To harness our best selves, “Temper your empathy, train your compassion, and avoid the news”

In the nov­el Lord of the Flies, a group of young boys are ship­wrecked on an island and even­tu­al­ly turn sav­age­ly against each oth­er. The book is a cau­tion­ary tale about humanity’s under­ly­ing cru­el­ty and the need for civ­i­liza­tion to tame our dark­er impulses—a mes­sage that res­onates with many peo­ple today.

But that’s not what hap­pened to a real-life group of ship­wrecked kids in 1965. Unlike the fic­tion­al Lord of the Flies char­ac­ters, they devel­oped a game plan for sur­vival that was coop­er­a­tive, fun, and peace­ful, result­ing in life­long friendships.

In oth­er words, the boys didn’t turn into dev­ils when left on their own—far from it!

Dutch his­to­ri­an Rut­ger Breg­man recounts this sto­ry in his new book Humankind: A Hope­ful His­to­ry, argu­ing against the Lord of the Flies’s unrea­son­ably dim pic­ture of human­i­ty. The key mes­sage in Bregman’s book is that humans are basi­cal­ly good, when left to their own devices.

That’s not to say there aren’t char­ac­ters who will act bad­ly, espe­cial­ly if encour­aged (or manip­u­lat­ed) to do so or when under duress. But the vast major­i­ty of us are hap­py to work togeth­er coop­er­a­tive­ly. This, he writes, is the only pos­si­ble con­clu­sion to make from the sci­en­tif­ic and his­tor­i­cal evidence.

And, he argues, it’s some­thing we des­per­ate­ly need to under­stand if we want to work togeth­er toward cre­at­ing a bet­ter soci­ety for all.

How we get it wrong

Some of the most famous evi­dence for our pes­simistic view of human nature comes from the Stan­ford Prison Exper­i­ment done by Philip Zim­bar­do in the ear­ly 1970s. In this exper­i­ment, Zim­bar­do brought stu­dents into a lab and had them act out roles as pris­on­ers and guards. Soon the exper­i­ment turned sour, as guards began act­ing too harsh­ly toward pris­on­ers, and it had to be shut down.

The exper­i­menters con­clud­ed that peo­ple are sadis­tic under­neath veneers of nor­mal­cy and can eas­i­ly be manip­u­lat­ed to do harm. But Breg­man points out that the results came about because the “guards” were encour­aged from the start to be harsh toward “pris­on­ers.” By enact­ing their roles, they thought they were con­tribut­ing to science—a kind and help­ful intent. Also, one stu­dent “pris­on­er” in the exper­i­ment, who sup­pos­ed­ly “broke down” and had to be removed, con­fessed to fak­ing his hys­te­ria in order to get back to study­ing. The whole study and its con­clu­sions were misrepresented.

What’s fas­ci­nat­ing is that most guards in the Stan­ford Prison Exper­i­ment remained hes­i­tant to apply ‘tough tac­tics’ at all, even under mount­ing pres­sure,” writes Breg­man. In fact, a lat­er “prison exper­i­ment” mount­ed by the BBC, where guards were not told what to do, had very dif­fer­ent results. The guards soon became reluc­tant to take on their author­i­tar­i­an roles and became friend­ly with “pris­on­ers” instead.

Actu­al­ly, research sug­gests that peo­ple are quite unwill­ing to harm others—even in war situations—without strong coer­cion, which explains why leav­ing peo­ple to their own devices would pro­duce dif­fer­ent results.

Breg­man takes read­ers through many exper­i­ments and events that seem to point to our flawed natures, and debunks them one by one. For exam­ple, we learn that the famous sto­ry about Kit­ty Genovese—a woman who was bru­tal­ly raped and mur­dered in Queens, New York, while neigh­bors sup­pos­ed­ly did noth­ing to help—is large­ly fic­tion, per­pet­u­at­ed by the New York Times cov­er­age of her death. It turns out that the Times’s claim about 37 heart­less bystanders was false, and peo­ple did come to her aid, includ­ing a neigh­bor who held her while wait­ing for an ambu­lance to arrive.

Still, this sto­ry of uncon­cerned bystanders is retold over and over as proof of human indif­fer­ence and, like the Stan­ford Prison Exper­i­ment, graces many social psy­chol­o­gy text­books. There­in lies the problem.

Why does it matter?

