People Are Naturally Good, but Groups Are Not (Really)

The issue of intergroup conflict is complex, but there is scientific progress.

Posted Dec 24, 2019

Are people naturally good or bad? This big question is one that inspired me to pursue a career in psychology and conduct research on trust and human cooperation. I have come to believe, after years of research and thinking, that people are both good and bad.  This is different from classic views, which tend to favor either the goodness, or more likely the badness, of humankind. 

Indeed, most philosophers, from Nietzsche to Schopenhauer, from Hobbes to Stuart Mill, do not paint a benevolent picture of humankind. The idea that “most people are good” is advocated by philosophers like Rousseau. This work, along with later  views in biology, economics, psychology and other scientific disciplines, suggests that the dual nature of humankind, that people are good and bad, is surprising.

Frankly, I find the conclusion that people are good and bad not very surprising. Observations of people around us are showing this dual nature of humankind. People help others, donate money to strangers in need, but people also bully others and write hate mail to strangers.

Further, in my view, the scientific literature on trust and human cooperation also provides strong evidence for the dual nature of humankind: People are good and bad.  (While noting this, the scientist in me had no choice but to add that there is considerable literature showing that the goodness may be a stronger part of humankind than the badness, and that the badness is largely in the eye of the beholder, not the actor— but that's a topic for another blog). 

While not surprising, the dual-nature view of humankind raises intriguing and puzzling questions:  Where does the goodness come from, and where does the badness come from? And where exactly can we find the goodness and the badness? Perhaps this is the more immediate question to address. Here is an answer.

The goodness of humankind occurs most often between two people. We see strong empathy between parents and children, which extends to nearly anything small and vulnerable. Indeed, a puppy can elicit stronger empathy than an abstract newspaper article talking about thousands of people in need. Further, in some (often, early) stages of relationships, close partners are often quite self-sacrificial and perhaps even so much so that they later on may regret some of these sacrifices.

But even with strangers, people show their good selves. If asked, most people immediately help strangers on the street. People donate money to noble causes, including many anonymous donations that escape anybody’s eye. Although norm violations are most salient for the media and people alike, most people behave quite well. Even if they can get away with it, most people do not litter, most people do not insult others, and most people do not take a free ride on a train or bus.

Thus, we are naturally kind toward one other person. Empathy and reciprocity rapidly do their work. Empathy is an emotion that is especially activated by a single individual, not a group of other people. Reciprocity is easy in pairs, but more challenging in groups of three or more. Scratching one another’s backs is easy, but to keep track of back-scratching in larger groups becomes challenging (apart from intimacy issues). Still, we are often nice (and wise) in groups of three people or more.

Clearly, empathy and reciprocity are less powerful in groups with increasing size, but they often do allow for interactions in pairs within this larger group. For example, a classroom is easily divided in pairs that need to work together. But an important reason for why people cooperate in groups of three and larger is that people do not want to be marginalized or excluded. The conclusion is clear: There is enormous goodness in people. But where, then, is the badness?

The badness of humankind occurs most often between groups of people. Although much of our social lives is in pairs (dyads, or two people), we also live significant parts of our actual (and mental) lives in groups involving at least three people. This often brings out the best of us for the groups to which we belong— but at a major cost. That favoring of one's own group brings out the worst for some other groups, as well as the collective as a whole. 

We see it all the time at the societal level. While small communities can often organize themselves to make a positive contribution to reduce climate change, nations often fail. Even worse, leaders of nations talk and talk, but hardly reach any agreement for global policy or concrete goals that individual nations can meet. In short, nations cannot make a deal about one of the most pressing issues of our time: climate change. Why is that so hard?  Are the political leaders stupid?  Do they lack trust in other nations? Or what?

The refugee crisis in Europe is an even stronger (or more vivid) case in point. Exceptions aside, most countries decided to leave it up to Greece, Turkey, Sicily, where refugees stranded. Most countries in Europe were passive bystanders, especially at the beginning, literally saying that it was a problem for Greece, Turkey, or Sicily. It was not the problem of European (or other) countries who did not face refugees in the eye. Even Northern Italy initially treated it as if refugees were a Sicilian problem. Is diffusion of responsibility at stake? Yes, but there is much more to it.

When individuals are part of groups, things are much more likely to go wrong. People want to be central in their own group, and especially leaders who strongly depend on their constituency for any kind of support. Even worse, people choose leaders who serve the interests of their group, often at large costs to other groups. People find it hard to cope with and solve intergroup conflict.  It even brings about moral conflict: Should a soldier be loyal to his country or seek to contribute to peace in the world? What is morally good and what is morally bad? Should one take a local or a global perspective? And what if you have good reasons to distrust members of outgroups?    

The conclusion must be:  People are good, but groups are not.  It is not that groups do not want to be cooperative with other groups, there are just too many barriers that are psychological in nature—too little basis for empathy, for reciprocity, for trust. There is much more to it, but the question is, of course, how we can make groups more trusting and cooperative.

In social psychology, there is an enormous literature on the so-called contact hypothesis. People need to be in contact with members of other groups. Sometimes even having a friend who has considerable contact with other groups helps.

But still, if I were asked to offer solutions to intergroup conflict, I would recommend contact between individuals rather than groups, especially when individuals of different groups share the same goal and communicate face-to-face. Indeed, contact between groups is much less likely to work than contact between individuals. Paradoxically, the building of understanding, trust, and cooperation between groups is primarily an interpersonal challenge.