Putting Yourself in Perspective
A dark view of human nature has prevailed for some time. A more balanced vision is emerging.
By Mark Leary Ph.D. and Hara Estroff Marano published February 13, 2020 - last reviewed on March 12, 2020
Part I: Finding the Light
A brighter view of human nature is taking shape.
By Hara Estroff Marano
The darkness has a date stamp. December 2002, two Canadian psychologists put forth evidence that malevolence thrives through a cluster of personality traits overlapping in offensiveness—narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellian manipulativeness. The Dark Triad, they called it, and it captures the grandiosity, absence of empathy. exploitation of others, callousness, and self-importance that regularly assault us in the office, on dating sites, or over the backyard fence.
In a rising tide over the aughts, as the clinical became the conversational and the forensic ensnared us, the dark side of human nature took up a disproportionate share of the cultural limelight. The Dark Triad became catnip to those who write about management and the workplace. From the Harvard Business Review to The New York Post , the so-called “unholy trinity of traits” has been invoked to explain hedge fund managers, bad bosses, good leaders, workplace chaos, toxic coworkers, the fall of Enron, not to mention garden-variety insurance fraud. In his 2006 book Snakes in Suits , psychologist Robert Hare made it clear that “not all psychopaths are in prison; some are in the boardroom.”
Since then, studies of the Dark Triad have yielded a fourth empirically distinct trait, reports University of British Columbia psychologist Delroy Paulhus, architect of the construct. Enter everyday sadism, the enjoyment of other people’s suffering, not the degree of lethal cruelty that winds up in criminal court but its subclinical counterpart, whether directly hurting others, vicariously enjoying the suffering of others, or delivering meanness with words. He considers it the darkest of the Dark Tetrad of traits and ascribes the enormous popularity of Game of Thrones in part to its lavish display of sadistic behavior.
Villainy, of course, is nothing new in the world. Milton catalogued it. Shakespeare sent a scheming Iago across thousands of stages. But cultures differ in the degree to which they endorse the dark side, says Paulhus, pointing to the allure of dog- or cockfighting in some countries and the taste for violent movies and cage-fighting in the United States. “Some societies have better ways of nudging people in a positive direction.”
There’s a reason for our current fascination with the dark side of human nature, Paulhus believes. “You often hear that good people are all the same but bad people can be bad in a variety of ways,” he says, faintly echoing Tolstoy. They’re just more interesting.
Not so, says Scott Barry Kaufman, who contends that both psychology and the general culture have for too long neglected a whole other side of human nature—what he calls, to prove his point, the “Light Triad.” In studies over the past two years, he defines the Light Triad as humanism, or valuing the dignity of each individual; faith in humanity, or believing in the essential goodness of people; and Kantianism, or treating people as ends in themselves.
“The research question driving me has been: Is there anything interesting about people who are not assholes?” explains Kaufman, a psychology professor at Columbia University and research director at Bridges Academy in California. Dark Triad people hold our attention to the degree that they magnify elements that lie within all of us, he says.
Light Triad people are more likely to be intrinsically curious, a key driver of creativity that enables them to develop the fullness of their potential, achieving what the noted humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow famously called self-actualization. And in a just-published book, Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization , Kaufman takes on the challenge of resurrecting humanistic psychology, this time grounded in research.
Dark qualities close people down. Light qualities open them up, foster growth, especially through positive, cooperative relationships to others. They enable a fulfilling life. By contrast, Kaufman finds, “Dark Triad people report constant deprivation; they score high on dissatisfaction with relationships, with power, and with respect. They’re motivated by deficiency.”
What all the dark traits have in common is self-centeredness, putting oneself first in a world of others. Mark Leary, professor of psychology at Duke and noted researcher on the nature of the self, thinks we’d be a lot better off putting ourselves in perspective, developing humility, which he defines not as self-abnegation but the belief that “no matter how great one’s accomplishments or positive characteristics may be, they do not entitle one to special treatment as a person” (see accompanying article). Almost all of our social and personal problems have to do with the fact that we’ve become too self-absorbed, he finds.
“Everyone knows there’s something wrong with them and something wrong with society,” Leary says. “I’ve found that people everywhere are receptive to the possibility that they and the world would be better off if they didn’t lie awake each night ruminating on all the injustices others have laid on them and what they are entitled to. Or how their success requires dominating others.”
Take away the self-preoccupation and the better we feel and the better we become. Fairness emerges. Honesty surfaces. There’s no question, he adds, the better we act, the better we’re treated. “I don’t have to be mean to other people to have a high-quality life.”
