This book has an excerpt from it published a couple months ago about what what really happened when six boys were shipwrecked on a crappy island for years, in the way of The Lord of the Flies. Spoiler alert: they were not the horrible fictional characters of that book, rather, they adapted and were incredibly "civilized," a term that, after reading this book, I'm more than a bit put-off with. Maybe "advanced" or "cultured" would work better? Cultivated? Sophisticated! There we go.
Another spoiler alert: you should read this book.
When I started reading this book, I was somewhat rolling my eyes, thinking it was going to be a remake of Enlightenment Now, which was WAAAAY better than the actively-disliked Rational Optimist, but still a "yeah, yeah, I already read this" book. Except Bregman actively talks about Pinker's earlier work that says humans are awful beings, and then says, "welllllllllll, about that."
Which sets the stage for just about every major study you've heard about that tells us humans are awful creatures. I mean, we are, but.... welllllll, actually....
Take the death of Kitty Genovese in New York City in March of 1964, everyone says it is the abdication of responsibility, that when surrounded by a crowd doing nothing as you're being murdered, call upon one person to take action. Except, the whole story about how 37 neighbors ignored her death wasn't accurate: they didn't hear her. And the one who did actually did his best, and she died in a friend's arms. The newspapers reported the made-up news of uncaring neighbors, because it sold more newspapers.
Take the most famous Stanford Prison Experiment. Turns out, Zimbardo egged on the students. He actually worked to create the results he wanted to have. He set up the whole experiment.
Take Stanley Milgram's shock machine which tells us that people will blindly follow authority. Turns out, the participants who "blindly followed authority" were either bullied, or misled into believing they were doing Good™.
Take the destruction of Easter Island (didn't happen by the war claimed). Take the Lord of the Flies (totally fiction, people actually behave and share in said island tragedies). Take the killer instinct (most soldiers won't fire unless there's 1. serious training or 2. distance).
A couple parts of this book had me near tears, not of relief, but of hope. What if people really are good, and we've been blinded by what sells to believe otherwise? Oh, wait, that is exactly what happened.
Gosh, I want to believe that humans are good. With all the shit in the world right now, this is a book of hope. I strongly recommend this book. If you can't afford a copy, let me know, I will buy you a copy.
True, the disaster in New Orleans was an extreme case. But the dynamic during disasters is almost always the same: adversity strikes and there’s a wave of spontaneous cooperation in response, then the authorities panic and unleash a second disaster.
If you believe something enough, it can become real. If there’s one lesson to be drawn from the nocebo effect, it’s that ideas are never merely ideas. We are what we believe. We find what we go looking for. And what we predict, comes to pass.
Imagine for a moment that a new drug comes on the market. It’s super-addictive, and in no time everyone’s hooked. Scientists investigate and soon conclude that the drug causes, I quote, ‘a misperception of risk, anxiety, lower mood levels, learned helplessness, contempt and hostility towards others, [and] desensitization’
That drug is the news.
Because the news is about the exceptional, and the more exceptional an event is – be it a terrorist attack, violent uprising, or natural disaster – the bigger its newsworthiness.
Second, to stand up for human goodness is to take a stand against the powers that be. For the powerful, a hopeful view of human nature is downright threatening. Subversive. Seditious. It implies that we’re not selfish beasts that need to be reined in, restrained and regulated. It implies that we need a different kind of leadership. A company with intrinsically motivated employees has no need of managers; a democracy with engaged citizens has no need of career politicians.
Bryan Gibson demonstrated that watching Lord of the Flies-type television can make people more aggressive.25 In children, the correlation between seeing violent images and aggression in adulthood is stronger than the correlation between asbestos and cancer, or between calcium intake and bone mass.2
Cynical stories have an even more marked effect on the way we look at the world
The latest generation of friendly foxes was not only remarkably astute, but also much smarter than their aggressive counterparts.
