The Stupidity Quotient

The Stupidity Quotient


Intelligence is a familiar concept. We routinely evaluate other people in terms of how we perceive their intelligence, particularly relative to other people, and we have established a notion of the Intelligence Quotient, or IQ.

In the most popular IQ tests, the median score is set at 100, with standard deviations of 15.  This means that 95 percent of people have an IQ score between 70 and 130. According to the normal distribution standard bell curve, 2.5 percent of the population extends into intellectual giftedness on the high end (IQ above 130) and 2.5 percent extends into mental retardation on the low end (IQ below 70).

In recent decades, the idea has become popular of there being multiple forms of intelligence, in addition to a general measure of intelligence.  It was originally proposed in 1983 by Howard Gardner, a professor of education at Harvard University.  The concept is still a matter of considerable controversy.  Gardner’s list of the forms of multiple intelligences includes the following:

  • Verbal-linguistic intelligence (“word smart”)
  • Logical-mathematical intelligence (“number/reasoning smart”)
  • Visual-spatial intelligence (“picture smart”)
  • Musical-rhythmic and harmonic intelligence (“music smart”)
  • Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence (“body smart”)
  • Interpersonal intelligence (“people smart”)
  • Intrapersonal intelligence (“self smart”)
  • Naturalistic intelligence (“nature smart”)

Other multiple intelligences might be identified and added to the list in the future.  There is considerable attention these days to the idea of Emotional Intelligence, and a corresponding Emotional Intelligence Quotient, or EQ, has been proposed.  (It is likely that emotional intelligence is closely related to Gardner’s Interpersonal intelligence).

The idea of multiple intelligences seems validated by our everyday experience.  For example, someone can be brilliant with words but greatly challenged by mathematics, independent of their education.  Individuals’ behavior is clearly influenced by the profile of their multiple intelligences.  For example, those with high interpersonal intelligence will have different outcomes in interactions than those will low interpersonal intelligence.

Despite this understanding, in practice we still tend to evaluate intelligence using a single measure, the intelligence quotient or IQ.  Professor Gardner asserts that schools and the culture in general give most attention to linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence, relative to the other aspects of intelligence.  And it is clear that what is measured with IQ tests is associated with the Type 2 thinking described in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, even though much of our day-to-day actions are done using Type 1 thinking.


Clearly, we see people doing things that are not just unintelligent, but egregiously stupid.  We have all seen otherwise intelligent people doing actively stupid things.  And if we are honest, we have almost certainly observed ourselves occasionally doing something really stupid even though we think of ourselves as intelligent.  The unfortunate reality is that very high IQ people can act in extremely bone-headed ways.

As a result, I claim that we should simultaneously consider a parallel measure to the IQ, the Stupidity Quotient, or SQ.  I would expect that the SQ is distributed in a bell-shaped curve, somewhat similar to the IQ.  It would be an independent measure, basically orthogonal to the IQ.

The probability of a particular person being stupid seems to be independent of any other characteristic of that person.  There are stupid college professors. There are stupid people at Davos and at the UN General Assembly.  We tend to assume that certain people are intelligent based on superficial factors like their education level, job, or other traits we believe to be exclusive of stupidity. They aren’t.  A quote by the late Sydney Harris is apt: “The fatal mistake that most intelligent people make is assuming that a high degree of intelligence confers an equally high degree of judgment, when actually the correspondence between these is quite accidental. However, there is a high correlation between prejudice and ignorance.”

It is important to recognize that stupidity is not a single measure.  In particular, there are stupid errors of omission, and stupid errors of commission.  Some basic categories of stupidity include confident ignorance (foolhardiness); lack of control (impulsiveness, obsessive or addictive behavior); absent-mindedness; and lack of practicality.  Perhaps we will need to categorize multiple stupidities, in a manner similar to Gardner’s multiple intelligences.

In 1976 UC Berkeley professor Carlo M. Cipolla proposed the Golden Law of Stupidity: A stupid person is one who causes problems for others without any clear benefit to himself.

Cipolla’s proposal also introduced three other phenotypes that he says co-exist alongside stupidity in this form. First, there is the intelligent person, whose actions benefit both himself and others. Secondly there is the bandit, who benefits himself at others’ expense. And thirdly, there is the helpless person.  The latter’s actions allow others to enrich themselves at his own expense.


Note that non-stupid people aren’t consistent. Most of the time they act intelligently, occasionally they are selfish bandits, sporadically they act helplessly and get taken advantage of by others.  Sometimes they are a combination. In contrast, essentially stupid people tend to be consistent in their stupidity.

Stupid people are particularly dangerous because reasonable people find it difficult to understand unreasonable behavior.  It is possible to understand the thinking of a bandit, and see his logic in order to predict his actions and set up defenses against them.  But you have no rational way of seeing the motives of a stupid person and anticipate what, when, where, and how the stupid person will act in a way to cause you problems.

High SQ Actions

High SQ actions can occur at many different levels.  Most of the time we observe these actions at the individual level.  Some examples of high SQ actions include the following:

  • Texting while driving
  • Gambling with money one can’t afford to lose
  • Taking up smoking
  • Running up credit card debt without a prospect of paying it off
  • Going uninsured when exposed to significant risk
  • Taking out huge student loans in preparation for a low-paying career
  • Owning large numbers of guns
  • Putting anything on social media or the Internet in general that can be expected to embarrass one in the future (see: sexting)
  • Buying at the peak of the market and selling at the bottom
  • Doing day trading as an amateur (stocks, bonds, commodities, currencies, etc.)
  • Making important decisions based on one’s sun sign horoscope in the newspaper
  • Thinking that one won’t get caught (particularly true of people in high places, such as politicians)

Some high SQ actions are the result of simple carelessness:

  • Hitting Reply All when intending to send something snarky to a single recipient

Then there are high SQ beliefs:

  • Believing that the earth is flat
  • Believing that the moon landings were faked
  • Believing that chemtrails are real
  • Believing that climate change is a hoax
  • Believing that AIDS was engineered by the government

Following are a few examples of high SQ actions at an institutional level:

  • Oil companies continuing to drill for oil when the price has gone negative (producers have to pay to store oil they can’t sell)
  • Boeing continuing to produce 737MAX airliners when no passenger will fly on one
  • Kodak inventing the digital camera but ignoring that market and remaining committed to film until going out of business

Finally here are some examples of high SQ actions at a national level:

  • Starting wars the nation cannot win
  • Borrowing more money in order to pay interest on existing debt
  • Giving tax incentives to industries to move their production capacity to other countries
  • Convincing banks that, no matter what they do, they will be bailed out by the public
  • Instituting negative interest rates
  • Indefinitely deferring maintenance on critical infrastructure until it collapses

It looks to me like the course of one’s life has much to do with the one’s IQ minus one’s SQ.  Life goes well if one has a relatively high IQ and an average or relatively low SQ.  An average or low IQ and a relatively high SQ is likely to make things much more difficult.

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