For hundreds of years, we’ve been taught that human beings are selfish by nature and that our actions are primarily governed by self-interest. In his new book ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History’, Rutger Bregman shows this is one of the greatest misconceptions of all times.
“If you look at the scientific evidence, you can only conclude that most people are pretty decent. That’s as simple as it is”, historian and author Rutger Bregman explains. “But if you really think this through, you realise that it’s not just some happy, warm, nice idea, but that it’s in fact quite revolutionary. Because over the past 50 years, we’ve created an entire system that’s based on selfishness and competition. Our schools, prisons, workplaces and democracies are all build around these values. And look where it got us. Rising inequality, growing distrust, global climate change, the extinction of species and an epidemic of anxiety and burnout. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but our misconception of human nature is actually threatening our very own existence.”
An explosion of altruism
In ‘Humankind’, Bregman argues that the time has come to once and for all restructure our socio-economic systems around cooperation and trust. Because from history to biology: the scientific evidence that supports a radical new view of human nature is overwhelming. Rutger gives an example: “Since the 1960s, scientists have gathered over 700 case studies that prove that in times of crisis, there is an explosion of altruism and solidarity. Left, right, young, old, rich and poor: everyone suddenly works together. And yet, after an earthquake or tsunami, all the media shows are stories of looting, plundering and violence. This provides us with a completely skewed view of reality.”
We’re designed to work together
And there is more. Whilst researching his book, Bregman discovered strong psychological evidence that the human mind is wired to be good. “For example, after the Second World War, studies found that 15 to 25 percent of American soldiers weren’t capable of firing their guns, simply because they couldn’t bare the idea of killing another human being”, Rutger explains. “Don’t get me wrong: it’s clear that as a species, we’re definitely capable of violence. But often, it doesn’t come natural to us.”
The bystander effect revisited
Bregman shares another exemplifying case: “Not long ago, scientists would believe that people who witnessed scenes of aggression or violence in public spaces wouldn’t be likely to offer help or intervene, especially when more bystanders would be present. Psychologist Marie Lindegaard was the first to actually analyse real footage of CCTV cameras across multiple European cities and derived to a completely different conclusion. By watching over a thousand videos, she found that in 91 percent of all cases, people do help each other. And that the more people are around, the higher the chance that someone intervenes, because people find support with each other.”
Cooperating as our super power
In addition to our minds, our bodies are also made for cooperation. We’re the only species on this planet that can blush. And the white in our eyes enables people to see how we feel. “From an evolutionary perspective, this doesn’t seem to make sense”, Rutger says. “Because why would you want to be able to involuntarily give your emotions away? The only logical explanation is that these physical traits actually enable us to cooperate and gain each other’s trust. Our bodies are designed to help us work together.”
But in order to build a society based on our new (and correct) view of human nature, and thereby enabling ourselves to reach the levels of cooperation that are required to address the biggest challenges of our time, it’s critical to understand where the current misconception comes from. Because if most people are good, why has the idea that we’re selfish become so widespread?
According to Rutger, the gap between how we view people and what they really are like can be explained by the information we get. “The news is mostly about exceptions. About the things that go wrong. It shows us exactly how the world doesn’t work”, Bregman explains. “But there’s something deeper going on as well. Who benefits from a cynical and pessimistic worldview? It’s those in power. Because if we can trust each other, we no longer need the CEO’s, managers, monarchs and presidents to keep us in check. It would open up room to organise our societies in a very different, more egalitarian way.”
In fact, everywhere around the globe, over fifteen hundred cities are already experimenting with a so-called participatory democracy. Instead of career politicians, normal citizens call the shots. “And the fascinating thing is that it works”, Rutger says enthusiastically. “People have reasonable discussions about controversial subjects and come up with effective compromises. If you treat people like stupid consumers, they’ll behave like that. But as soon as you provide them with agency and trust, they’ll become responsible adults. It’s like we have a social and a selfish leg. And the question is: which leg do we train?”
Behaviour is contagious
Another example that shows that people behave like they’re viewed and treated is the Norwegian prison system. Bregman: “In Norway, prisoners have the freedom to go to the cinema and have a job. They even have their own music studio and a label called ‘criminal records’. This may sound crazy, but when you look at the statistics, Norway has the lowest recidivism rate in the whole world. People mirror each other’s behaviour. So the only way to break a cycle of bad behaviour, is by treating someone who has done harm with dignity and kindness.”
Change the story, change the future
If we fully embrace this new story about what humans are really like, according to Rutger, there is hope for the future. “If you look at the challenges that we’re faced with right now, we can only solve them by dropping our pessimistic and cynical attitude. Because if we actually cooperate and work together on a large scale, we can do things that are pretty unimaginable. And history teaches us we can do it quickly as well. In 1939, the US military basically didn’t exist. Yet a couple of years later, it was one of the most powerful forces on the planet. When it comes down to climate change, we have to do exactly the same thing. But it all starts with a different mentality.”
What you can do
To everyone who wants to help turn the tide, Rutger has some practical advice. “Assume the best in others. Even if you’re unsure about someone. And lead by example. If you do something nice for another human being, kindness starts spreading throughout your community. Because you reap what you sow.”
Buy his book
To get a complete picture of Humankind, we strongly recommend reading his latest book 'Humankind'.