Most people, deep down, are decent

A review of Rutger Bregman’s Humankind a Hopeful History 

by Morgan Phillips

Whenever something challenges my assumptions and leads me to understand something in a new way, I ask myself what the implications and applications are for my work and often, my life.

Rutger Bregman’s new book, Humankind, forces readers to question their assumptions about one of the biggies: human nature.

Like many people who will pick up this book, I was already pretty sold on Bregman’s central idea: “most people, deep down, are decent.”

But the definition of ‘most’ is important here. Before reading Humankind, by ‘most people’ I was thinking, roughly 75% of us. Three-quarters of us are, deep down, decent — a resounding majority; not a 51/49 split between good and evil. For me, it has always been a thumping win for good guys.

However, after reading Humankind, my estimation has changed, I’m now more confident. I’d now say that 95% or more of people are in the ‘decent’ category; an even bigger win for team awesome. Bregman hasn’t so much validated my thinking on human nature, he has persuaded me that I didn’t have enough faith in my fellow humans.

This has significant implications for how I do my work as a project design specialist at environmental NGO Global Action Plan (GAP) and as Co-Director for The Glacier Trust (TGT), a charity that enables climate change adaptation in Nepal.

It is also hugely uplifting; in a polarised world it is good to be reminded that most people are basically pretty good.

The key implication is this: If the projects my colleagues and I design at GAP and TGT are based on an idea that people, deep down, are not decent — that they are inherently selfish and primarily motivated by fear of how others judge them and the careless pursuit of their own hedonistic highs — then our projects are being designed to appeal to 5% or less of the population (who probably won’t ever commit to long term change on environmental and social justice issues anyway). That’s a grave error.

Of course, we all enjoy hedonistic highs to some extent and none of us are completely anxiety free when it comes to how we’re viewed by others; but we’d be pretty upset if you told us that we’d prioritise these things thoughtlessly and at the expense of others and the planet. We wouldn’t, we’re just not like that and neither are most of the people we know and love.

Deep down, we’re decent — we care about doing and being good to ourselves and each other. This is why environmental behaviour change campaigns that appeal to our self-interests (e.g. concerns about image, status or getting into trouble with the law) so often feel a bit childish and patronising — we look at them and think that the message might well appeal to others, but that we’re happy to do our recycling anyway.

Bregman talks about “veneer theory”, this is the notion that ‘civilisation is nothing more than a thin veneer that will crack at the merest provocation’ — it is a faulty idea that Dutch biologist Frans de Waal highlights, but many people still subscribe to it.

Veneer theory is based on a powerful myth about the very nature of human beings. This myth has been constructed gradually over centuries, Thomas Hobbes starting expounding it as far back as 1651 and it has grown stronger and stronger ever since. It is reinforced repeatedly by thousands, possibly millions, of very believable stories of both ‘fact’ and fiction. These stories leave us thinking that most of our fellow humans are, in Bregman’s words, ‘selfish, aggressive and quick to panic.’

This myth, this misplaced belief about our fellow humans, explains why we so readily believe in the veneer theory. We worry that the ‘merest provocation’ will spark breakouts of violence and chaos by individuals or unruly mobs as the civilising forces that usually hold our primal instincts in check are overwhelmed.

This bleak view of humanity, a view that we are always on the precipice of a return to a ‘red in tooth and claw’ natural state, runs counter to lived experience and evidence. Bregman stresses this throughout the book:

‘In actuality, the opposite is true. It’s when crisis hits — when the bombs fall or the floodwaters rise — that we humans become our best selves.’

This is very much evident today. Other than a tiny minority of the most callous, self-regarding opportunists and egotists, the vast majority of the world’s population is pulling together in common cause to tackle the Coronavirus pandemic. The acts of solidarity, volunteerism and charity far, far outweigh the acts of apparent selfishness.

Now, you may well roll your eyes at that last sentence and fair enough, but the fact that you might (and others definitely will) points to one reason the myth of human [un]kindness is so strong. We hear stories all the time — in films, books, magazines, news reports, blogs, podcasts and on social media — that present ‘true’ human nature as something to be ashamed and fearful of.

And, if you hear a believable story enough times, you’ll end up believing it, whether or not it’s true. The story we hear about human nature, is more like a narrative, or a commentary — we are presented with examples of humans behaving in all manner of ways and this reinforces a general idea that they are selfish; that we are selfish.

Bregman critiques some of the most influential of these stories — the Guardian published his take down of the moral tale William Golding tried to tell in Lord of the Flies; but it is his deconstruction of several — allegedly fact based — sacred cows on human behaviour that really stand out.

The assumptions that prop up popular ideas like the bystander effect, broken window theory and tragedy of the commons are all examined and shown to be shaky. In different ways they are all based on misconceptions of human nature. In some instances, they are based on fabrications of real events by journalists after a sensational story, or academics desperately trying to justify an expensive research experiment.

