Human Nature

We’re Not as Selfish as Economists Think We Are. Here’s the Proof.

Why the pessimism about human nature is unwarrented

Share with your friends

More share buttons
Share on Pinterest

By George Monbiot

Do you find yourself thrashing against the tide of human indifference and selfishness? Are you oppressed by the sense that while you care, others don’t? That, because of humankind’s callousness, civilisation and the rest of life on Earth are basically stuffed? If so, you are not alone. But neither are you right.

A study by the Common Cause Foundation, due to be published next month, reveals two transformative findings. The first is that a large majority of the 1,000 people they surveyed – 74% – identifies more strongly with unselfish values than with selfish values. This means that they are more interested in helpfulness, honesty, forgiveness and justice than in money, fame, status and power. The second is that a similar majority – 78% – believes others to be more selfish than they really are. In other words, we have made a terrible mistake about other people’s minds.

Whatever happened to trust?

The revelation that humanity’s dominant characteristic is, er, humanity will come as no surprise to those who have followed recent developments in behavioural and social sciences. People, these findings suggest, are basically and inherently nice.

A review article in the journal Frontiers in Psychology points out that our behaviour towards unrelated members of our species is “spectacularly unusual when compared to other animals”. While chimpanzees might share food with members of their own group, though usually only after being plagued by aggressive begging, they tend to react violently towards strangers. Chimpanzees, the authors note, behave more like the homo economicus of neoliberal mythology than people do.

Humans, by contrast, are ultrasocial: possessed of an enhanced capacity for empathy, an unparalleled sensitivity to the needs of others, a unique level of concern about their welfare, and an ability to create moral norms that generalise and enforce these tendencies.

Such traits emerge so early in our lives that they appear to be innate. In other words, it seems that we have evolved to be this way. By the age of 14 months, children begin to help each other, for example by handing over objects another child can’t reach. By the time they are two, they start sharing things they value. By the age of three, they start to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

A fascinating paper in the journal Infancy reveals that reward has nothing to do with it. Three- to five-year-olds are less likely to help someone a second time if they have been rewarded for doing it the first time. In other words, extrinsic rewards appear to undermine the intrinsic desire to help. (Parents, economists and government ministers, please note.) The study also discovered that children of this age are more inclined to help people if they perceive them to be suffering, and that they want to see someone helped whether or not they do it themselves. This suggests that they are motivated by a genuine concern for other people’s welfare, rather than by a desire to look good.

Why? How would the hard logic of evolution produce such outcomes? This is the subject of heated debate. One school of thought contends that altruism is a logical response to living in small groups of closely related people, and evolution has failed to catch up with the fact that we now live in large groups, mostly composed of strangers.

Another argues that large groups containing high numbers of altruists will outcompete large groups which contain high numbers of selfish people. A third hypothesis insists that a tendency towards collaboration enhances your own survival, regardless of the group in which you might find yourself. Whatever the mechanism might be, the outcome should be a cause of celebration.

So why do we retain such a dim view of human nature? Partly, perhaps, for historical reasons. Philosophers from Hobbes to Rousseau, Malthus to Schopenhauer, whose understanding of human evolution was limited to the Book of Genesis, produced persuasive, influential and catastrophically mistaken accounts of “the state of nature” (our innate, ancestral characteristics). Their speculations on this subject should long ago have been parked on a high shelf marked “historical curiosities”. But somehow they still seem to exert a grip on our minds.

Another problem is that – almost by definition – many of those who dominate public life have a peculiar fixation on fame, money and power. Their extreme self-centredness places them in a small minority, but, because we see them everywhere, we assume that they are representative of humanity.

The media worships wealth and power, and sometimes launches furious attacks on people who behave altruistically. In the Daily Mail last month, Richard Littlejohn described Yvette Cooper’s decision to open her home to refugees as proof that “noisy emoting has replaced quiet intelligence” (quiet intelligence being one of his defining qualities). “It’s all about political opportunism and humanitarian posturing,” he theorised, before boasting that he doesn’t “give a damn” about the suffering of people fleeing Syria. I note with interest the platform given to people who speak and write as if they are psychopaths.