Leary contends that we’ve lost our way because the communal bonds that naturally shape our behavior have been severed. “We have overcompensated for the unnatural environment we live in today, after 7 million years of living in little clans where maintaining relationships mattered, where people needed to collaborate to stay alive.”
As if on cue comes the publication of a recent redo of the classic marshmallow test—that be-all predictor of life success—in which children from cultures as different as Germany and Kenya were able to delay eating a cookie if they had a partner who also had to wait—doubly harder than relying solely on one’s self-control. “From early in life, human children are psychologically equipped to respond to social interdependencies in ways that facilitate cooperative success,” researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig conclude in Psychological Science. Reliance on others is really a basic source of human motivation, and when one person wins, everyone wins.
The evidence is beginning to flow. Time, it seems, for a course correction that rebalances the prevailing self-focused view of human nature—that keeps us from ruminating on ourselves and reintegrates the individual and the social. On parallel paths, Kaufman and Leary are seeding it.
I am driven to understand the beautiful as well as the terrible in human nature. Drilled into our biology is a desperate need to survive that we’ve generalized from genuinely life-threatening events to those that seem to threaten us psychologically. But also built into our nature is an incredible capacity to bond. We humans also have a need for meaning and purpose. Absent it, we feel adrift in the universe and retreat to evolutionarily less advanced functions; not only do we suffer but we often make others suffer as well. I’ve worked with hundreds of kids at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School since the shooting. They’re anxious, angry. But when they have a sense of being useful to other kids, their lives change. They want to share what has been helpful to them. There is a balance we must strike between the conservative instinct of self-preservation and the enormous capacity to change. I help restore balance to people who are stuck in anger, fear, and the repetition of horrifying events, in order to create new possibilities. Another crucial quality is the ability to be present and not reactive. We are living in times of great greed, great destructiveness, but all the interest in meditation, yoga, psychedelics is a sign that people are willing to move to more balance. I practice meditation to be present in the pain but to not get stuck in it.
Part II: Putting Yourself in Perspective
Living in the modern world has left us without natural limits on self-centeredness. From anxiety to xenophobia, the personal and social distress everyone feels could benefit from a little less “Me!”
By Mark Leary
I often feel a sense of dread when I turn on the evening news. Every day’s newscast brings reminders of the dire problems the world faces. Like many people, I find the daily parade of problems deeply discouraging and emotionally draining.
But watching the news also provides a striking paradox about the human condition. On the one hand, human beings have used their intelligence, creativity, ability to work together in groups, and ethical compass to improve life dramatically. Through science, technology, philosophy, education, health care, government (sometimes), and other features of human civilization, we have made great progress in improving human life. Most people’s lives around the world are far better than they once were, even a few decades ago, although individuals still inflict a great deal of suffering on themselves and others.
How can human beings be so intelligent and effective in solving some problems yet so dysfunctional and destructive at the same time?
Historically, psychologists have answered the question by pointing to the dark side of human nature. Freud accused the animalistic urges and intrapsychic conflicts he said are stewing in the unconscious mind.
Others have highlighted instincts for dominance and aggression, faulty patterns of reinforcement, deeply rooted antisocial motives, dark personality traits, and a wide array of mental illnesses that underlie maladaptive behavior. Differing in the specifics, all agree that there is something terribly wrong with human beings.
The humanistic psychology movement of the 1950s and ’60s took a kinder approach to human problems: People are basically OK, but they often grow up and live under conditions that undermine the inherently positive aspects of their nature. Most people would turn out fine if we just stopped messing them up, insisted such key theorists as Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow.
But as the evening news attests, there’s no shortage of bad behavior. Is that because people are inherently bad? Or are good things being counteracted or covered up by something?
The Root of Most Evil
After more than 40 years of research on human nature, I have come to believe that most of the serious problems people create—for themselves and for society—are rooted in excessive self-preoccupation. People think about themselves far too much, selfishly focus on what they want without sufficient regard for other people, believe that they and their group are special, and think that their beliefs are correct. In a word, people have become excessively egoic.
Virtually all antisocial behaviors arise from excessive self-preoccupation and the assumption that one’s own interests should take precedence over those of other people. When people commit crimes, they have put their own interests so far above other people’s well-being that they feel entitled to lie, cheat, steal, physically harm, even kill others to get what they want. At the extreme, terrorist actions are rooted in abject egocentrism and selfishness, and most wars begin when some party feels justified in attacking someone to obtain something it wants.