Bregman does not just present alternative hypotheses, his detailed research and primary interviews uncover crucial missing details that categorically prove how wrong some of our most trusted storytellers have consistently been about human nature.

Once you have read Humankind, you will see why Malcolm Gladwell is conspicuous in his absence among the 21 writers and academics whose approvals adorn the book’s cover and front matter.

Humankind goes onto to describe how better understandings of human nature can improve the way we do everything from business, education and criminal justice, to military strategy, counter-terrorism and race relations. Bregman also uses his fresh lens on human nature to explain why some of history’s most awful wars went on as long as they painfully did; and intriguingly, how, by selectively breeding for friendliness, wild foxes can be turned into affectionate pets in just twenty generations.

Bregman is far from alone in coming to this far more life-affirming conclusion about human nature. Many others share these insights, not least Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who gets several mentions. But, Bregman is taking this framing of human nature to mainstream audiences — which for many will feel like the beginnings of a paradigm shift; a timely and exciting one.

The implications of this are yet to be seen, but if it becomes a bestseller, it could have a huge impact — it could reshape policy making at the highest levels. Which of course means that those with vested interests in preserving the status quo, won’t want Bregman’s ideas and analysis to gain traction; expect to see some pretty strong nay-saying in the pages of The Spectator and the like. Bregman didn’t go down too well at Davos last year.

So, applications. At Global Action Plan, in partnership with Reboot the Future, we have been convening a group of education practitioners to respond to a question that we feel is now key to the future development of environmental and social justice campaigns in the 21st Century — what does environmental education look like when we apply what we know about values? We could rephrase this to ask what it look like when we apply what we know about human nature? But it is not far off being same question.

I’ve offered more detailed thoughts elsewhere on this, but in essence, what we are exploring is what truly motivates pro environmental and pro social behaviours, what doesn’t; and, most importantly, what makes commitment to the cause stick long-term?

A new paper by Ute B. Theirmann and William R. Sheate from the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London provides an excellent framework for exploring these questions.

Theirmann and Sheate (2020) unpick traditional / conventional approaches to motivating pro environmental behaviours. They link these approaches to the same misunderstandings about human nature that Bregman highlights. Prevailing approaches in environmental education, campaigning and policy-making are limited in their impact precisely because they are based on a limited appreciation of what motivates pro environmental behaviour.

The approaches we see are based on a belief that extrinsic, rather than intrinsic, motivations are the most powerful drivers of our thoughts and behaviours. This assumption is grounded in that deeper assumption that humans, deep down, are inherently self-interested. This is why we see so many ‘carrot and stick’ campaigns that appeal either to our desire for rewards or our fear of punishment. These are premised on the idea that there is a reliable pathway from appeals to self-interest to pro environmental behaviour.

It is not that that carrots and sticks have no effect, they often do; but they have a limited effect in terms of scale and longevity. This approach is problematic in another way too. It works by activating our self-interest values, it therefore reinforces them — it nurtures our selfishness and our competitiveness. When these values are strenghthened (like muscles) they weaken their opposites. Values like altruism, cooperation and care for others are crowded out. And, as Thiermann and Sheate point out, it is these latter bigger-than-self values that have been proven to underpin deeper and longer lasting changes in behaviour at both individual and collective levels.

Appeals to self-interest to motivate pro environmental behaviour are a classic example of taking a short cut to achieve a specific short term goal. It creates a quick-win, but can be counterproductive longer term.

Theirmann and Sheate point to a second and often overlooked pathway to pro environmental behaviour change. It is slowly gaining attention and traction in environmental and social justice circles. Bregman’s book will bolster those who subscribe to it. The empirical evidence that this second pathway has a longer and more powerful effect is growing. It correlates with what Bregman is saying about the true nature of human nature — that most of us are, deep down, decent; we are altruistic, cooperative, friendly, compassionate and kind.

Theirmann and Sheate identify ‘a new class of environmental interventions’ based on this second path. These approaches emphasise nature connectedness, appeals to our compassionate values and draw on our longing for meaning and purpose in life. It might take longer for the results of these approaches to start showing, but when they do they are significant and long-lasting.

You can find examples of this approach in the work of Lifeworlds LearningTYFPeople UnitedPIRCAmazing People SchoolsPSHE AssociationNew Citizenship Project; we are threading it through all our work at Global Action Plan and it is emerging in the work of many more environmental organisations. It is a paradigm shift in how we think about and do environmental education.

As Bregman observes, human history isn’t the story of ‘survival of the fittest’, it is the story of ‘survival of the friendliest’ — we are hardwired to cooperate, care and help. Example after example in Humankind highlight how readily and freely we sacrifice something of ourselves, occasionally everything, to help and care for others.

Yes, the doctors, nurses, surgeons, carers, cleaners, paramedics, teachers, drivers and others on the ‘frontline’ of the Coronavirus pandemic are being brave; but they are also being human — they help, we all help, that’s what we do, we can’t help it, we’re only human. Our capacity to empathise, be compassionate and to care is what makes us so lovable. It is why only the friendliest survive — narcissism, self-obsession and greed aren’t attractive qualities.