Our better selves are bold and inclusive

The effects of an undue pessimism about human nature are momentous. As the foundation’s survey and interviews reveal, those who have the bleakest view of humanity are the least likely to vote. What’s the point, they reason, if everyone else votes only in their own selfish interests? Interestingly, and alarmingly for people of my political persuasion, it also discovered that liberals tend to possess a dimmer view of other people than conservatives do. Do you want to grow the electorate? Do you want progressive politics to flourish? Then spread the word that other people are broadly well-intentioned.

Misanthropy grants a free pass to the grasping, power-mad minority who tend to dominate our political systems. If only we knew how unusual they are, we might be more inclined to shun them and seek better leaders. It contributes to the real danger we confront: not a general selfishness, but a general passivity. Billions of decent people tut and shake their heads as the world burns, immobilised by the conviction that no one else cares.

You are not alone. The world is with you, even if it has not found its voice.

Originally published here with permission from the author.

2016 June 25

Donating = Changing Economics. And Changing the World.

Evonomics is free, it’s a labor of love, and it's an expense. We spend hundreds of hours and lots of dollars each month creating, curating, and promoting content that drives the next evolution of economics. If you're like us — if you think there’s a key leverage point here for making the world a better place — please consider donating. We’ll use your donation to deliver even more game-changing content, and to spread the word about that content to influential thinkers far and wide.

 $3 / month
 $7 / month
 $10 / month
 $25 / month

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.

If you liked this article, you'll also like these other Evonomics articles...


We welcome you to take part in the next evolution of economics. Sign up now to be kept in the loop!

  • JeffMowatt

    When the FTSE took a dive on Friday, I thought of the words of Pope Francis pointing out that a fall in stock markets was more tragic than the fate of those disposed of as if they were trash. There are other perspectives

  • Jim Hultman

    As long as it’s only “BELIEF,” so what!

  • ari9999

    1. Like the author, I prefer to believe that people tend toward pro-social behavior and that they do so for evolutionary reasons. In fact, I’ve written about it. However, the author says, “almost by definition…many of those who dominate public life have a peculiar fixation on fame, money and power.” Peculiar indeed. He does not explain how this seeming anomaly fits with the overall thesis.

    2. If we are so darn nice (again, I tend to agree with this view), how do we end up with many platforms “given to people who speak and write as if they are psychopaths”? While the author “notes with interest” this phenomenon, he doesn’t try to account for it.

    3. He seems to characterize cultural behavior as human nature — though, to his credit, he does cover his bets: “Such traits emerge so early in our lives that they appear to be innate.” Appear to be. If the author were to cite cross-cultural studies exploring these behaviors, it could be even more fascinating and perhaps convincing.

    • Helga Vierich

      See the work of Paul Piff, showing that it is having wealth and power that tends to distort the behaviour of humans – this is especially bad in complex highly stratified societies. This is not some genetic thing, although there may indeed by some aspects of such societies that make it easier for sociopaths to thrive. Among the hunter-gatherers I studied some years ago (a people calling themselves “Kua” and living in the Kalahari) children were not coerced nor permitted to coerce each other, and selfish manipulation of others was also ver much frowned on. Even generosity had to be carefully tempered; too many gifts were seen as deliberate ploys to put another in your debt.

      Fear and pain due to bullying and put-downs were very often deterrents to fun and adventure during my own childhood experiences of playing with other children. This was NOT evident in the lives of the children of foragers. They seemed to have a much bigger network of relationships with other children, networks where they were safe.

      [Among foragers], even a kid who was inclined to be greedy and mean soon learned to control these impulses, since just about every little slip-up would be gossiped about over thousands of square miles and would influence how hundreds of other people would talk about him. And who wanted to be seen as “other” than someone everyone liked? So the role modeling among foragers was about being a gentle, humorous, being, who extended around themselves a kind of “safety zone” for others.

