Our Understanding of Human Nature Has Grown Substantially

by Andy Zucker

I blogged about psychology and climate change for years (climatepsychology.wordpress.com) and learned a great deal. Humanity’s situation is ironic or paradoxical: at the same time we face unprecedented challenges because of human foibles, our understanding of human nature has substantially increased, revealing both bad news and good news. I am talking about widely available knowledge because I understand that wise men and women always had a deeper understanding of humanity than the norm. It’s reasonable to think that knowing so much more about what makes human beings tick can help us.

Here are a few examples of how our understanding has changed, starting with the bad news and moving toward the brighter side.

Significant research in recent decades has illuminated the dark side. One example is Phil Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 which, similar to Stanley Milgram’s earlier experiments at Yale, demonstrated how “normal” people are often capable of horrible acts. We saw that in action at Abu Ghraib in Iraq decades later, with human rights violations that the Stanford experiment virtually predicted would happen. Indeed, Zimbardo blamed military authorities for what happened at Abu Ghraib, arguing that without adequate supervision even many so-called “normal” people will abuse others in a prison setting.

Also on the dark side of human nature, since we graduated there has been more research about why people support authoritarian leaders, which, recently, has been happening in so many nations, including one especially near and dear to us. We also better understand why many people vote “against their own interests.” For example, there is an excellent 2018 book about Tea Party supporters in Louisiana, Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Hochschild. She spent years earning people’s trust and learning how they think.

Turning to good news, remember the learning theories of B.F. Skinner, who was still teaching at Harvard in the 1960s? “Programmed instruction” was state-of-the-art technology at that time. Decades later, colleagues and I studied schools serving children of poverty, and still saw deadening, drill-and-kill routines used in schools. It was awful for kids, and that narrow view of education foreclosed options for many children. In a happy contrast, Harvard’s Graduate School of Education helped launch Sesame Street in 1969, and local varieties of the program are now used in more than 100 nations. Children’s television today successfully teaches so much more than Howdy Doody, Buffalo Bob, and Clarabelle did in our childhoods. Children’s TV is based on a much better understanding of children’s capabilities and needs, and how they learn.

Another change for the better is that In the ‘50s and ‘60s doctors found it difficult to believe that people’s feelings could influence their bodies in significant ways. I grew up hearing stories from my psychiatrist father about how ridiculous many doctors—surgeons, in particular—thought that idea was. The mind and the body were conceived as two different realms, period. However, subsequent research documents that a surviving spouse’s immune system often can be compromised while he or she is grieving. That illustrates how deeply the mind can affect the body; grieving spouses may sicken or even die. Similarly, research on meditation upended many old beliefs about mind-body connections. We understand that very basic aspect of human nature, the mind’s connection with the body, much better now.

As a last example: For decades, economists and their computer models assumed that individuals are fundamentally rational decision makers. In 2002 Daniel Kahneman received the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for proving that the idea of “rational economic man” is deeply flawed. Today we understand the real-world difference between, say, allowing people to opt out of retirement savings contributions versus opting in—something that the “rational economic man” theory does not predict. This change in employment practices has helped millions of people save for retirement. (See the wonderful book Thinking Fast and Slow for descriptions of experiments demonstrating how “normal” people often come to erroneous conclusions when they fail to think clearly.)

One could go on and on with more examples. In terms of bridging various political divides, the first thing that comes to mind is the book Getting to Yes, which describes productive negotiation strategies. In our meetings some other suggestions surfaced. The point is simply that we understand human nature far better now than in the early ‘60s.

I leave you with this question which ties to so many of the presentations at our two class sessions: Can our increased understanding of the nature of homo sapiens help us in these dark times, and if so how?