If there is a veneer, it is this: an economy that only works if there is a constant telling and re-telling of a false story about human nature. This story, which we hear over and over, activates and reinforces our self-interest values. It leaves us fearing others and plodding along on a never ending hedonic treadmill. In this state, we find ourselves in thrall to protective strongmen leaders and consumer brands that promise us that happiness is just one click away.

But this — consumerism — is built on sand; it is fragile. Since being forced to stay home, many of us have found it easy to let go of. We’ve not missed the way it preys on our insecurities to tempt us to ‘spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like’; our wellbeing has not been diminished by our inability to shop for luxury status symbols, we’ve found wellbeing elsewhere — in nature, in peacefulness, in comradeship, in volunteering, in giving, in fresh air and in love. The consumerism economy is missing us, but are we missing it?

What might just breakthrough is a compassionate society. It is possible, especially if enough of us, at the same time, come to accept that most people — and I mean most people (including ourselves) — are caring, cooperative and decent. Compassion and cooperation is what lies just beneath the veneer, we’ve been given a glimpse of it as the pandemic has played out.

For clues as to what it looks like long term, read Bregman’s passages on the success of various forms of participatory budgeting that are in motion around the world, watch Carne Ross’ brilliant film ‘Accidental Anarchist’ and look up utterly inspiring Make Rojava Green Again movement.

Bregman’s book is exciting not just because of its optimistic message, it is exciting because it is mainstream. He is in high demand across the public speaking and podcast circuit; he is being featured in broadsheet newspapers — and not just the left leaning ones. This is important because it will help tackle a fundamental problem highlighted brilliantly in Perceptions Matters a landmark piece of research by the Common Cause Foundation.

Common Cause identified a troubling anomaly in the way we think about each other. In surveys with representative samples of the British public, they showed how while a high percentage (74%) of respondents value things like kindness, cooperation, helpfulness, true friendship and compassion; a slightly higher percentage (77%) perceive other people to value the opposites — things like status, material wealth, image, power and hedonism. They call this the Values-Perception gap. At GAP we are currently conducting research to see how prevalent this perception gap is in children and young people.

To close this gap, we need a significant swell of people to gain more faith in their fellow citizens; ideally all at the same time. In short, we need them to reach the same conclusion Rutger Bregman has, that ‘people, deep down, are decent.’ We also need them to think and talk about themselves like this.

How many times have you heard people explain away their own altruistic behaviours as having selfish roots? For example, explaining that they are volunteering on a project because it will look good on their CV. Or that they get a ‘warm glow’ from donating to charity. It’s not that these things aren’t true, but they often aren’t the primary motivators of the altruism (as Theirmann and Sheate explain).

We say such things both to ourselves and each other, because we don’t want to be perceived as ‘unnatural’ human beings — i.e. not the selfish people we tell ourselves we are. We don’t want to be accused of virtue signalling, or being woke, or a hypocrite who is only doing a selfless act for selfish reasons.

When altruism is explained away like this, it reinforces the idea that humans are inherently selfish and that to help others — just because you want to — is somehow weak, or naïve, or self-indulgent. That is off putting for the would-be environmentalist, nobody likes to be the odd one out, the one who is teased for being compassionate and kind in a world of competition and hedonism.

The determined ones among us persist with their altruism all the same. They are unafraid of standing out and strong enough to take the teasing and abuse. But others shy away, not wanting to risk the terrors of being ostracised by the group. I’ve found myself shying away more times than I would like to admit — but I’m changing as my faith in others grows and, more importantly, as their acceptance of my diet, travel plans, voting preferences and consumer choices are understood as the altruistic acts they primarily are. My confidence grows further when I realise I am increasingly not alone in making these choices.

Bregman’s book shows through several examples that if you create an environment that breeds competition, envy and individualism, humans will behave accordingly (we’re not all saints and we have strong aversions to being the odd one out), but if you create conditions that nurture cooperation, creativity, compassion and kindness, those are the things that will flourish; our true human nature will blossom, with positive results.

The potential applications are many, they are grounded in telling the true story of human nature and telling it relentlessly. As I read Humankind, I noted down several life stories that would make great films and books. So, be inspired by Bregman’s visits to Buurtzorg, the Agora school and Halden prison; and the stories he tells about the real Lord of the Flies and the estranged twins who reunited to help Nelson Mandela win his first General Election. Be inspired and then re-design your own approaches to environmentalism and social justice.

We must not fear human nature, we must embrace it, we succeeded as a species because our default setting is cooperation; we need to give our compassionate sides the chance to fully flourish again. If we do that, instead of persisting with our tired appeals to self-interest, we might yet find a path through the challenges that climate and ecological breakdown will throw at us.

We are going to need to help each other, the good news is that that is exactly what is in our nature.