      • ari9999

        Thanks for sharing these observations! I don’t recall the Kua, but did read classic studies of hunter-gatherers in my undergraduate days, a loooong time ago.

        So much of what most people think of as “human nature” turns out to be culturally determined.

        From what you say of your childhood, I can see why the Kua in particular left an indelible impression. It reminds me of the San people depicted in “The Gods Must Be Crazy” (the 1980 original, not sequels) by the late Jamie Uys.

        I wonder what underpinnings might support Kua-like cultural dynamics in modern society — if it’s remotely possible, not a given!

  • chris goodwin

    “Do you want progressive politix to flourish ?” you ask. By no means. I quite like some bits of “progress” – say penicillin, or mobile phones, or anæsthetics, but none of these bits of progress were political: they were economic: the things flourished because there was a need for them. But, applied to politix, “progressive” seems to mean, “Everybody come over here, and learn this, and do that now, and stop doing what you used to do, because WE KNOW BETTER” – a claim frequently made, and almost never justifiably. The political progressive is usually an arrogant ignoramus, (*) but he has POWER – power to push ever more malinvestment. Market forces allow new things to thrive, IFF they are good enough.

    (* present company excepted, of course.)

  • Berend Pijlman

    Evolutionary speaking it makes sense that humans are intrinsically ultruistic. Humans are not on the top of the foodchain because we are so strong. So why have we been (and still are) on the top of the foodchain? Because we cooperate. Humans also tend to specialize. So if someone of the group is in disstress others will try to help him because he might be the only one who can make spears, bows or arrows. So it’s in the survival of the groups interest that everybody within the group survives. Groups who weren’t able to cooperate didn’t survive so their genes were not passed through to a new generation.
    In todays society we can handle our day-to-day survival individually. On a broader scale though we are still specialized and we need eachother for survival. We are becoming one great group of humans and are losing our best defense machanism. Evolutionary speaking this makes us weak. I can see how other organisms (virus or bacteria) will take advantage of our egocentrism.

  • Helga Vierich

    Machiavelli , and later, Thomas Hobbes saw humans as basically self-centered. Hobbes is famous for his description of man in a “state of nature” (without the political authority of the Leviathan (the state) to control human behavior) as “nasty, brutish and short”. This, essentially, justifies the role of elites, like princes and kings, emperors, elected governments and unelected wealthy elites, and indeed, the more abstract entity we call the “nation state”. The guidance of these institutions leaders, in whatever guise, is widely considered instrumental in improving human lives, presumably making them less nasty, less brutish and considerably longer. Thus, putting fear of hellfire, imprisonment, execution or huge lawsuits into the citizenry is seen as a necessary evil.

    Hobbes formulation took a darker view of human nature than did most Greek philosophers, who had ascribed to the nature of humanity at least some noble qualities, but all of these ideas still bend the evidence in support of the firm hand of state control. The fact that state systems involve subjugating the vast majority of citizens to the authority of a small elite, troubled Hobbes no more than it did Aristotle or Plato. Hobbes merely made it plain that it was for their own good, a point of view much in keeping with the views of Steven Pinker.

    Consider again the context out of which these ideas emerged. Ever since the earliest states were formed, people have sought to justify political authority and social stratification by means of ideas about human nature.

    Why? It was not just poor information; it was deliberate and political. By the time of Plato and Aristotle, population densities had grown to the point where fallow periods were very short, necessitating a shift to manure and crop rotation, and use of the plough to grow cereals, the invention of the wheel, and so on. Many of the forests of the region had been cleared, and erosion was becoming a problem.

    A new dynamic had emerged over a thousand years earlier, whereby expanding cities required increasing building material and farmland in a ring expanding outward from each city-state. As is the case today, this extractive expansion often displaced tribal people by means of force and violence.

