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.

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.

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. 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. Through adversity and shared suffering, we form life-long friendships.

You Decide

  1. Do you panic in a crisis?

Activities

  1. 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 (scientific study of human behaviour and societies in the past and present) evidence suggests Rousseau was closer to the truth, but Hobbes’s ideas have had more influence 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 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.
Dystopian
An imagined state or society where there is great suffering or injustice.
Buckles
Bends and gives way.
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.
Anarchy
A state of disorder when authority or other controlling systems are rejected by people.
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.
Distorted
Giving a misleading or false account or impression; misrepresented.
Robin Hood
According to legend, he robbed the rich to feed the poor.
Optimism
Hopefulness about the future.

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