Up until then the assumption had always been that domestication diminishes brainpower, literally reducing grey matter and in the process sacrificing skills needed to survive in the wild. We all know the clichés. Sly as a fox. Dumb as an ox. But Brian came to a completely different conclusion. ‘If you want a clever fox,’ he says, ‘you don’t select for cleverness. You select for friendliness.’
hunter-gatherers travelled light. They didn’t have much and they didn’t leave much behind. Fortunately for us, there’s an important exception. Cave paintings. If our state of nature was a ‘war of all against all’ à la Hobbes, then you’d expect that someone, at some point in this period, would have painted a picture of it. But that’s never been found. While there are thousands of cave paintings from this time about hunting bison, horses and gazelles, there’s not a single depiction of war.45
Take the following account recorded in 1492 by a traveller on coming ashore in the Bahamas. He was astonished at how peaceful the inhabitants were. ‘They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword … and [they] cut themselves out of ignorance.’ This gave him an idea. ‘They would make fine servants … With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.’1 Christopher Columbus – the traveller in question – lost no time putting his plan into action
you need to know something about prehistoric politics. Basically, our ancestors were allergic to inequality. Decisions were group affairs requiring long deliberation in which everybody got to have their say. ‘Nomadic foragers,’ established one American anthropologist on the basis of a formidable 339 fieldwork studies, ‘are universally – and all but obsessively – concerned with being free from the authority of others.’3
Settled life exacted an especially heavy toll on women. The rise of private property and farming brought the age of proto-feminism to an end. Sons stayed on the paternal plot to tend the land and livestock, which meant brides now had to be fetched for the family farm. Over centuries, marriageable daughters were reduced to little more than commodities, to be bartered like cows or sheep.29 In their new families, these brides were viewed with suspicion, and only after presenting them with a son did women gain a measure of acceptance. A legitimate son, that is. It’s no accident that female virginity turned into an obsession. Where in prehistory women had been free to come and go as they pleased, now they were being covered up and tethered down. The patriarchy was born.
The very things we hold up today as ‘milestones of civilization’, such as the invention of money, the development of writing, or the birth of legal institutions, started out as instruments of oppression. Take the first coins: we didn’t begin minting money because we thought it would make life easier, but because rulers wanted an efficient way to levy taxes.42 Or think about the earliest written texts: these weren’t books of romantic poetry, but long lists of outstanding debts.
So why is our perception of ‘barbarians’ so negative? Why do we automatically equate a lack of ‘civilisation’ with dark times? History, as we know, is written by the victors. The earliest texts abound with propaganda for states and sovereigns, put out by oppressors seeking to elevate themselves while looking down on everybody else. The word ‘barbarian’ was itself coined as a catch-all for anyone who didn’t speak ancient Greek. That’s how our sense of history gets flipped upside down. Civilisation has become synonymous with peace and progress, and wilderness with war and decline. In reality, for most of human existence, it was the other way around.
Too many environmental activists underestimate the resilience of humankind. My fear is that their cynicism can become a self-fulfilling prophecy – a nocebo that paralyses us with despair, while temperatures climb unabated.
‘There’s a failure to recognise that not only problems but also solutions can grow exponentially,’ Professor Boersema told me. ‘There’s no guarantee they will. But they can.’
Painstaking analyses of the hundreds of sessions at Milgram’s shock machine furthermore reveal that subjects grew more disobedient the more overbearing the man in the grey coat became. Put differently: Homo puppy did not brainlessly follow the authority’s orders. Turns out we have a downright aversion to bossy behaviour.
When psychologist Don Mixon repeated Milgram’s experiment in the seventies, he arrived at the same conclusion. He later noted, ‘In fact, people go to great lengths, will suffer great distress, to be good. People got caught up in trying to be good …’24 In other words, if you push people hard enough, if you poke and prod, bait and manipulate, many of us are indeed capable of doing evil. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. But evil doesn’t live just beneath the surface; it takes immense effort to draw it out. And most importantly, evil has to be disguised as doing good.
The subjects who managed to halt the experiment used three tactics: 1. Talk to the victim. 2. Remind the man in the grey lab coat of his responsibility. 3. Repeatedly refuse to continue. Communication and confrontation, compassion and resistance.
The good news is: these are trainable skills. Resistance just takes practice. ‘What distinguishes Milgram’s heroes,’ Hollander observes, ‘is largely a teachable competency at resisting questionable authority.
