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How to Know if You Are a Good Person

What science says about our desire to be good or bad.

CC0 Public Domain
Source: CC0 Public Domain

During my first trip to New Orleans, I visited a tarot reader named Avery. While the other mystics looked and seemed more legit (i.e., full gothic attire, prominently displayed crystal balls), Avery, who was wearing regular street clothes and casually thumbing through a book, was the cheapest psychic on the block, offering my friend and me a two-for-one special when we walked by. Obviously, we were sold.

While shuffling a deck of tarot cards, Avery asked me what I wanted to know about my life. There were myriad things I wanted to ask, but what came out of my mouth surprised both of us. “Am I a good person?” I uttered.

He looked at me, bemused. “That’s not what people normally ask,” he said. That was exactly why I had asked it.

This is the type of question that I would classify as one of those things that you generally don’t ever ask anyone close to you. Similar to: Am I lovable? Why do people hate me? Or Am I annoying? At best, they are attempts to fish for compliments, and at worst, they are an open invitation to attack one’s fragile self-concept.

It’s different, though, when you ask a complete stranger, particularly one who is (ostensibly) intuitive. They don’t have a shared history with you, so they have no reason to suck up or be overly harsh with your feelings. They won’t lie—mostly because they don’t care about you or your feelings and, most importantly, will likely never see you again.

Avery, who I have in fact never seen since, told me that the very act of asking the question suggests that I am indeed a good person. I countered that I felt the exact opposite was true. That the reason I asked was that obviously, on some level, I doubted I was.

Immediately, I thought of Freud. He theorized that humans are inherently selfish and focused primarily on their own individual survival. In effect, we behave “badly” because it is our true nature.

In The Nature of Man, he writes:

“Psychological—or more strictly speaking, psychoanalytic—investigation shows that the deepest essence of human nature, which are similar in all men and which aim at the satisfaction of certain needs… [are] self-preservation, aggression, need for love, and the impulse to attain pleasure and avoid pain.”

To Freud, our innate drive for self-preservation is deeply at odds with society’s view that we should all live in harmony (or be good). He writes: “The natural instinct of aggressiveness in man, the hostility of each one against all and of all against each one, opposes this programme of civilization.”

Is Freud right? Am I a bad person who is forced to conform to the idea of being good? Or was my New Orleans psychic correct all along?

Let’s look at the science, shall we?

In one study, Yale University researchers used puppets to determine whether babies were inherently altruistic. In the experiment, babies watched a short play in which a puppet was attempting to climb up a hill. Then two other puppets would join in to either help or hinder the puppet in its task. Afterward, when given the choice between the helper and the hinderer puppets, the babies were much more likely to choose the helper.

Tom Stafford, who wrote about the study for BBC, suggests this behavior demonstrates that humans are wired to be good, at least in the beginning of their lives:

“The way to make sense of this result is if infants, with their pre-cultural brains, had expectations about how people should act. Not only do they interpret the movement of the shapes as resulting from motivations, but they prefer helping motivations over hindering ones.”

Bobbi Wegner, a clinical psychologist and teaching fellow at Harvard University, agrees. She says, “There are no such things as bad babies.” At our core, she argues, “we all have a true self that is kind, compassionate, caring, curious and calm.”

It’s the environment that tends to gets in the way of this true self, she says. For example, “Someone who was abused may develop a protective part that preemptively hurts others to protect the self.” In her practice, she doesn’t focus on terms like “good” or “bad,” instead shifting the focus to “encourage the [compassionate and curious] ‘self’ to feel safe enough to come out.”

In this video, Dacher Keltner, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, cites another study in which humans experienced pain when they saw others in pain. “It’s as if we’re wired to have the same experience as other people,” he says.

Again, instead of labeling people as good or bad, Keltner calls for a redefining of self-interest.

He admits that 60 percent of the time, we are driven by “personal gratification” or “survival of the competitive,” but during the other 40 percent, “we’re really doing things for other people; we sacrifice and risk exploitation, and we still do it." As he says, it “actually becomes personally fulfilling and inspiring to engage in that work.”

Still, acting good and being good are not one and the same, according to Mary Beth Somich, a North Carolina-based psychotherapist. She points to our “social media-centered culture” which encourages us to act in ‘good’ ways in order to receive positive reinforcement from others rather than acting altruistically for a true intrinsic reward.”

Which is why Somich says that the only person who can decide whether you are a good person is you. (Sorry, Avery!) While there are some external indicators that “can help cater to a favorable image of oneself as a ‘good person’ ... it really boils down to an honor code with oneself.”

A few questions to help decipher your individual honor code, according to Meredith Strauss, a New Jersey-based psychotherapist, are the following:

  • Do I have compassion for others?
  • How charitable am I?
  • Do I extend myself to loved ones in times of need and genuinely want to help? Or do I just do it to be politically correct?
  • What would my friends or family say about me if they were asked this question?
  • Do you put material possessions before people?
  • What do you believe your contribution is to this world while you're here?

But maybe the best way to look at our morality isn't labeling ourselves as good or bad. According to Dr. Paul DePompo, a Southern California-based psychologist and author, "Thinking you are one or the other triggers problems when you eventually do a 'bad' thing—which we are all capable of—and you may get an inflated self-image when you are doing many 'good' things."

A better suggestion, he says, "is to define what a good person is in 3-5 words and rate yourself on this continuum." If you see yourself at more than half, then "you are a relatively good, yet imperfect person—which ultimately makes you human!"

What's your take? Are you a good person?

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