Fascinating new lines of research suggest that we
are good people, tolerating bad things.
By George Monbiot
October 15, 2015 "Information
Clearing House" - 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 1000 people they surveyed – 74% – identify 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.
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
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 ultra-social: 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
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
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. And it seems to be baked in.
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
The consequences of an undue pessimism about human
nature are momentous. As the Common Cause Foundation’s survey and
interviews reveal, those who have the bleakest view of humanity are
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
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.