Where mighty Germany was doped up on years of racist propaganda, modest Denmark was steeped in humanist spirit. Danish leaders had always insisted on the sanctity of the democratic rule of law. Anybody who sought to pit people against each other was not considered worthy to be called a Dane. There could be no such thing as a ‘Jewish question’. There were only countrymen.
Over the course of history, weaponry has got ever better at overcoming the central problem of all warfare: our fundamental aversion to violence. It’s practically impossible for us to kill someone while looking them in the eyes. Just as most of us would instantly go vegetarian if forced to butcher a cow, most soldiers become conscientious objectors when the enemy gets too close.
Keltner eventually realised what it reminded him of. The medical term is ‘acquired sociopathy’: a non-hereditary antisocial personality disorder, first diagnosed by psychologists in the nineteenth century. It arises after a blow to the head that damages key regions of the brain and can turn the nicest people into the worst kind of Machiavellian. It transpires that people in power display the same tendencies.10 They literally act like someone with brain damage. Not only are they more impulsive, self-centred, reckless, arrogant and rude than average, they are more likely to cheat on their spouses, are less attentive to other people and less interested in others’ perspectives.
In reality, bonobos are an altogether different creature. In Chapter 4 we saw that these apes have domesticated themselves, just like Homo puppy. The female of the species seem to have been key to this process, because, while not as strong as the males, they close ranks any time one of their own gets harassed by the opposite sex. If necessary, they bite his penis in half.19 Thanks to this balance of power, bonobo females can pick and choose their own mates, and the nicest guys usually finish first.
Leadership was temporary among hunter-gatherers and decisions were made as a group. Anyone foolish enough to act as Machiavelli later prescribed was risking their life. The selfish and the greedy would get booted out of the tribe and faced likely starvation. After all, nobody wanted to share food with those who were full of themselves.
We’re fine with a little inequality, psychologists emphasise, if we think it’s justified. As long as things seem fair. If you can convince the masses that you’re smarter or better or holier, then it makes sense that you’re in charge and you won’t have to fear opposition.
With the advent of the first settlements and growth in inequality, chieftains and kings had to start legitimising why they enjoyed more privileges than their subjects. In other words, they began engaging in propaganda.
Just consider: why would people hole up in cages we know as ‘offices’ for forty hours a week in exchange for some bits of metal and paper or a few digits added to their bank account? Is it because
The reason is self-evident. If you ignore a bill or don’t pay your taxes, you’ll be fined or locked up. If you don’t willingly comply, the authorities will come after you. Money may be a fiction, but it’s enforced by the threat of very real violence.
Most revolutions ultimately fail, though. No sooner is one despot brought down than a new leader stands up and develops an insatiable lust for power. After the French Revolution it was Napoleon. After the Russian Revolution it was Lenin and Stalin.
Rousseau already observed that this form of government is more accurately an ‘elective aristocracy’ because in practice the people are not in power at all. Instead we’re allowed to decide who holds power over us. It’s also important to realise this model was originally designed to exclude society’s rank and file.
Take the American Constitution: historians agree it ‘was intrinsically an aristocratic document designed to check the democratic tendencies of the period’.35 It was never the American Founding Fathers’ intention for the general populace to play an active role in politics.
Time and again we hope for better leaders, but all too often those hopes are dashed. The reason, says Professor Keltner, is that power causes people to lose the kindness and modesty that got them elected, or they never possessed those sterling qualities in the first place.
In 1959, the BBC asked Russell what advice he would give future generations. He answered: When you are studying any matter or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed, but look only and solely at what are the facts.
But from then on I would be haunted by Russell’s warning: ‘Never let yourself be diverted by what you wish to believe.’
Beliefs we’re devoted to – whether they’re true or imagined – can likewise come to life, effecting very real change in the world. The Pygmalion Effect resembles the placebo effect (which I discussed in Chapter 1), except, instead of benefiting oneself, these are expectations that benefit others.
What’s fascinating is that the two major ideologies of the twentieth century – capitalism and communism – both shared this view of humanity. Both the capitalist and the communist would tell you that there are only two ways to propel people into action: carrots and sticks. The capitalists relied on carrots (read: money), whereas the communists
For all their differences, there was one basic premise on which both sides could agree: People don’t motivate themselves. Now you may be thinking: Oh, it’s not as bad as that. I, for one, am plenty motivated. I’m not going to argue. In fact, I’m sure you’re right. My point is that we tend to think those other people lack motivation. Professor Chip Heath of Stanford University refers to this as our extrinsic incentives bias. That is, we go around assuming other people can be motivated solely by money.