Prejudice and discrimination are also fundamentally self-centered reactions. My group is somehow better than yours, so I’m entitled to mistreat or discriminate against you because of your race, sex, religion, nationality, or whatever. Greed and economic injustice are, by definition, merely rampant selfishness.
Many of the conflicts in our personal lives arise from our egoic conviction that other people should do what we want them to—or from their conviction that we should do what they want. And our arguments typically reach an impasse because we are all certain that we are right. Such unfounded certainty in our own viewpoints feeds every variety of political, religious, and cultural conflict.
It may look as if human beings have a fundamental flaw that is ruining their lives. But the problem is that, over the last few thousand years, we’ve created an environment that is so different from the one in which the human brain evolved that we’ve become psychological and social misfits in our own world.
The ability to see and understand others—to have empathy, to use a vastly overused word—is a basic part of human nature. Most of us have an instinct to help others. As for those who don’t, I don’t believe they want to be that way. But when our survival is threatened, we become self-centered and can turn mean. Of course, we don’t always know when someone is feeling threatened. We make a lot of assumptions about the causes of other people’s behavior. I see a lot of couples, and couples particularly tend to make up untrue stories about each other, which commonly leads to fights. There should be a character construct for how people treat themselves, because how people treat others typically reflects how they treat themselves. We are living through a moment of history in which many people are not treating others well or showing kindness. There is a character flaw in the person at the top and bad behavior is leaking into everyone else; the worst in people is being unleashed. The negative element has a huge impact. It may come down to so many feeling their survival is threatened.
Misfits in Our Own World
All animals are programmed to look out for themselves and their kin first; otherwise they couldn’t survive. People naturally put their own needs first. And that’s fine—within limits. But people are chronically more preoccupied with themselves and their desires than other animals because of their unique ability to think consciously about themselves.
Other animals act in self-interested ways when critical needs arise —for food, for territory, for mates. But they don’t spend most of their waking hours thinking about themselves, who they are, what they want, and how they’re going to get it. Our chronic, egoic self-preoccupation is the point of departure for most of our personal problems.
The irony is that the ability to think consciously about ourselves that underlies so many of our problems is also the source of all human accomplishments. Without self-awareness, we couldn’t plan, imagine a better future, play with ideas in our minds, evaluate ourselves or our progress toward our goals, or try to change ourselves—or the world—for the better. Without self-awareness, we couldn’t coordinate the organized activities by which human progress occurs. All the advances of civilization require self-awareness, which is likely why human beings have created civilizations and other animals haven’t.
The downside is that self-awareness has helped people create a world that is vastly different from the one in which human beings evolved. As misfits in the new world we’ve created, we’re not handling it well.
Imagine what life might have been like on the plains of Africa for the millions of years that our prehistoric ancestors lived as nomadic hunters, gatherers, and scavengers, long before the first settled communities began to appear. You would have lived and interacted regularly with the same small group of 30 to 50 individuals, most of whom you had known your whole life. You had ongoing, interdependent relationships.Your personal self-interest was intimately tied to the welfare of others: You fared well only when everyone did, so you were invested in everyone else’s well-being. And you could expect them to reciprocate.
In this environment, it was critically important to stay in the good graces of others by being a helpful, rule-abiding member of the group. There were strong constraints against selfishness, and clan members who weren’t team players were ostracized, a likely death decree.
Because our outcomes were so tightly intertwined with those of the other group members, human beings evolved tendencies to be cooperative and prosocial alongside a tendency to look out for themselves. To maintain cooperative relationships, you would have had to balance your personal desires against those of other individuals, treating others fairly and respecting their interests. Our prehistoric ancestors certainly focused on their own interests, but they probably did so in ways that didn’t sacrifice social acceptance or the goodwill of other group members.
Jump to 2020. Most of us don’t know most of the people we encounter each day—whether face-to-face, on the phone, or in cyberspace—and we have close, interdependent relationships with only a few of them. For the vast majority, our fates are not intertwined—so we aren’t too concerned about them, nor are they about us. In fact, we may regard each other as competitors or even enemies.
Self-interest and other-interest are now in greater conflict than they ever were back when our personal outcomes were tied to those of the rest of the group. The same constraints against self-preoccupation and selfishness no longer exist.
To make things worse, the time horizon of our thinking has greatly expanded. Where we once planned a day or two in advance, we now spend a great deal of time every day thinking about, working toward, and worrying about our long-term personal futures, a shift that contributes to chronic self-preoccupation. That preoccupation not only makes us more self-focused and selfish but also more anxious and less happy because so many of our self-thoughts are filled with worries about how things are going to turn out.
