Are we doomed?
It’s a question that’s reverberated through the ages – are we humans, though imperfect, essentially kind, sensible, good-natured creatures? Or deep down are we wired to be bad, blinkered, idle, vain, vengeful and selfish? There are no easy answers and there’s clearly a lot of variation between individuals, but this feature post aims to shine some evidence-based light on the matter. Here in the first part of a two-part feature – and deliberately side-stepping the obviously relevant but controversial and already much-discussed Milgram, Zimbardo and Asch studies – we digest 10 dispiriting findings that reveal the darker and less impressive aspects of human nature:
We view minorities and the vulnerable as less than human
Through history humans have demonstrated a sickening willingness to inflict cruelty on one another. Part of the explanation may be that we have an unfortunate tendency to see certain groups – especially outsiders and vulnerable people perceived as low status – as being less than fully human. One striking example of this “blatant dehumanisation” came from a small brain-scan study that found students exhibited less neural activity associated with thinking about people when they looked at pictures of the homeless or of drug addicts, as compared with higher-status individuals. Many more studies have since demonstrated subtle forms of dehumanisation (in which we attribute fewer mental states to outsiders and minorities) and there have been further demonstrations of blatant dehumanisation – for instance, people who are opposed to Arab immigration or in favour of tougher counter-terrorism policy against Muslim extremists tended to rate Arabs and Muslims as literally less evolved than average. Among other examples, there’s also evidence that young people dehumanise older people; and that men and women alike dehumanise drunk women.
What’s more, the inclination to dehumanise starts early – children as young as five view out-group faces (those belonging to people who live in a different city or who are of a different gender than the child) as less human than in-group faces.
We already experience schadenfreude at the age of four
That last finding is particularly dispiriting since we often look to young children to give us hope for humankind – they are seen as the sweet and innocent ones who have yet to be corrupted by the grievances of adulthood. And yet many other studies show that very small kids are capable of some less-than-appealing adult-like emotions. For instance, a study from 2013 found that even four-year-olds seem to experience modest amounts of Schadenfreude – pleasure at another person’s distress, especially if they perceived the person deserved it (because they’d engaged in a bad deed). A more recent study found that by age six children will pay to watch an antisocial puppet being hit, rather than spending the money on stickers. Oh, and maybe you should forget the idea of children offering you unconditional kindness – by age three, they are already keeping track of whether you are indebted to them.
We believe in Karma – assuming that the downtrodden of the world must deserve their fate
On a related note, so strong is our inherent need to believe in a just world, we seem to have an inbuilt tendency to perceive the vulnerable and suffering as to some extent deserving their fate (an unfortunate flip-side to the Karmic idea, propagated by most religions, that the cosmos rewards those who do good – a belief that emerges in children aged just four). The unfortunate consequences of our just-world beliefs were first demonstrated in now classic research by Melvin Lerner and Carolyn Simmons. In a version of the Milgram set-up, in which a female learner was punished with electric shocks for wrong answers, women participants subsequently rated her as less likeable and admirable when they heard that they would be seeing her suffer again, and especially if they felt powerless to minimise this suffering. Presumably derogating the woman made them feel less bad about her dismal fate. Since then, research has shown our willingness to blame the poor, rape victims, AIDS patients and others for their fate, so as to preserve our belief in a just world. By extension, the same or similar processes are likely responsible for our subconscious rose-tinted view of rich people.
We are blinkered and dogmatic
It’s not just that we are malicious and unforgiving, we humans are worryingly close-minded too. If people were rational and open-minded, then the straightforward way to correct someone’s false beliefs would be to present them with some relevant facts. However a modern classic published in 1967showed the futility of this approach – participants who believed strongly for or against the death penalty completely ignored facts that undermined their position, actually doubling-down on their initial view. This seems to occur in part because we see opposing facts as undermining our sense of identity. It doesn’t help that many of us are overconfident about how much we understand things, and that when we believe our opinions are superior to others, this deters us from seeking out further relevant knowledge…