The two human natures

"Selfish" doesn't have to mean antisocial

Posted Nov 16, 2009

Immediately following the United States' invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Iraqi government collapsed and Baghdad was engulfed by widespread looting and violence. Medical equipment was stolen from major hospitals and many of the world's oldest cultural artifacts--housed at Iraq's National Museum--were stolen or destroyed. The damage caused by civilians rivaled the effects of 3 weeks of steady US bombing.

When asked about the pervasive destruction, Donald Rumsfeld famously replied, "stuff happens." What did he mean by that? One popular interpretation is that he was suggesting that people who are released from social responsibilities, for example by the fall of their government, revert to their "natural state," acting out of unadulterated, primal self-interest. They are, as Rumsfeld said, "free to... commit crimes and do bad things." In other words, human nature is savage and antisocial, waiting to erupt whenever the lights go out and the law is interrupted.

As it turns out, this view--common to philosophers, social theorists, and action movie villains--has a long history, described brilliantly by the anthropologist Marshal Sahlins in a recent book. Sahlins chronicles the way that everyone from Thucydides to Thomas Hobbes to John Adams wrote their histories and social theories following a common assumption: government is the necessary restraint on people who--without it--would tear each other apart. Importantly, it was also at the heart of Freud's belief that individuals contained a core driven entirely by selfish, often antisocial desires (the Id) that could only be contained through the internalization of social norms (the Super-ego). This idea caught on, and dominated the early decades of clinical psychology.

Does human nature deserve all this bad press? Of course people (and their genes) are selfish in one way: they are interested in survival, and strive to optimize their own. But does that require them to be selfish in the other way: acting with indifference or malice towards others? Many concepts of human nature treat these two types of selfishness as identical, but they are powerfully different. We evolved not as antisocial, isolated individuals, but in deeply interdependent families and social groups. This suggests a "human nature" starkly different from Rumsfeld's: one in which our interests, emotions, and survival are intimately tied with those of the people around us, so much so that many civilizations describe each person as not only existing in their own body, but also in the bodies of others. On this view, even being "selfish" can lead people to act generously and empathically towards others. As Sahlins put it, "what means ‘self-interest' when both ‘self' and ‘interest' are transpersonal?"

In the last 50 years or so, this more optimistic view has received a boost from research in psychological science. This work has shown, time and again, that the human mind is driven by social realities, and deeply affected by other individuals. More recently, neuroscience research has demonstrated ways that the social world gets under our skin, permeating the way our brains process information.

This blog aims to help readers recapture a sense of human nature as social instead of antisocial. To this end, I will describe research on the social mind, with an eye towards tying work in experimental psychology to non-scientific concepts of human nature and society. Some of the ideas I'll focus most on are:

(1) The many ways that our thoughts, perceptions, and emotions are tied to those of other people, and the ways this psychological interconnectedness drives prosocial behaviors such as altruism and cooperation.

(2) The incredible amount of mental resources people devote to understanding other minds, and ways that individuals' psychological and physical well-being is intimately tied to their ability to connect with others.

(3) Circumstances that can alter, shut off, or reverse people's sense of interdependence with each other, leading to the antisocial behavior we saw during the Baghdad riots, the Rwandan genocide, and other humanitarian catastrophes.

(4) Reconciling the (distant, often-electronic) social connections available in contemporary life with the much more direct interpersonal contact for which our social instincts likely evolved.

I am, most of all, excited to hear your thoughts on society and human nature. Any ideas or questions you have about social interactions in the mind and brain are always of interest to me, and I look forward to having a dialogue with you on these topics.