Edward Deci was a young psychologist working on his PhD at a time when the field was in a thrall to behaviourism. This theory held – like Frederick Taylor’s – that people are shiftless creatures. The only thing powerful enough to spur us to action is the promise of a reward or the fear of punishment. Yet Deci had a nagging sense that this theory didn’t stack up. After all, people go around doing all kinds of nutty things that don’t fit the behaviourist view. Like climbing mountains (hard!), volunteering (free!) and having babies (intense!). In fact, we’re continually engaging in activities – of our own free will – that don’t earn us a penny and are downright exhausting. Why?
HELLO, ULTIMATE FRISBEE!
A few years ago, researchers at the University of Massachusetts analysed fifty-one studies on the effects of economic incentives in the workplace. They found ‘overwhelming evidence’ that bonuses can blunt the intrinsic motivation and moral compass of employees.12 And as if that wasn’t bad enough, they also discovered that bonuses and targets can erode creativity. Extrinsic incentives will generally pay out in kind. Pay by the hour and you get more hours. Pay by the publication and you get more publications. Pay by the surgical procedure and you get more surgical procedures.
People do what they are incentivized to do.
Time and again, we assume that others care only about themselves. That, unless there’s a reward in the offing, people much prefer to lounge around. A British study recently found that a vast majority of the population (74 per cent) identify more closely with values such as helpfulness, honesty and justice than with wealth, status and power. But just about as large a share (78 per cent) think others are more self-interested than they really are.
De Blok sums up his philosophy like this: ‘It’s easy to make things hard, but hard to make them easy.’ The record clearly shows that managers prefer the complicated. ‘Because that makes your job more interesting,’ de Blok explains. ‘That lets you say: See, you need me to master that complexity.’ Could it be that’s also driving a big part of our so-called ‘knowledge economy’? That pedigree managers and consultants make simple things as complicated as possible so we will need them to steer us through all the complexity?
Not until the late nineteenth century did children once again have more time to play. Historians call this period the ‘golden age’ of unstructured play, when child labour was banned and parents increasingly left kids to themselves.21 In many neighbourhoods in Europe and North America no one even bothered to keep an eye on them, and kids simply roamed free most of the day. These golden days were short-lived, however, as from the 1980s onward life grew progressively busier, in the workplace and the classroom. Individualism and the culture of achievement gained precedence. Families grew smaller and parents began to worry whether their progeny would make the grade.
Turns out, I keep catching the edge of a lot of good things.
So maybe there’s an even bigger question we should be asking: What’s the purpose of education?
‘The opposite of play is not work,’ the psychologist Brian Sutton-Smith once said. ‘The opposite of play is depression.’41
These days, the way many of us work – with no freedom, no play, no intrinsic motivation – is fuelling an epidemic of depression.
Many citizens of democracies are, at best, permitted to choose their own aristocracy.
On the whole, voters tend to take a fairly dim view of politicians, and vice versa.
Among the most notable findings to come out of contact science is that prejudices can be eliminated only if we retain our own identity.40 We need to realise it’s okay that we’re all different – there’s nothing wrong with that. We can build strong houses for our identities, with sturdy foundations. Then we can throw open the doors.
Having faith in others is as much a rational decision as an emotional one. Of course, seeing where someone else is coming from doesn’t mean you need to see eye to eye. You can understand the mindset of a fascist, a terrorist, or a fan of Love Actually without jumping on the fascist, terrorist, or lover-of-sappy-movies bandwagon. (I have to say, I’m a proud member of that last group.) Understanding the other at a rational level is a skill. It’s a muscle you can train.
Where we need our capacity for reason most of all is to suppress, from time to time, our desire to be nice. Sometimes our sociable instinct gets in the way of truth and of equity. Because consider: haven’t we all seen someone treated unfairly yet kept silent to avoid being disagreeable? Haven’t we all swallowed our words just to keep the peace? Haven’t we all accused those who fight for their rights of rocking the boat?