The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity
Embedded in the outrage and furore that is the current discourse lies a paper that casts light on how stupid we really are
First Published: Sat, Nov 26 2016. 11 18 PM IST
If Mint were a privately circulated title, I’d hurl the choicest of abuses at you in the foulest of Malayalam I know. I’m constrained by the limitations my editors place on me. So, I’ll stop at saying this: “Screw you. Because you just screwed me.”
A much frustrated,
By way of background, for those of you who unfamiliar with Kerala and its machinations, emergency was declared in the state earlier today morning. All news was yanked off the air on 25 November 2016. I realized my world had turned upside down when the missus walked panting into my room.
“Whatever it is, I didn’t do it,” I muttered. But she pointed to the screen on her phone, speechless. I braced myself for the worst, took a deep breath and stared into it. Turns out she had just gotten off the television screen after talking to her co-sisters. All of them were pissed off.
Earlier in the morning, Dileep, a Malayali actor of considerable repute, had married Kavya Madhavan, a National Award-winning Malayali actor, considerably more talented than him (in my not so humble opinion).
“How could he do this?” she spluttered
“His problem, not mine,” I said and tried to move on.
“Don’t you get it, you insensitive man?”
“Just one year after dumping that lovely Manju Warrier, he goes on to marry this woman.”
“How do I care?”
“She gave her career up to live with this prick for 14 years and look at what he’s done to her,” she screamed. “What will happen to their daughter?”
“Bah! What do I care? I’ve got a deadline to meet.”
“If you ever try something like this on me, don’t forget what kind of muscle my brothers are made of,” she said, and stomped out in a huff to get into a conference call with her co-sisters. All of whom, I suspect, are on the same page.
Just when I thought the conversation around this idiot was done with, my aunt called in, sounding just as desperate, from Kerala in that inimical accent familiar to those from Thrissur.
“Chechi evide?” (Where is my older sister)
“Endhu patti Aunty?” (What happened Aunty?)
“Nee ketta?” (Did you hear?)
Whatever happened, I wondered. Had another old relative copped it?
“Namade Dileep Kavya Madhavane kalyanam kazhichu.” (Our Dileep has married Kavya Madhavan, in much the same tone one would adopt if Dileep and I were blood brothers.)
In the politest tone I could adopt, I told her to call mum on her phone so I could get down to work. An hour later, a breathless mother walked into my room. “What a lovely boy,” she told me, in Malayalam.
“Eh?” This was beginning to get surreal.
As her version of the story goes, Dileep and Manju Warrier decided to part ways because they weren’t made for each other. And so, my mother told me with much delight, about how he first went and asked his daughter, now in her teens, whether she would approve of him marrying Kavya Madhavan.
Apparently, the young girl said whatever makes her father happy would make her happy too. Then he went to his mother and asked her the same question. She approved too. And finally, he went and asked young lady Kavya if she would marry him.
To which this award-winning stunner apparently said: “Elaverdem ishatam adhu aanengil, ena angane aayikote.” (If that’s what everybody wants, then let it be that way.)
“And so, the four of us (the daughter from his marriage to Manju Warrier, his new wife, his mother and he) will move to a new house and start life afresh,” he announced.
“All we ask for is that you bless us,” he is reported to have said somberly to the assembled press corps and moved on to the nuptial rites in Kochi.
Some silly journalist asked Dileep’s mother what she thought about his former wife (who I think is an outstandingly graceful lady). To which, I am told, she condescendingly remarked, “She’s young. She’ll find somebody.”
Be that as it may, I thought the entire episode among the most daft I had heard in a long time. It messed my morning up, the clock was ticking away and I was up against a stiff deadline. However in the world was I supposed to complete this piece?
Just then, the strands of a conversation the previous night with a Dr Anurag Misra, a practising psychiatrist based out of out of Delhi, came to the rescue. He had pointed me to a paper in an altogether different context. The both of us had far more pressing matters to deal with, and soon after we hung up, I read the paper, The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity by Carlo M. Cipolla.
Dileep’s personal life goes to prove The First Basic Law: Human stupidity asserts without ambiguity that always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
What else can explain how my family—and for that matter, the most literate state in the country—came to a standstill because of a marriage?
Incidentally, Cipolla taught at the University of California in Berkeley and died in 2000, aged 78. A scholar of much repute, he is most known for this treatise of his. It was a national bestseller in his native Italy, was immortalized in a play in France, and translated into English as well.
