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How Beliefs About 'Human Nature' Reinforce the Status Quo

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Human beings are enormously malleable and adaptable, and behavior that's taboo in one culture is valued in another. Still, many people persist in believing that some human traits are 'just human nature', while others are not. And, of course, there's very little agreement about which is which. The Judeo-Christian tradition, which tends to take the Adam and Eve myth as something close to fact, uses it to justify not only its deep misogyny, but also its belief that humans are fundamentally wicked and can only be salvaged through prayer and a good deal of masochistic behavior. The idea is that children are born wicked and have to have the 'old Adam' beaten out of them, preferably with wooden implements--a view that still survives in many fundamentalist Christian enclaves in places like Texas and Idaho.

As loyal American capitalists, it's very important for us to believe that selfishness is 'just human nature', despite the fact that for so many other societies around the world, the opposite seems to be true. Of course, the conservative spin on this is that those other people are 'losers', since they don't have SUVs, microwaves, alcoholism, and child abuse.

Another American belief is that humans--especially males--are 'naturally' aggressive and competitive. But human beings are no more 'naturally' aggressive than they are 'naturally generous. Toddlers will both grab toys away from other children and offer their own toys to them.

Generosity, helpfulness, and cooperativeness are also 'human nature' but rarely recognized as such in our society, and psychologists have only recently begun studying them. Recent experiments show that most people, seeing someone in difficulty, will go out of their way to help. Being helpful is also correlated with assertiveness and high self-esteem, contrary to popular beliefs.

Thomas Hobbes proclaimed that life in the "state of nature" was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". But what we know of hunter-gatherer societies suggests that while life may have been short, and lacking many of what we have come to feel are necessities--it was anything but solitary. People depended on each other for survival. A solitary individual was soon a dead one. Humans are social animals, by instinct and by necessity. The question is not how cultures got them to cooperate, but how they got them to stop.

There is also a popular belief--perpetuated by the media--that people in disaster situations 'panic', that is, act in a completely fear-driven, selfish manner. But Lee Clarke--citing studies over a fifty-year period--says that in fact people in disaster situations most often help those next to them before they help themselves. He points out that decision-makers and other officials are highly invested in perpetuating the 'panic' myth, because (1) it justifies withholding unpleasant truths from the public, and (2) distracts attention from the illegal or ill-advised management actions that cause most disasters.

People interviewed after rescuing someone often say: "I didn't have time to think, I just did it." This is why we so often read of people who drown trying to save someone else from drowning--they jump in before they've had time to think about their own swimming ability.

'Human nature' includes everything any human has ever done. And helping is a major part of it. Helping enabled us to survive as a species for most of our existence on the planet. Even two-year-olds will empathize with others and offer help. And newborns will cry in response to the crying of other infants, but not in response to a tape of their own cries. We're never told this is "just human nature," but it obviously is. Felix Warneken's recent research with toddlers confirms it. Children have to be trained out of their natural altruism in a culture like ours that frowns on cooperation and rewards selfish, competitive behavior.

Alfie Kohn suggests that the 'naturally aggressive' illusion takes everyone off the hook. No one can be blamed for their behavior if human beings are just genetically ornery. But it also upholds the status quo. No need trying to create a better world because we're bad to the bone. More than half of the American people believe that 'human nature' makes war inevitable, and it's no surprise to find that those who believe this never contribute to peace efforts. The same 'human nature' argument was used to defend slavery before the civil war. People had always owned slaves, plantation owners said. It was in the Bible. It was 'natural'.

The more people believe in some version of 'original sin', the more difficulty they have cooperating, and thus the more susceptible they are to unscrupulous and power-hungry authority figures, especially if such figures wrap themselves in the flag or quote the Bible.