Somehow, it became that pessimists are viewed as realists, while optimists are stamped away as naïve. People who trust in other people’s inherent goodness are viewed as gullible, too trusting, and well, just wrong. In Human Kind (Orig.: De Meeste Mensen Deugen), Dutch historian Rutger Bregman disproves this notion: Kindness is a human characteristic, and that’s by no means a baseless assumption. He disproves fundamental belief systems our society has built, exposing cases that have shaped our understanding of human nature. Armed with this knowledge and current development, I believe we must reevaluate how we see the world if we want to change it.
Rutger begins his book with a question, and I’ll do the same for this article: How has your view on human nature changed during your life?
For me, reading this book reminded me of my past beliefs of the world. I used to treat them like something akin to lost innocence, accounting them to a child’s naivete. For example, I used to fantasize that we could get rid of money and work if we just take turns. Through my young eyes, I saw the weekly cleaning schedule at school and wondered – why couldn’t we apply that to the entire world? It didn’t seem that far-fetched to me back then.
Admittingly, it might take a slightly more refined structure for our society to work. But the reason I was able to envision that kind of system for the world, is due to my belief that all people inherently want the best for everyone, and would be willing to act accordingly.
This conviction lessened over the years, remaining as nothing more than an unfounded belief buried somewhere inside of me. I had accepted that, like so many things, it is something we will never know for sure. But not anymore – I can now safely state that humans are, scientifically and historically proven, kind at heart.
Exciting myths and boring truths
Unfortunately, there are plenty of red herrings in the literary and scientific world about humanity that makes this kind of belief harder to spread. Enticing stories about the so-called ‘true human condition’ and just as many people vouching for them. One example that comes to mind is Lord of the Flies, a story so widely accepted that students must regularly endure it during philosophy class. As significant as the novel is, it should matter and be taught that the author was a violent alcoholic. Moreover, though the story has no relation to true events, a similar scenario, young boys stranded on an island, did take place, but with a very different, much more hopeful ending. Both of those cases may not be generalizable, one being a novel and the other an anecdote, but the latter’s outcome is the only one that can claim to be realistic since it truly happened. And even social experiments which should be better generalizable can turn out to be greatly misleading.
Two of those, which will be familiar to most students who attended some kind of psychology class, are the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Experiment. The first study let students roleplay as wards and prisoners, observing their behaviors. Its results claimed the wards became more aggressive and sadistic with the prisoners on their own, purely due to the freedoms they were given and the setting they were in. The second study instructed unsuspecting participants to send electroshocks to a person behind closed doors, a make-believe scenario, instructing them to increase the voltage to life-threatening levels by an authority figure. Those results claimed that humans were easily and without much hassle able to be manipulated into torturing others.
Both studies concluded that it takes very little to evoke our inborn evilness, and that human nature in itself is just not averse to this kind of behavior. The results shocked the world and shaped society’s view on humanity substantially.
Unfortunately, those studies were anything but valid. It’s not about small errors, but fundamental wrongs pushing a certain agenda. For example, in the prison study, one prisoner admitted to acting like he was turning mad due to the wards’ abuse, simply because he wanted to exit the study to have more time to learn for an exam. For the Milgram study, almost half of the participants stated afterward that they believed the scenario they were put in to be fake.
Furthermore, the scientists behind those experiments explicitly instructed their participants to perform certain, for them desirable, actions, actively pushing them towards a certain option and ignoring their natural reactions to the presented situation.
As the author put it: Instead of conducting an experiment, they directed a play. A very thrilling one, but far from the truth.
The true human history
You could still argue that science has always been a hit-or-miss and that there is more evidence for the wickedness of human nature. Historically speaking, there seemingly is overwhelming proof for that. But if we truly look back, investigating certain events from all angles, many things played out differently than presumed.
If we think of evilness historically, many thoughts will head straight to the World Wars. If human nature is said to be well-meaning, how could there have been so much death, people fighting and killing each other, less than a century ago?
It might help to know that the average firing quote of soldiers in the Second World War is estimated to be only between 12-25%: Only around one in five soldiers actually used their weapon, no matter from which country. The investigation of used weapons, as well as anecdotal evidence from generals, shows that most soldiers would do anything, but selectively shoot the enemy. Instead, they would overload their guns, go get munition, or simply aim as far away from the target as possible.
It’s not that hard to grasp – people were just unwilling to kill one another.
It was comradery – friendships, in the end.
Another insight into soldiers at that time was what motivated them to keep going. Although much understanding about the Second World War is concerned about the Nazi ideologies, pointing at brainwashed German soldiers as the only reason for their militancy, the true reason why they were as ironclad and unwavering was found through interviews with ex-soldiers: It was comradery – friendships, in the end. They kept going because they did not want to leave their friends hanging, even if they were seriously injured, even if they knew that there was no way they would win.