Living in an impersonal world with a brain designed for small-group life, we simply don’t have the right psychological tools to thrive—or even get along—in modern society. The proof is the social pathology on the evening news and the distress in our personal lives.
We’re not going back. The challenge is to find ways to keep our runaway self-preoccupation in check. Without external social conditions to help us balance our interests against those of others, we need to manage our egoicism ourselves. I have three general proposals, all of which fly in the face of widely accepted views in psychology and Western culture.
Life would improve for everyone if people simply thought about themselves less. Full stop. Psychology assumes the importance of self-awareness, that behaving effectively and ethically requires people to reflect as much as possible about who they are and what they’re doing. Self-awareness is certainly important—indeed, essential for modern life—but thinking too much about ourselves is usually a much bigger problem than thinking too little.
Recognition of this truth may account for the rising popularity of meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation. The goal of most meditation is to learn to maintain a mental state of alert, poised awareness, being totally present while letting self-focused thoughts come and go without paying them more than passing attention. It helps people manage unnecessary and unwanted thoughts instead of getting caught up in them.
A large body of research shows that, over time, people who learn to meditate become less self-preoccupied and experience such emotional benefits as lower stress, anxiety, and depression, all of which are fed by self-thought. But, just as important, they begin to behave differently in their relations with other people. Studies show that mindfulness training increases empathy, compassion, and prosocial behavior. Meditation also reduces conflict in people’s close relationships and increases relationship satisfaction. All the effects seem to result from reducing egoic self-preoccupation.
We all have dreams that really drive us, although we aren’t all comfortable sharing our dreams. Sometimes the dreams don’t match what we’re taught through socialization. But if they are not acted on, they wind up producing frustrated adults. Senior year of college I was in a Division III school and not even on the team. I was able to make it not because of my jump shot but on the strength of my dream. The positive side of human nature requires taking action on your dreams, which leads to fulfillment. I respect independence of thought, because acting on dreams may require going against the grain. So much of the world right now is driven by social media, herd criticism, and negativity. If you are not on the side of whoever is controlling the narrative, you are either ignored or attacked. The us vs them dynamic has always been a powerful element in human nature. But right now, it is dominant. Fear is pushing people to retreat into bubbles tailor-made for them by social media, which seduces everyone with its immediacy, magnifies the school-lunchroom dynamic a thousand-fold, and drives much negativity. You can choose media freedom and objective information, but you have to make an effort to get outside the bubble.
Just about everybody agrees that it’s better to be humble than not. Most religions count it a virtue. But why is humility so widely regarded as a good thing?
Humility is often misunderstood as denying accomplishments or positive characteristics, but that’s not what it really is. Humility involves the belief that, no matter how great your accomplishments or positive characteristics, they do not entitle you to special treatment as a person. A renowned actor may acknowledge that he is exceptionally skilled, has a highly successful career, has received many awards, and is adored by his fans but not believe that his exceptional ability and accomplishments entitle him to be treated preferentially.
As a person is key. People with special characteristics or accomplishments deserve extra attention, respect, rewards, and privileges in the domain in which their accomplishments or characteristics are relevant. At work, for example, social norms might stipulate that the best employees are entitled to a higher salary, a better office, or other perks. But norms do not generally dictate that exemplary people be accorded special treatment wherever they go.
Yet, people sometimes believe that others should treat them differently in general because of who they are or what they have done. People who think they should be treated specially usually demand it, expecting a disproportionate share of life’s goodies, violating rules that apply to everyone else, and feeling entitled to use, impose on, or mistreat “lesser” people. People who think they’re so entitled harm other people and society in several ways.
In contrast, humble people do not expect special treatment as individuals no matter how outstanding their accomplishments or personal characteristics may be. Humble people recognize, and even acknowledge, that their accomplishments or characteristics are exceptional—after all, denying them would mean that they are either deluded or lying. But they don’t think they should be treated as special because of them.
In two studies, my team asked research participants to identify their most important personal accomplishments or characteristics, rate those accomplishments or characteristics, indicate how they believe they should be treated because of them, and complete measures of humility. Participants who scored higher in humility were less likely to believe that they should be treated as special because of their exemplary accomplishments and characteristics than less humble participants were. However, humility was not related to participants’ ratings of the positivity of their accomplishments or characteristics of themselves. Humble people didn’t downplay their achievements or characteristics—they simply didn’t think they merited special handling because of them.
Low humility fuels many social ills. As soon as someone thinks that he or she is entitled to be treated differently, the stage is set for selfishness, a me-versus-them mentality, disregard of other people, unfair behavior, and lowered willingness to work for the common good.