    There was increasing socio-economic stratification, and emergence of permanent leadership positions paved the way to the institutionalization of a ruling class. What began with alliances between related villages for mutual aid during famines, became necessary submission to stronger centers during violent conflicts, and led eventually to the consolidation of kingdoms and the development of city-states. At the bottom of the socio-economic hierarchy there were now people whose access to resources, was, by definition, dependent upon the social contract between the governed and their rulers. the Leviathan was born of this. and it was born with a twin: “ “inaequalitas”- that is latin for inequality… a class system. Health, life expectancy, cognitive function, and stature were all more or less scaled along these emerging gradients of class.

    The notion that position in social hierarchy was justified by one’s merit brought some comfort (at least to those on top). These self-affirmation biases that Piff explores in his research maybe an Achilles heel of human nature.

    So belonging to a superior Leviathan was encouraged… even if you were a poor Roman citizen, you were still superior to those barbaric Gauls and Germans. Indeed, disparagement, even outright slander, of people who lived in very different economies, and often experienced mainly through second hand accounts, was commonplace in Greek and Biblical accounts. . Systems of ideology thus developed to rationalize: ideas about the superiority of one’s own society prevail, and reified ascribed social status as biological determined; the rulers had “blue blood” or divine ancestors.

    The accounts written by early explorers about these early contacts with Native Americans inspired Jean-Jacques Rousseau to question Hobbes’ doctrines, giving rise to ideas about how even savages could be noble, reminiscent of the way the Roman historian Tacitus described the tribes of Germania. Within a short time, of course, the “savages” had been devastated by epidemics of disease brought by the Europeans, and overcome by military force in many cases, and so ideas about European superiority, especially the happy idea that the nation state (especially if well governed) was a superior form of society, and an vast improvement on man “in a state of nature”, were in the ascendant again.

    So it is hardly surprising that John Locke. (Second Treatise on Government ) returned to this comfortable view. All this philosophical musing becomes a way of articulating, again and again, the rationalization inherent in a system of fundamental socio-economic inequality.

    It is political, and it is deliberate: poorer classes, like poorly organized and materially less elaborated cultures, (the hunter-gatherers, the tribal herders and slash and burn “shifting” horticultural peoples) must consist of intellectual inferiors. In this view, the peasantry, like the tribal savages and barbarians, were much better off if they were brought under the administration of a smarter class of persons. Those whose musings took them in the opposite direction did not enjoy accolades and approval by the ruling classes: just look at the hornet’s nest stirred up by Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels.. or much of modern anthropology!

    By assuming that there is some intellectual inferiority – or sheer isolation – that accounts for those people that have not “progressed” and thus STILL practicing a “primitive” economy resembling that of the Stone Age, modern scholars are still unable to shake off the pre-enlightenment philosophical rationalizations for inequality. So we get the remarkable persistence of ideas that the poor are poor by reason of genetic inferiority. This is evident even recently in Nicolas Wade’s “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History”. It is also implicit in the contention by Wilmsen and Denbow (Current Anthropology Vol. 31, No. 5, Dec., 1990) that Kalahari hunter-gatherers were little more than an underclass of beggars at the bottom of a political order imposed b Botswana chiefdoms. As if to say that any forager would naturally see farming as a superior economy and abject dependency on an agricultural economy as preferable to the hard and hungry life of the hunter-gatherer… Well actually, the people I lived with in the Kalahari, foragers within a few hours of the heart of the new capital of Botswana, proved by their persistence and health, that the opposite was true.

    Just how so embedded is the myth of progress? So deeply embedded, as to be impervious to voluntary change even in the light of data calling them into question? Are these the kind of assumptions, which, if they are to change, require the functional equivalent of a conversion experience?

    I suspect that they are. And the same is true of assumptions that humans are innately selfish and strive for personal “power”.

