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An Allegory of Folly (early 16th century) by Quentin Matsys

Stupidity is a lack of intelligence, understanding, reason, or wit. It may be innate, assumed or reactive. The word stupid comes from the Latin word stupere. Stupid characters are often used for comedy in fictional stories. Walter B. Pitkin called stupidity "evil", but in a more Romantic spirit William Blake and Carl Jung believed stupidity can be the mother of wisdom.


Engraving after Pieter Breughel the Elder, 1556. caption: Al rijst den esele ter scholen om leeren, ist eenen esele hij en zal gheen peert weder keeren ("Even if the Ass travels to school to learn, as a horse he will not return")

The root word stupid,[1] which can serve as an adjective or noun, comes from the Latin verb stupere, for being numb or astonished, and is related to stupor.[2] In Roman culture, the stupidus was the professional fall guy in the theatrical mimes.[3]

According to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, the words "stupid" and "stupidity" entered the English language in 1541. Since then, stupidity has taken place along with "fool," "idiot," "dumb," "moron," and related concepts as a pejorative for misdeeds, whether purposeful or accidental, due to absence of mental capacity.


Stupidity is a quality or state of being stupid, or an act or idea that exhibits properties of being stupid.[4] In a character study of "The Stupid Man" attributed to the Greek philosopher Theophrastus (c. 371 – c. 287 BC), stupidity was defined as "mental slowness in speech or action". The modern English word "stupid" has a broad range of application, from being slow of mind (indicating a lack of intelligence, care or reason), dullness of feeling or sensation (torpidity, senseless, insensitivity), or lacking interest or point (vexing, exasperating). It can either imply a congenital lack of capacity for reasoning, or a temporary state of daze, or slow-mindedness.

In Understanding Stupidity, James F. Welles defines stupidity this way: "The term may be used to designate a mentality which is considered to be informed, deliberate and maladaptive." Welles distinguishes stupidity from ignorance; where stupidity means one must know they are acting in their own worst interest in that it must be a choice, not a forced act or accident. Lastly, it requires the activity to be maladaptive, in that it is in the worst interest of the actor, and specifically done to prevent adaption to new data or existing circumstances."[5]

Playing stupid

Eric Berne described the game of "Stupid" as having "the thesis...'I laugh with you at my own clumsiness and stupidity.'"[6] He points out that the player has the advantage of lowering other people's expectations, and so evading responsibility and work; but that he or she may still come through under pressure, like the proverbially stupid younger son.[7]

Wilfred Bion considered that psychological projection created a barrier against learning anything new, and thus its own form of pseudo-stupidity.[8]

Intellectual stupidity

Otto Fenichel maintained that "quite a percentage of so-called feeble-mindedness turns out to be pseudo-debility, conditioned by inhibition ... Every intellect begins to show weakness when affective motives are working against it".[9] He suggests that "people become stupid ad hoc, that is, when they do not want to understand, where understanding would cause anxiety or guilt feeling, or would endanger an existing neurotic equilibrium."[10]

In rather different fashion, Doris Lessing argued that "there is no fool like an intellectual ... a kind of clever stupidity, bred out of a line of logic in the head, nothing to do with experience."[11]

Persisting in folly

In the Romantic reaction to Enlightenment wisdom, a valorisation of the irrational, the foolish, and the stupid emerged, as in William Blake's dictum that "if the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise";[12] or Jung's belief that "it requires no art to become stupid; the whole art lies in extracting wisdom from stupidity. Stupidity is the mother of the wise, but cleverness never."[13]

Similarly, Michel Foucault argued for the necessity of stupidity to re-connect with what our articulate categories exclude, to recapture the alterity of difference.[14]

In culture

A stereotyped image of American stupidity (later claimed by MAD Magazine to become Alfred E. Neuman), used in an editorial critical of abolishing the poll tax in the American South, with a caption showing the person wants to vote but is too ignorant to understand what voting means

In comedy

The fool or buffoon has been a central character in much comedy. Alford and Alford found that humor based on stupidity was prevalent in "more complex" societies as compared to some other forms of humor.[15] Some analysis of Shakespeare's comedy has found that his characters tend to hold mutually contradictory positions; because this implies a lack of careful analysis it indicates stupidity on their part.[16]

