation: anyone can become stupid at a certain point, for various reasons.

3- Cipolla: A stupid person always causes losses to one or more other persons while deriving no gain and possibly incurring self-damage. Riskope: turning a blind eye (or initially censoring scenarios) on hazards and risks will damage the assessor and its clients, and the public.

4- Cipolla: Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that dealing or associating with stupid people is a costly mistake. Riskope: beware of unchecked information, fake news coming from third parties that may be associated with the outcome of a project.

5- Cipolla: A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person. Corollary: A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit. Riskope: Bandits are predictable because they look to profit, stupid people aren’t. From a risk management point of view stupidity is more challenging than bandits..

Closing remarks on the five laws of stupidity and risk management

Next time you think that a scenario is stupid, please remember what we just discussed here.

A scenario may be beyond credibility or far fetched, but the term stupid does not fit with scenarios, it fits with people. And that is true whether you use the classic dictionary definition, or the more modern definition created in 1976 by Prof. Cipolla.

Can a project be stupid? Again, no! But the people involved in it may well be.

Understanding the difference is very important to help with risk management.

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Category: Hazard, Mitigations, ORE2_Tailings, Probabilities, Risk analysis, Risk management, Tolerance/Acceptability

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