Rutger goes beyond World Wars, diving into anthropology, true crime, terror attacks, as well as racism. He provides in more examples than I could list that the majority of humans are more than capable to remain calm and even humorous in times of crisis, are less motivated by greed or power, but instead by helping other people, and remained throughout history, most definitely, kind.
So why do we remain this cynical and negative about ourselves?
Why are we so cynical?
It has long been normalized to scrutinize everything, distrust and deny most possibilities, and believe that everyone just wants to fool and exploit you. Cynicism is the norm, and this form of perspective can be found in all kinds of people. Comedians utilize it for jokes, politicians to justify policies, and advertisers to explain their strategies.
And we are impressed by it. It is, after all, fun to watch cynic heroes like Dr. House or Sherlock ridiculing the people around them from a kind of intellectual and pessimistic high ground. If someone always points to the worst possible outcomes, diminishing any optimism and invalidating them as lack of experience, that person is perceived as smart and wise in society.
But a 2017 study of over 200,000 people in 30 countries showed that groundless cynicism actually leads to lower competence levels. Cynics were less competent than their counterparts, although most humans believed the opposite.
There are many factors responsible for this. For one, a good deed is much more likely to go unnoticed than a bad one. Just take the pandemic for example – if an extended lockdown was effective, most people were still mad. Why were they deprived of their freedom if nothing bad had happened? The fact that nothing had happened had been the positive effect, was ignored.
Our negativity bias, our likelihood to view things that are negative as more important and finding them more memorable, affects the way we consume news, disturbs our building of self-esteem, and at the end, influences how we view the world.
And by no means should you confuse a cynical worldview for critical reflection, there is a stark difference between the two: Cynicism is thinking critically without hope. It does not help anyone or anything, it’s an excuse for resignation and ignorance.
But thankfully, things are changing.
When caring became cool
Coolness is a difficult thing to define or attain, it’s much easier to say what’s uncool. Generally, a cool person in the past could be described as someone with a reserved, aloof attitude, often a person that did not give two shits about dress codes, age restrictions, social conventions, or authority figures.
But now, it’s become cool to care. Although fundamentally, nothing has changed drastically as it is still about resenting the status quo, connecting it to activism and advocating is new. If you want to add coolness to your status, you now must show that you are deserving of it, based on your political opinions on pressing issues.
And while status has really only very few perks to offer, if equipped with the proper values, being cool could benefit society as a whole. Imagine what could happen if those values become kindness and compassion towards each other.
Your mindset can change the world
The collective belief in something better and greater can lead to true change. A great example was mentioned by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari on this matter. He exemplifies the feminist revolution, one of the biggest ever in human society, as a prototype for a positive change, acquired without violence from its instigators:
“For thousands of years, you had political revolutions, and economical, and technological, one thing remained constant: men dominated women. And in a very short time, historically, about a century, it’s not that we reached a point of complete equality, far from it, but things changed dramatically. […] It’s not a guarantee, but it’s an example that you can change the world better, quickly, peacefully, and without inventing a new technology, just by changing peoples’ minds.”
No one is saying that kindness alone will save the world. But with a new mindset, utopian things become possible. Concepts like Universal Basic Income for example, whose justification is the whole reason the book even exists. Rutger aimed to prove scientifically that human nature is suitable and reliable enough for this kind of model. And it’s far from the only concept he had to try and defend.
Some of his other controversial statements include the famous “Taxes, taxes, taxes. All the rest is bullshit in my opinion”, spoken while in a room full of billionaires. And if you really want to get inspired, watch his unaired encounter with Tucker Carlson (if you’re unfamiliar with the Fox News anchor, let John Oliver catch you up).
Kindness is a win-win strategy
We might not know what the future will look like, but we can try to contribute what we can offer, even if it’s as little as the belief in the good of humanity. There is nothing to lose, other than some of those cynic thoughts.
In fact, you can gain a lot. Take the placebo effect – as much as we would like to be empathic yet rational thinkers who believe only in truths, we are shaped by our feelings and beliefs, things that are anything but empirical facts. Rutger makes the point of viewing the negative mindset of human nature as a nobeco – the contrast to the placebo. If we believe that people are bad, we will also treat each other that way, living in a way that will confirm this attitude.
You make your own reality.
So if there is anything to take away from this article, then it is that you make your own reality. What we accept as the norm will prevail, as only you can change the world around you. No matter if it takes form in wrathful compassion or positive nihilism at the end – our very first step should be to challenge our current beliefs.
And looking at my fella Rutger and my pal Yuval, it seems to me that openly advocating for positivity and optimism is not only beneficial for our world, it’s also just pretty cool.
Cover: Cindy Zheng
Edited by: Younes Skalli