The paper got my attention right away. I read all of it and laughed through it. I was wondering what Anurag’s larger point was. How could I possibly use it to interpret what I see around me?
While the paper is indeed humorous, it was also intended to be a deeply philosophical one. And the First Basic Law had just been proven a night after we spoke. All said and done, I spent some time on it and wondered if there is indeed some merit in what the paper articulates. Turns out, there is.
The Second Basic Law: The probability that a certain person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person
I’ll tread with caution here because by way of evidence I cannot divulge names. But this much I can assert in my defence. Perhaps, 25-odd years down the line, if I have the mental muscle left in me to write a memoir on the back of the many hundreds of interviews I have conducted over my career with business leaders, I can think up quite a few icons who would tumble.
Two come to mind right away. What binds both is that even though they are part of different industries, they transformed how India lives.
The first name attracts fanatical devotion. The entity he took over and the jobs his entity offers are prized. If the entity’s brand name is stamped on anything, it is by any yardstick considered the gold standard for quality, ethics and transparency. He was always dignified and handed the baton over to a man of impeccable pedigree and intended to spend his retirement in introspection and search for a higher truth.
But as things turn out, he is also stupid. Because over the years, when he was at the helm, for reasons best known to him, he was surrounded by a “coterie”. How ironic. Because he had started his career out by disbanding a firmly entrenched “coterie”. What ought to be have been his golden years are now turning into a tumult. Egged on no doubt by a coterie who was at a loss without him around. What else explains his emergence from what ought to have been his sunset years?
The second name is one that evokes images of the patriarch. His voice has often been the final word in many high-profile discussions that have needed an intermediary of impeccable integrity. The institution he created is the subject of much awe. If you were to ask me to read a eulogy to him in a single line, it would be this: “He was the Bhishma pita maha of all things you can ascribe to modernity in Indian business.”
But the institution closest to his heart, and one he passed to the one who met with approval from both him and the board, is now cracking. The leadership is in exit mode. Private conversations with some reveal details of an ill thought out succession plan. I have it from them that when faced with a crisis, he would often freeze, and it was left to his lieutenants to take over.
What he couldn’t see, though, was that they had an agenda to push. Because when it was time for him to pass on the mantle, they fought a fierce battle behind the scenes. It was a dirty one, and he was completely oblivious to it.
Whether he was willfully blind is not known. Whatever be the case, the successor turned out to be among the most manipulative. The others left and have since moved on to head entities now sniping at the top dog’s heels. How else do you describe this, but stupidity on his part? This, in spite of all of his brilliance and foresight.
The Third (and golden) Basic Law: 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.
This may sound preposterous. Before getting into some examples of how it plays out in life, let us carefully go over what Cipolla presents in his paper.
“When confronted for the first time with the Third Basic Law, rational people instinctively react with feelings of scepticism and incredulity. The fact is that reasonable people have difficulty in conceiving and understanding unreasonable behaviour. But let us abandon the lofty plane of theory and let us look pragmatically at our daily life.”
“We all recollect occasions in which a fellow took an action which resulted in his gain and our loss: we had to deal with a bandit. We also recollect cases in which a fellow took an action which resulted in his loss and our gain: we had to deal with a helpless person. We can recollect cases in which a fellow took an action by which both parties gained: he was intelligent. Such cases do indeed occur.”
“But upon thoughtful reflection you must admit that these are not the events which punctuate most frequently our daily life. Our daily life is mostly, made of cases in which we lose money and/or time and/or energy and/or appetite, cheerfulness and good health because of the improbable action of some preposterous creature who has nothing to gain and indeed gains nothing from causing us embarrassment, difficulties or harm. Nobody knows, understands or can possibly explain why that preposterous creature does what he does. In fact, there is no explanation—or better there is only one explanation: the person in question is stupid.”
And Cipolla laughs it away. If you think about it for a while, it is not something to be laughed away. Because what Cipolla is eluding to is something very fundamental. And one that all of us are susceptible to.
Imagine a situation where you are walking through the aisles of your workplace and you happen to listen in to your boss tell the people on the human resources team that your pay be raised by, say, Rs5,000. For no apparent reason. And it is not even appraisal time. Undoubtedly, you would be happy.
Now, imagine, yourself walking down the same aisle. But this time around you hear that your pay is to be deducted by Rs5,000? What happens to you? How do you feel?