The dan­ger in con­tin­u­ing to repeat false con­clu­sions from flawed research is that it feeds a nar­ra­tive that doesn’t serve us. Peo­ple hear­ing these find­ings start to believe that sadists lurk among us and they can’t trust oth­ers, when most of the time they can. It also sup­ports the idea that only through strict social con­trol from on high—dictatorships or police states, for example—can we stop our com­mu­ni­ties from devolv­ing into chaos.

Accord­ing to Breg­man, it’s impor­tant to under­stand that our true nature is (most­ly) good, because it can encour­age us to cre­ate insti­tu­tions with less hier­ar­chi­cal struc­tures and less sti­fling lead­er­ship. And these ways of orga­niz­ing our­selves can have bet­ter outcomes.

For exam­ple, he high­lights the home nurs­ing pro­gram Buurt­zorg, cre­at­ed first in the Nether­lands, in which nurs­es cut out the man­age­ment and cre­at­ed a coop­er­a­tive that has been cost-effec­tive and pro­vides bet­ter patient care. He men­tions city gov­ern­ments in Brazil that enact­ed pub­lic bud­get­ing processes—where cit­i­zens had more say in how city funds were spent—that result­ed in more health care spend­ing, few­er infant deaths, and more civic engage­ment. And, he writes, schools that are less puni­tive and more coop­er­a­tive, and allow stu­dents to be more in charge of their edu­ca­tion, help improve stu­dents’ intrin­sic motivation—one of the most impor­tant fac­tors for learning.

The “tragedy of the commons”—the idea that pub­lic resources shared by many (like air, water, and land) can be deplet­ed if peo­ple use them in a self-inter­est­ed way—has long been an influ­en­tial idea in eco­nom­ics. But Breg­man points to the work of Eli­nor Ostrom, the Nobel Prize–winning econ­o­mist, who stud­ied how peo­ple around the world actu­al­ly man­age the com­mons when left to their own devices. Her research paved the way for under­stand­ing that once cer­tain ele­ments are present, peo­ple act coop­er­a­tive­ly and don’t require social control—a find­ing that res­onates with many econ­o­mists today.

This pos­i­tive view of human nature can inform us about how police should han­dle crime pre­ven­tion and prison reform, too, writes Breg­man. Too often peo­ple believe that get­ting “tough on crime” and giv­ing harsh prison sen­tences are what lead to crime reduc­tion. But, Breg­man argues, police depart­ments that fol­low tough-on-crime tac­tics (like arrest­ing peo­ple for minor vio­la­tions) increase incar­cer­a­tion rates with­out reduc­ing crime. Mean­while, pris­ons that treat their pris­on­ers humanely—by keep­ing sen­tences short and focus­ing on cre­at­ing a more nat­ur­al, com­mu­ni­ty-based sys­tem inside the walls of the prison—prevent more crime and recidi­vism and are more cost-effec­tive than those that don’t.

The book is full of oth­er fas­ci­nat­ing exam­ples of places and pro­grams being remade based on human good­ness and trust. Bregman’s take-home mes­sage is that our bet­ter nature will win out, if we can only rec­og­nize its ubiquity.

That means rec­og­niz­ing the poten­tial for good­ness in every­one, even groups of peo­ple who look, think, or act dif­fer­ent­ly from us whom we might be prej­u­diced against. One way to do so, research sug­gests, is to work on build­ing pos­i­tive con­tact across groups—like friend­ships and coop­er­a­tive work relationships—that will increase our trust for others.

Breg­man lists sev­er­al oth­er tips at the end of his book that peo­ple can use to see the good­ness in humanity—things like “When in doubt, trust first,” “Tem­per your empa­thy, train your com­pas­sion,” and “Avoid the news.” If we take the view that we are born to be good, we can make a soci­ety that is fair­er and freer for all, he says. That doesn’t take opti­mism; it just takes pay­ing atten­tion to sci­ence and experience.

To believe that peo­ple are hard­wired to be kind isn’t sen­ti­men­tal or naïve. On the con­trary, it’s coura­geous and real­is­tic to believe in peace and for­give­ness,” he writes.

— Jill Sut­tie, Psy.D., is Greater Good‘s  book review edi­tor and a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to the mag­a­zine. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

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  1. Mary Binney on September 7, 2020 at 4:51

    Loved it!

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