Thinking that one’s beliefs, attitudes, and viewpoints are special is a notable source of societal discord throughout history, including today. It fuels disagreements about politics, religion, cultural practices, and other topics in the news. The current political divide in the United States and many other countries is fundamentally about a handful of beliefs, and becomes intractable when people are unwilling to consider the possibility that their personal views might be, if not incorrect, at least no better overall than others’ perspectives.
Intellectual humility involves recognizing that one’s beliefs and opinions might not be special and, in fact, might be incorrect. Recognizing that one’s views are fallible not only changes the tenor of our disagreements but also paves the way for negotiation and compromise, which are difficult when all parties are convinced that they are always correct.
Fostering a Different Kind of Identity
Many of people’s thoughts about themselves focus on their identities—who they are, what they are like, and the groups to which they belong. Our identities typically emphasize differences between ourselves and other people because seeing yourself as X always distinguishes you from people who are not X. Identity starts the process by which people develop more positive feelings toward people who are like them than toward people who are different, a notable source of societal problems.
But some identities emphasize connections with other individuals and groups, rather than differences. Such so-called “hypo-egoic” identities might involve seeing someone as a member of the human species, an inhabitant of the earth, a child of God, or part of the universe. As identity expands beyond personal characteristics and groups to broad, all-inclusive conceptions, people feel greater kinship with others and bring those who are normally regarded as outsiders into their circle of concern. As a result, they are less likely to demean outgroups, exhibit prejudice, and discriminate against other people. They’re also more likely to be concerned about humanity in general.
Imagine that race or nationality suddenly disappeared as an aspect of identity. You suddenly lost the ability to construe yourself as a particular race or nationality. You would no longer favor citizens of your own country or people of your own race over those of other nations and races.
Social psychologists have long been exploring ways in which broadening people’s identities affects their behavior. Research on the Common Ingroup Identity Model shows that getting people of different races to think about themselves as members of a single group—say, as students at a particular school or as Americans—reduces prejudice and improves interactions among them. And people whose identities are based on characteristics that they share with everyone else—for example, people who believe that everything that exists is part of one big thing (such as consciousness, God, the universe, the Tao, or energy)—regard all other people as members of one big in-group.
Early studies show that prejudice and other problems that arise from self-preoccupation decline when identities focus less on the ways in which people differ and more on the ways in which they’re alike.
I trained as an artist and worked as a bartender, where you get to see people at their most vulnerable. I now deal with the interaction of projects and personalities, with what people need to feel safe to engage the fragile, creative parts of themselves. The creativity of executing code, however, is different from generating the ideas for magical and new things. That’s why there is now a push for STEAM, not just STEM—for the arts to be added back into education. The humanities bring you all the things you can think of; the technologists help make them real. There’s beauty in the how, but you always need someone to dream, to see new possibilities, or else you turn out the same kinds of things over and over again. We are not valuing the dreamers. The culture is thinking about what’s possible based on optimization of stock prices rather than on what helps people, which will never be as profitable as the technology that figures out how to sell something. Dreamers start from the part of the self that wants to reach out to others and tell a story or create something meaningful. I don’t see much difference between artists and engineers, but one group gets paid much more than the other. In my work, I help people to create change. I want people to understand that their legacy isn’t the code that they write but what they learned from writing the code.
Toward a Less Egoic World
Change would be for all people to fully appreciate ways in which their own egoicism creates problems for themselves and others, then make an ongoing effort to reduce the self-centeredness. Meditation, humility (including intellectual humility), and broadening identity are starters.
Second, everyone who plays a role in other people’s development—parents, teachers, religious leaders, mental health professionals, coaches, mentors of all kinds—can promote hypo-egoic ways of thinking and living. People receive a constant stream of cultural messages that encourage them to be egoically self-centered; we need strong voices to counteract those messages at every turn. Many schoolteachers have already begun incorporating mindfulness training into their classes. Similarly, innovations in clinical psychology over the past 40 years—particularly Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Dialectical Behavior Therapy—inherently address egoic ways of thinking about oneself and one’s problems.
And because excessive self-centeredness hurts us all, we must call out and stand up against excessively egoic beliefs and behavior for the benefit of everyone, presumably like our prehistoric ancestors did within their groups. Cultural norms against self-centeredness, arrogance, and selfishness exist in every society, but to be effective, norms must be consistently supported and enforced by the broad community.
The goal is not to create an ideal society. Rather, we need to compensate for the fact that the world in which humans now live promotes far greater self-centeredness and selfishness than the conditions under which we evolved. Finding ways to lower self-preoccupation and selfishness is a first step forward.
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