I sometimes despair about the nature of the human condition and the likely future of our species on this planet.
We don’t behave at all well towards each other – something that’s been thrown into sharp relief in the last generation or so in the west as we’ve become increasingly ‘wired’, and as the culture of ‘self-first’ has suffused the western world.
The base problem, as far as I can tell, is that humans, by nature, seek validation; and it seems the easiest way to get that is by invalidating somebody else – asserting your own power over theirs, and taking away their right to respond. Bullying. It appears to be a device for validation, and it’s innate to human nature – we have to actively stop ourselves doing it. The science backs it: it turns out that the chemistry of ‘doing evil’ is more rewarding that the chemistry of ‘doing good’.
Worse, the societies we build inevitably end up operating on principles that facilitate such conduct on the largest scale. Based on various studies, the keys to it seem to be:
- Humans, by nature, have an ‘us-and-them’ mentality that can be exploited by others to their own gain. Who ‘they’ are varies, but the common factor is that it is apparently very easy for us to dehumanise ‘them’.
- Anonymity helps facilitate bad behaviour; people think they can get away with conduct that isn’t acceptable in person but which they use to validate their sense of self-worth. That anonymity can come by, for instance, being part of a uniformed group; or through online conduct.
- Being part of ‘a group’ helps facilitate bad behaviour – look at the way riots happen, often perpetrated by people who are otherwise law-abiding citizens. The reason is that we uncritically follow group norms. (Sometimes this and the ‘group behaviour’ factors are separated – Phillip Zimbardo’s list of what constitutes the evil of humanity does so). The same phenomenon operates in rock concerts when people are asked to chant in unison or wave their hands from the stage.
- We are conditioned to be obedient, often blindly. Stanley Milgram’s slightly scary experiments half a century ago showed that someone instructed by an authority figure will usually carry those instructions out, even if it means hurting or killing somebody else. More recent analysis has shown that this happens because the person doing the hurting feels good for doing so. Humans, it seems, feel rewarded by their ability to hurt others. And that is even more scary.
- Individuals tend to sit back and let bad things happen around us, even if we’re not involved.
- It is far too easy to take the first steps down the path to evil, buoyed by all these factors – to get away with them – and then go further. Eventually moral compass is lost.
I think that these are the main factors that guide where society goes – and not just western society; these issues afflict all cultures. One of the reasons, I suspect, is the ‘Dunbar number’ – the 150-odd people that we are hard-wired to know, support and cope with. By no coincidence it’s the size of a typical hunter-gatherer band, the scale of human society that we evolved with.
Go to a larger society and problems start. Not because people slide into evil, but because the collision between their egoes and society provokes this behaviour by nature. And it is ape behaviour – chimps do it too, fighting wars and beating each other up.
Are we better than animals? Apparently not. Although I think there are ways in which we can learn how to transcend our flaws. The main path is through kindness, to do which we have to understand how to let go of ego, to let go of that desperate sense of self-validation at all cost. Among other things, which include letting go of the notion that we must have instant gratification – instant reward.
Will we ever learn this as a society? I hope so.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016