Today there is a wide array of television shows that showcase stupidity such as The Simpsons.[17] Goofball comedy is a class of naive, zany humour typified by actor Leslie Nielsen.[18][19]

In literature

In his book A Short Introduction to the History of Stupidity (1932), Walter B. Pitkin wrote:

Stupidity can easily be proved the supreme Social Evil. Three factors combine to establish it as such. First and foremost, the number of stupid people is legion. Secondly, most of the power in business, finance, diplomacy and politics is in the hands of more or less stupid individuals. Finally, high abilities are often linked with serious stupidity.[20]

According to In Search of Stupidity: Over Twenty Years of High Tech Marketing Disasters (2003) by Merrill R. Chapman:

The claim that high-tech companies are constantly running into 'new' and 'unique' situations that they cannot possibly be expected to anticipate and intelligently resolve is demonstrably false ... The truth is that technology companies are constantly repeating the same mistakes with wearying consistency ... and many of the stupid things these companies do are completely avoidable.

"While In Search of Excellence turned out to be a fraud, In Search of Stupidity is genuine, and no names have been changed to protect the guilty", according to one reviewer.[21]

In film

Stupidity was a 2003 movie directed by Albert Nerenberg.[22] It depicted examples and analyses of stupidity in modern society and media, and sought "to explore the prospect that willful ignorance has increasingly become a strategy for success in the realms of politics and entertainment."[23]

Idiocracy, a Mike Judge film from 2006, explored a dystopian future America where a person of average IQ is cryogenically frozen and wakes up 500 years later to find that mankind, increasingly dependent on technology built by previous generations that it does not properly maintain or understand, has regressed in intelligence to the standards of current-era mental retardation, and that he has become the de facto smartest person on Earth. Americans have become so stupid that society faces famine and collapse, and according to Pete Vonder Haar of Film Threat, "...each laugh is tempered with the unsettling realization that [Judge's] vision of mankind's future might not be too far off the mark."[24]

See also


  1. ^ "stupid". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 2009-01-18.
  2. ^ "stupor". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 2009-01-18.
  3. ^ Juvenal: The Sixteen Satires, translated by Peter Green, Penguin, 1982, p. 126
  4. ^ "stupidity". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 18 January 2009.
  5. ^ James F. Welles, Ph. D. "Understanding Stupidity". Archived from the original on August 24, 2011. Retrieved June 7, 2011.
  6. ^ Eric Berne, Games People Play (Penguin 1968) p. 138
  7. ^ Berne, p. 138-9
  8. ^ Salman Akhtar, Comprehensive Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (2010) "Arrogance"
  9. ^ Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (London 1946) p. 180
  10. ^ Fenichel, p. 181
  11. ^ Doris Lessing, Under my Skin (London 1994) p. 122
  12. ^ William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (London 1927) p. 7
  13. ^ C. G. Jung, Alchemical Studies (1978) p. 180
  14. ^ Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice (1980) p. 188–90
  15. ^ Finnegan Alford; Richard Alford. A Holo-Cultural Study of Humor. Ethos 9(2), pg 149–164.
  16. ^ N Frye. A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance. Columbia University Press, 1995.
  17. ^ R Hobbs. The Simpsons Meet Mark Twain: Analyzing Popular Media Texts in the Classroom. The English Journal, 1998.
  18. ^ Canadian Press (29 November 2010). "'The Naked Gun' actor Leslie Nielsen dies in Florida hospital at age 84". CP24 – Toronto's Breaking News. Bell Media. Retrieved 22 June 2012. Leslie's huge heart and fierce intelligence defined goofball comedy and he was its undisputed master.[permanent dead link]Paul Gross.
  19. ^ Once More to the Well of Goofball Comedy, New York Times
  20. ^ Pitkin, Walter B. (1932). A Short Introduction to the History of Stupidity. New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 6. OCLC 530002.
  21. ^ "In Search of Stupidity, over 20 years of high-tech marketing disasters". 2005-05-10. Retrieved 2012-11-07.
  22. ^ "Stupidity". Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  23. ^ "Stupidity (2003)". Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  24. ^ "Idiocracy (2006)". Retrieved July 24, 2017.

Further reading

External links