    Human children react with frustration and anger when they are faced with injustice, and even very small babies will react aggressively when frightened and under stress. This suggests that these are normal evolved responses, an emotional reactivity that arises from our long exposure to selection pressure in favor of vigorous egalitarian tendencies. There might be a link between the aggressive explorative behavior of two year olds and the feelings that fuel courage and resistance in the face of bullying or tyrannical unfairness in adult life. What if the “egalitarian” syndrome involved the more pronounced childhood tantrums and temper tantrums? Perhaps this is why parenting and other adult supervision is so vital in young children. Humans are not born bad or good – they are born and develop with very strong reactions to certain kinds of interactions with others. Young animals tend to learn to control serious aggression during play fighting.. this is how they learn to be social. In fact in rats, it appears that the more play fighting they have as youngsters, the better social skills they will develop. Female rats even appear to have a strong preference for male rats that have had a puppyhood full of social play.

    Most social animals play fight as youngsters, and in higher primates, there is play fighting between individuals of different ages, even between adults. Play-fighting may be critical in helping children control their own aggressive impulses. Without this, or when the child’s own aggression is met with painful punishment from an older person, then they learn to use aggression to dominate others. This can lead a child to become more violent rather than less so as they grow up.

    Physical punishment, especially harsh punishment, appears to interfere with the child learning to regulate his own rage. Most violent juveniles and adult violent criminals have a long history of aggressive behavior, and many have been severely punished, shaken, and exposed to fighting and violence as small children.

    So, children, born to be pro-social, just, brave, loving, trusting, kind, helpful, and generous, can be turned into selfish, nasty, destructive, hate filled, and even cruel creatures with no capacity to love or empathy. All it takes is a cultural system that teaches that giving pain is a sign of love, that morality must be punitive and unyielding, and that transgressions of even the most minor kinds are to be met with the most ferocious of punishments. All infants learn what is “moral” – socially acceptable – and are quick to learn to reject and even punish transgressors. There are entire cultures that have incorporated methods of childrearing and systems of morality that make it necessary to be inhumane to be accepted by the in-group, to be “safe”. We need to start calling these practices out. For a hair-raising report on this kind of cultural pattern, read this:

    “To understand how attitudes could be so vastly different across cultures, I started working with the anthropologist Alan Fiske at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Together, we analysed violent practices across cultures and history. We examined records of war, torture, genocide, honour killing, animal and human sacrifice, homicide, suicide, intimate-partner violence, rape, corporal punishment, execution, trial by combat, police brutality, hazing, castration, duelling, feuding, contact sports, and the violence immortalised by gods and heroes, and more. We combed through first-person accounts, ethnographic observations, historical analyses, demographic data, and experimental investigations of violence.

    The work was, frankly, depressing. No one wants to read about all the terrible atrocities that people commit. But it was also fruitful. We did in fact find a pattern in all the violence. There was a unifying theme, with all the predictive and explanatory power one could wish for.

    Across practices, across cultures, and throughout historical periods, when people support and engage in violence, their primary motivations are moral. By ‘moral’, I mean that people are violent because they feel they must be; because they feel that their violence is obligatory. They know that they are harming fully human beings. Nonetheless, they believe they should. Violence does not stem from a psychopathic lack of morality. Quite the reverse: it comes from the exercise of perceived moral rights and obligations.”

    — Rai and Fiske have also published a book on this subject, ‘Virtuous Violence: Hurting and Killing to Create, Sustain, End, and Honor Social Relationships’

    No wonder the elite of the industrial world seem to want to maintain the fiction that this kind of cultural pattern of inhumanity and cruelty to “human nature” It gets worse. It turns out that children who have been exposed to violence, even if not personally abused, may be more likely to be violent as adults.

    “We need to think of violence itself as a communicable disease. We have kids growing up exposed to terrible trauma. We did a study some years ago, looking at [violence risk] among people with serious mental illness. The three risk factors we found were most important: first, a history of violent victimization early in life, second, substance abuse, and the third is exposure to violence in the environment around you. People who had none of those risk factors ― even with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia ― had very low rates of violent behavior….Abuse, violence in the environment around you ― those are the kinds of things you’re not going to solve by having someone take a mood stabilizer.” Statement made, in an interview, by Dr. Jeffrey Swanson, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Duke University School of Medicine, and one of the leading researchers on mental health and violence.