Moving America Forward

To Build It Back Better, Rethink Human Nature

October 31, 2020
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To Build It Back Better, Rethink Human Nature

For #BuildItBackBetter, NationSwell asked some of our nation’s most celebrated purpose-driven leaders how they’d build a society that is more equitable and resilient than the one we had before COVID-19. We have compiled and lightly edited their answers.

This article is part of the #BuildItBackBetter track “The Relational Era: Building a Culture of Connection, Bridging and Belonging” — presented in partnership with Einhorn Collaborative.

“Because people suck.”

That’s the campaign slogan of Oliver, a Massachusetts goldendoodle who is running a long-shot bid for the White House against two more well-known human opponents: President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

Anyone who has been following American politics for the past four years — really, anyone who has even glanced at cable news or their social media feed — might be inclined to agree with Oliver’s campaign. Racism, xenophobia, greed, and polarization all seem to be the norm, peppered with casual violence and hateful speech. It’s enough to make you downgrade your views of humanity and cast your lot with (if not your ballot for) a goldendoodle.

But that would be a serious mistake, especially for workplace and educational leaders. Because while it’s easy to feel discouraged these days, things will get even worse if we succumb to the notion that people suck and that our species — and our country — is beyond redemption.

That’s because our assumptions and expectations about human nature actually seem to dictate human behavior. For instance, a study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison published recently found that having a more optimistic view of human nature actually influences more positive behavior in real life. But the opposite seems to be true as well: When children believe that aggressive, antisocial behavior is the norm, they’re more likely to behave badly as they get older.

This means we need to guard against the assumption that people are born bad. It also means we can encourage better behavior by designing our institutions, from our schools to our workplaces, to spread more positive messages about humanity.

To build a culture that values honesty and cooperation over, say, back-biting and divisiveness — research offers a few important lessons and strategies.

1. Language matters. The words we use to describe our world actually influence how we behave in the world. When we convey that we expect people to cooperate and look out for each other, we increase the odds that they’ll actually do so.

In one study, for instance, Stanford University researchers had people play a game where they could either work together to achieve a common goal or compete with their partner. When people were told they were playing the “Community Game,” they were more than twice as likely to cooperate with their partner than when they were playing the “Wall Street Game”—even though it was actually the same game.

2. Images matter. In case you had any doubt about the power of images, consider this study: Toddlers were shown a series of pictures, then encountered an adult who needed help with a task. When they saw images that had dolls facing each other in the background of each image, the kids were three times more likely to help the adult than after seeing single dolls, or dolls facing away from each other, in the image backgrounds.

In other words, humans are so primed for connection that even just the mere hint of affiliation between people is enough to dramatically change our behavior for the better. The dynamics in an office or a classroom can be transformed, then, when we recognize this human drive for kindness and connection—and surround ourselves with images that evoke it.

3. Actions matter. We typically associate “copycat” behavior with crimes. But evidence suggests people, especially kids, emulate the good as well as the bad. A study in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, for example, found that kids as young as two years old are much more like to help people in need when they see other people do so first.

So don’t assume humans are inexorably immoral, and nothing you do matters. There’s no telling how your own good behavior might inspire others to follow suit. In fact, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that when one person behaves generously, it inspires observers to behave generously later, toward different people. In fact, the researchers found that kindness could spread by three degrees across a social network. “As a result,” they write, “each person in a network can influence dozens or even hundreds of people, some of whom he or she does not know and has not met.”

None of this is to suggest that the violence and conflict we see around us is an illusion; but it does mean that it’s not inevitable. By changing the story we tell about human nature, and designing our institutions around the deep human potential for goodness, we can build a world that makes us proud.

Jason Marsh is the Executive Director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley and the founding editor-in-chief of the center’s online magazine, Greater Good.

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