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The vicious circle
of stupidity

October 2002

disponibile anche in italiano

  Giancarlo Livraghi
For other comments see
The Power of Stupidity




Facts prove, every day, that stupidity is everywhere. We are all, more or less, stupid – in one way or another (the stupidest people are those who think that they are never stupid.)  I’ve been concerned with this problem all my life - and I believe that trying to understand stupidity is one way of reducing it’s awful effects.

One of the results is the widespread belief that people should be treated as stupid. That has nothing to do, of course, with the good practice of making things “foolproof”. Not because everyone is a fool, but because the brightest people can be absent-minded – and making things practical, safe and easy to use is an advantage for everyone.

But trying to exploit stupidity is a very different matter. It’s often said that the public (an audience, or a customer, etcetera) has the brains of “a silly eleven year old”. Quite apart from the fact that there are some very bright kids, there is something basically wrong with this theory and its practice.

It is, unfortunately, proven by facts that some results can be obtained in that manner. But it is also, unquestionably, proven that even better results can be obtained by treating people with respect, appealing to their intelligence, common sense and understanding.

Where stupidity prevails, the entire system becomes stupid. There are greater openings for fraud, lies and complacency. There is loss of quality, reliability, relationships and trust.

There is, of course, an easy objection. Why should an individual person, company or organization carry the burden of general wellbeing? Business ethics are unnecessarily expensive. It pays to be selfish. Let society as a whole (whatever that is) worry about what’s right or wrong, intelligent or stupid, while each of its components pursues its own private advantage. If profits or other benefits can be gained by treating people as stupid, that’s what is to be done.

The strategies based on stupidity and deceit are self-defeating. They spiral downwards in an endless vicious circle. There is no time to think, to plan, to look into the future. Everything is short-term and hasty. When the effects of stupidity begin to be felt, new twists are found to blur the picture and do something even more stupid. As the old saying goes, “if you can’t get it right screw it up so nobody else can”.

The circuit of stupidity is self destructive. When we treat other people as stupid, we are, or appear to be, as stupid as we think they are. Stupidity becomes a habit. There is a widespread perception that everything is silly, nothing really matters, thinking is a waste of time.

Even before it gets in the way of relations with the rest of the world, this attitude poisons the inside of a business – or any organization. Where short-term personal advantage is the only goal, why should anyone be concerned with the company’s objectives, wellbeing and success?

It’s always dangerous to underestimate the destructive power of stupidity. And it’s unlikely that by treating everyone else as a fool one can remain immune from the treacherous contagion of foolishness. Unfortunately stupidity isn’t always defeated by intelligence, but it tends to self-destruct.

While this is generally true, it’s even more so in the internet. Not because of any lack of stupidity in the net. As explained by Carlo Cipolla, the index of stupidity is the same in all human categories. But in an interactive system it’s easier to double-check, to look behind appearances. There are greater opportunities (for those who want to find them) of less conventional and superficial relationships.

Intelligent communication doesn’t have to be pedantic, boring or complicated. The brightest thoughts can be simple and clear. With a healthy dose of humanity – and, when appropriate, with amusement and fun. Arrogance, pompousness and delusions of superiority aren’t intelligent. They are ways of being stupid. There can be no real intelligence without honesty, a sense of humor and true respect for other people’s attitudes and opinions.

The dominance of stupidity is so overwhelming that there are increasing opportunities for going in the opposite direction. A single person or company that decides to treat people with greater respect can’t, on its own, reverse the tide. But by doing so, for the very fact of being different, we can gain considerable advantage. And we have a better chance of looking at ourselves in a mirror without despising what we are and what we are doing.

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