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More on What Ayn Rand Got Wrong About Human Nature

Rand's philosophy was based on a deficient understanding of human psychology.

By USSR Passport [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: By USSR Passport [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In a previous blog, I discussed what happens economically to a country or a business when Ayn Rand's principles are applied. There are four good reasons why they fail so miserably.

1. Humans Are NOT born as blank slates (tabula rasa)

In The Return of the Primitive (New American Library, 1971; Expanded edition, 1999, p. 50), Rand wrote:

At birth, a child’s mind is tabula rasa; he has the potential of awareness—the mechanism of a human consciousness—but no content. Speaking metaphorically, he has a camera with an extremely sensitive, unexposed film (his conscious mind), and an extremely complex computer waiting to be programmed (his subconscious). Both are blank. He knows nothing of the external world. He faces an immense chaos which he must learn to perceive by means of the complex mechanism which he must learn to operate.

Rand's claims were indeed in agreement with early theories of cognitive development, which assumed infants were little more than sensory-motor systems, and that complex concepts were constructed from these simple building blocks through experience with the environment. William James (The Principles of Psychology, 1890) once famously described the infant's experience of the world as a "blooming, buzzing confusion".

But the last three decades of research on infant cognition has amply disconfirmed the view that humans are born as tabula rasa. Careful experimentation has uncovered a wealth of domain-specific knowledge that emerges early in infancy, before infants have had sufficient time to induce this knowledge through experience. These discoveries were made possible by advances in scientific methods for probing the infant mind. These include the habituation paradigm, the preferential looking time paradigm, the violation of expectation paradigm, and neural imaging and recording techniques. Using these techniques, infants have been found to be cognitively predisposed to interpret the world in terms of agents and objects whose behaviors are constrained by different sets of principles.

Day-old babies can tell the difference between social interactions (such as playing peek-a-boo) and non-social actions (such as an arm throwing a ball). Infants as young as two and one-half months of age have been found to understand basic physical principles such as object permanence, the continuity of object trajectories, causality (no action at a distance), and the principle that two physical objects cannot occupy the same place at the same time.

Even more telling is the responses of infants and toddlers to violations of implicit social norms of fairness and reciprocity. In The Virtue of Selfishness (Signal, 1964, p 9), Rand wrote:

Since man has no automatic knowledge, he can have no automatic values; since he has no innate ideas, he can have no innate value judgments. Man is born with an emotional mechanism, just as he is born with a cognitive mechanism; but, at birth, both are “tabula rasa.” It is man’s cognitive faculty, his mind, that determines the content of both.

Yet modern developmental research shows otherwise—that infants make implicit value judgments as a matter of course. Infants as young as six-months of age take into account an individual’s actions towards others in evaluating that individual as appealing or aversive, preferring individuals who help others over those who hinder others or behave indifferently toward them.

In each of these cases, there is insufficient time for infants to have acquired such complex knowledge through experience. Nor can we assume that reason applied to sense data would be sufficient to allow acquisition of these complex concepts because our perceptual systems are notoriously subject to illusions, and our reasoning subject to error. Decades of research on human reasoning quite clearly show that it is not only subject to bias, but that it subject to "content effects"—we reason better about some types of problems than others of equal complexity. The types of problems that are easy for us also turn out to be ones with adaptive value.

2. Only humans have the ability to think abstractly or to transmit knowledge socially

Derek Penn and Daniel Povinelli, researchers at the Cognitive Evolution Group, University of Louisiana, Lafayette, evaluated a multitude of studies on causal cognition among nonhuman animals, and concluded:

The evidence suggests that nonhuman causal cognition is significantly more sophisticated than can be accounted for by traditional associationist theories. In particular, both human and nonhuman animals do not simply learn about observable contingencies; they appear to be sensitive to the unobservable constraints specific to causal inference.

More recent work has shown that apes, baboons, crows, and sea lions are capable of forming abstract concepts that require learning an analogical relation.

In Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 16, Rand also claimed that:

Man is the only living species that can transmit and expand his store of knowledge from generation to generation; but such transmission requires a process of thought on the part of the individual recipients.

Yet many species depend on cultural transmission of knowledge. The chimpanzees of Gombe (but not elsewhere) teach their young to fish for termites, those of the Taï National Park in Côte d'Ivoire teach them the skill of nut cracking, and bottle nose dolphins in Australia's Shark Bay hold sponges at the tip of their mouths when foraging to protect their beaks. Because the behaviors in question are specific to a particular group rather than an entire species, they constitute evidence of cultural transmission of knowledge.

All told, ample scientific evidence indicates that the reasoning capacities of nonhuman animals differ from those of humans more in degree rather than in kind.

3. Altruism leads inexorably to self-destruction

In series of lectures given at Yale University, Brooklyn College, and Columbia University entitled Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World, Rand stated

The irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute, is self-sacrifice— which means: self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction—which means: the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as the standard of the good."

Evolutionary biologists also grappled with the conundrum of altruism in their attempts to explain the widespread cooperation within and between species in nature. Altruism means incurring a cost on oneself to benefit another individual. Cooperation involves altruism because when cooperating, one typically incurs a cost on oneself in exchange for a benefit conferred by another. The problem is that one can do much better by simply taking what is offered and not reciprocating the promised benefit. And indeed, in modeling simulations, those who renege tend to survive at the expense of those who give.

But that is only for one-shot transactions. Influential evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers showed that if individuals can recognize each other and they exclude "cheaters" from future transactions, then those who cooperate can indeed thrive while those who behave selfishly dwindle.

4. The primary role of government is promoting laissez-faire capitalism

In The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand wrote

Capitalism is the only system where such men are free to function and where progress is accompanied, not by forced privations, but by a constant rise in the general level of prosperity, of consumption and of enjoyment of life. When I say “capitalism,” I mean a full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism—with a separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.

The Prosperity Index measures over 100 countries on 89 economic analysis variables. The top 10 countries on this index in 2015 were Norway, Switzerland, Denmark, New Zealand, Sweden, Canada, Australia, Netherlands, Finland and Ireland. (The United States ranked 11th). These countries all have one thing in common: They all incorporate generous social programs with capitalist democracies. They confer generous welfare benefits through the redistribution of wealth, yet civil liberties are abundant, and there are few restrictions on the flow of capital or of labor. So it seems that countries that incorporate social programs into their socioeconomic policies do in fact thrive.

In contrast, the American and global economies are still reeling from one of its greatest failures: the 2008 economic meltdown. Alan Greenspan, an admirer of Objectivism and contributor to the 1986 re-issue of The Virtue of Selfishness, served as Chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006. His is disdain for regulation is frequently cited as one of the major causes of the junk mortgage crisis, which in 2008, brought about the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression. In a congressional hearing, he admitted that he had made a mistake in assuming that financial firms could regulate themselves.

For more on this, see my PBS NewsHour column.

Copyright Dr. Denise Cummins March 17, 2016

Dr. Cummins is a research psychologist, an elected Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think.

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