In the first instance, the money has not come to you. In the second instance, the money has not been deducted from you. They were suggestions. What if they were pranks being played on you by somebody who had no better way to expend time?
In any case, the individual managed to grab your attention and wear you out. How much more stupid can you get? But this is also the beginning of the theory of loss aversion. And out of it emerged a startling discovery that has been deployed to great effect by marketers to manipulate our minds to part with money.
There are various studies that have documented around it—most notably by the neurobiologist Dean Buonomano in his book, Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape Our Lives.
In the recent brouhaha after demonetization, a lot of us went and signed up for e-wallets of all kinds. But did you consider this? All wallets are only as good as the network they operate in.
You deposited your monies there. It earns no interest for you, unlike it would in banks or even post offices. And you can use these networks only at places that accept them. I followed the herd and deposited some money in two e-wallets.
Many roadside vendors sport their stickers—including my chai wala. When I offered to pay him through the wallet, he said he doesn’t have it yet. I conducted an informal survey of vendors around the place I live in. Apparently, though many have the stickers they don’t have the systems in place. Some of those who do have yet to figure out how to operate it.
Who’s stupid? The vendors for allowing the e-wallet companies to plant stickers on their stalls to attract customers? People like me who loaded wallets up to ease life because we’ve run out of cash? Or e-wallet companies trying their damndest best to grow and incurring heavy expenses on advertising and putting into place an infrastructure that can meet demand?
As things are, I might be the stupidest of the lot, because my monies now lie with entities still scaling up and what I have on hand are IOU notes to vendors who don’t know what to do with them.
The Fourth Basic Law: Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular, non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake.
I have nothing else to ask here other than why is it that non-stupid people engage in stupid arguments on social media and with vocal anchors on prime-time television?
The Fifth Basic Law: A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.
A few weeks ago, I decided to sell my car. I bought it after falling in love with it. A Fiat Linea T Jet Plus. An automobile is one of those rare things I like to indulge in.
But like all Indian motorheads know, Fiat has been spluttering in the country for a long time now. Finding a decent service station for the vehicle is difficult and spares are expensive. But love is blind. My car has just got 50,000km to show on the odometer. By any yardstick, it is a new one. Save a few dents and scratches, not of my making, it drives like a dream.
Just when it had gotten out of a service station and after having spent a bomb to get it thoroughly overhauled, it ran into some niggling trouble. Try as I might, service centres weren’t in sight and most people seemed clueless on what the matter was. I lost my head and thought this baby has to get out of my way.
I zeroed in on two cars and listed my T-jet for sale. Both of these were multi utility vehicles (MUVs). Do I need an MUV? No. But at that moment, I could think up a few dozen reasons for it. All of which sounded perfectly rational to my angry mind.
I wasn’t listening to myself. I had chosen to listen in only to the voices that argued that Fiat is a lousy buy, the T-Jet is a lousy car and that I made a lousy decision. The earlier I get rid of it, the better of I am for it.
But in my anger, I had lost sight of the one community I always turned to for unbiased advice on automobiles. Team BHP. Strictly moderated by a bunch of automobile enthusiasts, sensible advice is always on offer. In a moment of sanity, I looked it up. And someplace, the student in me who likes economics pleaded I look up if there are any pointers on how to compute the total cost of ownership of a car.
Sure enough, a member had put up a spreadsheet to do just that. All I had to do was download it and input my variables. Not just that, I figured most Indians have a propensity to sell their cars when has done just about 50,000-60,000km. My car is built to do at least 150,000km. Members on the forum offered me pointers to places near where I live with names and numbers of reliable people who can get the job done for me without blowing a hole through my pocket. All of them were right.
I was the stupid one. In hindsight, this stupid part of me waived off my name off quite a few “do not call” registries. I am now pounded by calls from dealers at infrequent hours asking if I am interested in a new car. Not just them, finance companies want a pound of my flesh as well because they want to offer me loans before interest rates crash. My phone goes off when I want it to least.
Now imagine if this stupid part of me were to have gone ahead and made a new purchase, I’d have made an upfront payment of a few lakhs, gone in for a loan and have added an EMI to my kitty as well. Why?
Moral: The most stupid person I know of is me. And a stupid person is the most dangerous person.
Charles Assisi is co-founder of Founding Fuel Publishing.
His Twitter handle is @c_assisi
Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org