Breaking news! Humans are basically good

Hurricane Katrina: “When the floodwaters rise, we humans become our best selves.” © Getty

Are people at their best in a crisis? Dutch historian Rutger Bregman thinks so, and he believes we have a persistent habit of ignoring the evidence that human nature is fundamentally good.

Civilisation is only skin deep.

That’s the idea behind every disaster movie and dystopian novel. When the earthquake strikes, the aliens invade, and the zombies rise up, society buckles under the pressure. Law and order break down. Panic, chaos and anarchy take their place. People turn on each other and show the very worst side of human nature.

It’s a depressing picture mirrored on social media and the news during the coronavirus epidemic. Fights in supermarkets over toilet paper, selfish people gathering in parks and ignoring social distancing.

But, according to Rutger Bregman, it’s a distorted myth. The overwhelming evidence, he says, shows humans are pretty decent. And, in a crisis, they are at their best.

His book, Humankind: A Hopeful History, has made waves around the world, even before it comes out next week. Fame would not be wholly unfamiliar to Bregman, who recently turned 32.

He became an online sensation at Davos last year when he turned on his audience, condemning the absurdity of the rich taking 1,500 private jets to hear David Attenborough warn of the climate crisis, and their failure to pay their taxes or even to mention the word.

He said he felt as if he were “at a firefighters’ conference where nobody is allowed to speak about water”.

Back in 2005, the most devastating natural disaster in US history hit the city of New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina ripped apart the city, left 80% of the population underwater, and killed 1,836 people. The news reported rumours of society falling part. Gangs roamed the city, looting shops and killing people.

Months later, researchers went back to uncover the truth. It turned out no one had been murdered and the looting was carried out by Robin Hood-style rescue squads – ordinary citizens gathering food, clothing, and medicine for people stranded by rising water.

This is not an isolated case. Bregman’s team has examined nearly 700 disasters since 1963 and found that, in a crisis, crime drops and strangers come to the rescue. “People don’t go into shock,” says Bregman, “they stay calm and spring into action.”

It’s an idea Prince William expressed last month when he said, “I think Britain is at its best, weirdly, when we’re all in a crisis.”

But Bregman argues, “It’s not singularly British. It’s universally human.” In every society, we are distrustful of strangers but, when danger strikes, we naturally reach out to ask for and accept help.

So, are people best in a crisis?

Cool heads

Some say, no, this is just fanciful optimism. In an emergency, we don’t have time to think. Fear takes over and people start to behave selfishly and impulsively. It is every man for himself. Certainly, there are a few heroes and professional emergency workers who stand out. But most people revert to human nature and behave like selfish apes.

Others say, yes, this makes perfect sense. It is in our nature to be social, friendly, and helpful to those in need. Our ancestors survived war, famine, and disease because they worked together in groups and not because they struggled alone. Through adversity and shared suffering, we form life-long friendships because we are, fundamentally, sensitive apes that can’t help but be kind.

You Decide

  1. Do you panic in a crisis?
  2. Are humans fundamentally good or bad?

Activities

  1. An elderly person is self-isolating alone in a house on your street. How can you and your family help them through the crisis? Try and come up with at least five ideas.
  2. Newspapers focus on negative news. Research and design a front page that only tells the positive and hopeful news stories.

Some People Say...

“Most people are good only so long as they believe others to be so.”

Christian Friedrich Hebbel (1813-1863), German writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
This is an age-old debate between two versions of human nature. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes imagined our ancestors to live “nasty, brutish, and short” lives before governments and laws made us civilised. The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed we were “noble savages”, living together peacefully until civilisation brought conflict, division, and war. The historical and anthropological evidence suggests Rousseau was closer to the truth, but Hobbes’s ideas have been much more influential in shaping modern society.
What do we not know?
Extreme situations fascinate social scientists because people act in unusual ways – good and bad. But does this unusual behaviour – of either kindness or cruelty – really tell us anything about human nature? And Bregman notes that people rarely change their minds about human nature, even when presented with the evidence. So, why are our optimistic and pessimistic views of humankind so fixed and resistant to change?

Word Watch

Skin deep
Bregman calls this the Veneer Theory of human nature. The bombing of European cities in WWII was designed to damage morale and shatter this thin membrane. Instead, morale rose and the thin skin turned into a strong shield.
Panic
The 1997 film Titanic gives the impression that, when the passenger ship hit the iceberg, everyone panicked. In reality, eyewitnesses reported no “panic or hysteria” but an orderly evacuation. The same calm behaviour was witnessed as people fled the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001.
Rutger Bregman
A Dutch writer with a distinctly optimistic worldview, although he prefers to call his ideas “realistic” and based on evidence. His first book was called Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There.
Davos
Davos is the informal name of the annual, four-day conference held by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland. According to WEF’s website, the aim is to “engage the foremost political, business, cultural, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas”.
Britain
Over a million people signed up to the NHS volunteer scheme to help during the crisis; over 4,300 neighbour support groups sprang up to help key workers and the vulnerable.
Distrustful
The World Values Survey has tracked values and beliefs across the world since 1981. It shows that, although all cultures teach kindness and decency, the majority of people in nearly all countries think strangers can’t be trusted.
Strangers
Social scientists write about the Bystander Effect, where people don’t intervene to stop bullying or anti-social behaviour. However, a recent study of CCTV footage from across the world shows the effect disappears in life-threatening situations. In 90% of cases, people came to the rescue.

Subjects

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