Are humans nice, or are they nasty? It depends who you ask. For centuries, debate has raged across political and scientific lines over whether the fundamental nature of humans is selfish, greedy, competitive, and cruel, or altruistic, co-operative, and philanthropic.
The debate tends to fall along political lines. Those optimistic about human nature — often political liberals — point to the co-operative advantages that early humans gained from living together, sharing resources, and caring for one another; pessimists — typically political conservatives — point out that these small bands were often at war with each other. Liberals notice that the biological building blocks from which our organisms are made — cells — originated through collaboration between bacteria, and that we are ourselves co-operative colonies of specialized cells; conservatives counter that those early coalitions of bacteria flourished because they were able to eat their competitors. Conservatives look at nature and see red in tooth and claw; liberals look at nature and see paradise. Liberals call the sacrifices a mother makes for her children altruism; Scientific conservatives call them furthering her selfish genes. Conservatives look at the internet and see hackers, scams, and online predators; liberals look at the same internet and see Wikipedia, open source software, and 1,000,000 free guitar lessons on YouTube.
They are both right: humans are nice, and they're nasty, and — like all human traits — these two attributes are unevenly distributed. The highly politicized controversy over whether we're more fundamentally brutes that have been civilized or civil creatures that have been brutalized misses a much more practically important question: given what we know of human nature, what sort of systems will bring out the good and reduce the impact of the bad?
Regardless of how selfish the fundamental motives that underlie human behaviour may be, there are ways of channelling these motives toward behaviour that is collectively beneficial, rather than harmful.
As Alex Pentland's MIT team has discovered, our innate desire for social acceptance can be leveraged through social incentives into positive change, both personal and societal; our co-operative, altruistic sides can be brought out through well-designed structures like Wikipedia or online forums that capitalize on the often-neglected but deep-seated drive to contribute something meaningful to a community of some sort, even if it is distributed across the planet (Daniel Pink has a few things to say about this); co-ops and sharing networks give an outlet for altruism, while also satisfying our stinginess and helping protect our shared resources from cheaters and freeloaders. Our tendencies towards patriotism and parochialism can be harnessed in support of local economies that use resources – especially fossil fuels – more efficiently. Competition can motivate excellence, especially when applied with care, and in the right context that keeps it productive rather than destructive.
Much research has been done into the quirks of human psychology and evolutionary proclivities in the past hundred years or so. Armed with this detailed knowledge about our natures, could we intentionally design large-scale ways to make human nature work for, rather than against, the best interests of our species? Could we work with human nature not just in broad strokes, but down to the details?
We know far, far more today about our psychological mechanics than the people who put in place our systems of government, our economic frameworks, and our judicial system. Could we carefully tailor these systems, so that they were more in tune with our natures? Could we, for example, make adjustments to our political systems so that they provided a habitat that was less hospitable to greed, corruption, and destructive partisanship? Could we tweak the judicial system so that it provides maximum deterrent for bad behaviour at minimal societal cost? Could we use the mammoth intelligence gathering tools of the marketing industry to encourage behaviour change that would save the planet?
All of these things are fundamentally psychological problems. What makes a politician decide whether to serve his party or his people, when the two disagree? What makes a would-be criminal hesitate before pulling the trigger, and what doesn't? Upon what scale does a corporate executive weigh the risk to future generations vs. next quarter's stock price? Empirical psychology has a lot to say about these questions, but until that knowledge gets turned into policy, we have gained nothing by it.
An empirical look at human history shows that where effort has been made to improve the world, the world has — slowly, grudgingly, and haltingly – improved. Democracy, the Magna Carta, women's suffrage, human and civil rights: all of these are the results of efforts to make the world a better place. The efforts that work are the efforts that take human nature into account in all its good and bad diversity. Idealism, while perhaps contrary to the trend of history, when applied with knowledge of human nature in mind, is more effective than pessimism.
With an accelerated pace of technical and social change, and thus the accelerated speed with which society approaches the unintended consequences of this change, we are badly in need of a more methodical approach to managing human nature. It's time we quit dickering over who's right and who's wrong and focus on more effective ways to steward our collective society. The future is fraught with both peril and potential, and unless we work with rather than against our innate tendencies, we may not have much of a society left to argue over.