You may have seen Rutger Bregman telling billionaire attendees at Davos to pay their fair share of taxes or read this article about how ideas change the world. In his latest book, Human kind: A Hopeful History, Bregman presents his own world-changing idea.
Reading the news during #pandemicsummer2020, it's easy to believe the worst of human nature, our idiocy and self-annihilating capacities. But Bregman makes the case that we've got human nature all wrong. We're not as lazy, self-interested, violent, or greedy as we make ourselves out to be. We're generally kind at heart and like to help each other. And we need to believe this about ourselves even if it's sometimes not true.
You've probably heard of the Placebo Effect. If you haven't, listen to this episode from one of my favorite NPR podcasts, The Hidden Brain, for some great examples of a placebo's healing power (Spoiler Alert: people felt just as good after fake knee surgeries as real, invasive ones!). Basically, believe you're being healed and you will feel better.
Turns out, the opposite works as well. This is called the Nocebo Effect. If we're told a drug might have certain side effects, we're much more likely to experience those side effects even if we've only taken a sugar pill (So please don't tell me something is going to hurt!). Teach children that strangers are dangerous #strangerdanger and we grow into people who don't trust the #goodintentions of people we don't know. I have been berated by well-meaning friends for accepting rides from strangers when I was in a bind.
Bregman presents research that debunks well-known studies done in the aftermath of World War II that "confirmed" our worst fears of our nature and have influenced policy-making ever since (In fact, the conclusions of these debunked studies were still being taught as accurate and important in my social psychology class in 2012):
Bregman even does some impressive sleuthing to get to the bottom of the story behind the real kids who inspired Nobel-laureate William Golding's depressing Lord of the Flies (Spoiler Alert: they were cooperative and able to effectively self-govern in real life).
Bregman explains in his book:
"The Pygmalion and Golem Effects are woven into the fabric of our world. Every day, we make each other smarter or stupider, stronger or weaker, faster or slower. We can't help leaking expectations, through our gazes, our body language and our voices. My expectations about you define my attitude towards you, and the way I behave towards you in turn influences your expectations and therefore your behavior towards me."
We need to believe in ourselves and each other. We need to believe in the good intentions of others, while accepting and allowing for people to be humans who will inevitably make mistakes. There are of course exceptions, and those of us who have endured abuse have first-hand experience of our capacity for cruelty, deception, domination...what have you. But that doesn't mean all or even most people cannot be trusted. Believing this has consequences ranging from higher levels of anxiety and depression for individuals and policies that lead to undesirable outcomes for societies. This article on FiveThirtyEight, a site that specializes in using statistical analysis in its reporting, about our perceptions of crime being higher than they actually are makes a strong case for not relying on the availability heuristic and other cognitive biases when forming our beliefs, which focus our attention, define what we think possible, and guide our decisions.
So much of what works in our lives is based on trust. And so much of what doesn't is rooted in a breakdown in trust. That's not to say that people won't do bad things, but when it does, we might be able to behave in a non-complementary way, which opens up space for the bad actor to change course as in this example of a dinner guest foiling an attempted robbery for inviting the burgler to share a glass of wine from this episode of another one of my favorite NPR podcasts Invisibilia).
That's why one of life's most important (and difficult) lessons is connecting with and cultivating our own goodness so that we will recognize it in others and having #compassion for when we and others fail to predict the negative consequences (especially knock-on second and third order effects) of our well-intentioned actions.