Human Kind by Rutger Bregman

How many of these assumptions describe the reality of humankind:

  • Corruption and cruelty lie just beneath the surface and can easily be pulled out of people.
  • Civility is a thin veneer covering people’s selfish, sometimes evil tendencies.
  • Laws and punishments are needed to curb dishonesty and violence.
  • We’re all born into a world of sin and need to be saved from wickedness.
  • Most employees must be monitored, so they don’t take advantage of their organization.
  • People are mainly motivated by rewards or punishments.
  • The “bystander effect” shows most people are reluctant to get involved.
  • Trusting others is naïve and sets us up to be taken advantage of.
  • Books like Lord of the Flies or reality TV shows reveal how competitive and nasty humans are to each other in stressful situations.
  • With enough authority and coercion, people will do horrible things to others.

From the beginning of civilization, countless philosophers, religious leaders, rulers, academics, and politicians held these beliefs. Many still do. These pessimistic views of humanity have created, and continue to spread, untold misery and needless suffering. What if this isn’t reality at all? What if these widely shared beliefs are warped views of human nature?

Rutger Bregman’s new book, Humankind: A Hopeful History, disproves assumptions like these with deep research showing a more factual picture of reality. He probes deep into famous sociology and psychological studies to uncover fraud and deeply flawed methodology, painting humans as selfish, aggressive, panicky, hateful, power-hungry, and easily manipulated or intimated.

Bregman writes, “Quite a few religions take it as a tenet of faith that humans are mired in sin. Many a capitalist presumes we’re all motivated by self-interest. Lots of environmentalists see humans as a destructive plague upon the earth. Thousands of opinions; one take on human nature.” Humankind provides a powerful, evidence-based negation of these destructive views of humanity. He explains, “If there’s one thing I’ve sought to do with this book, it’s to change the meaning of the word ‘realism.’ Isn’t it telling that in modern usage the realist has become synonymous with the cynic — for someone with a pessimistic outlook?”

My copy of this insightful new book is full of yellow highlights. Here are a few points that really stand out:

  • The well-researched placebo and nocebo effects prove that when a patient gets an inert pill, expectations about a drug’s effectiveness or side effects often produce what’s expected. The same is true of beliefs, or expectations leaders have about society, employees, or kids.
  • Crisis often brings out the best in us. Most people aren’t selfishly out to just save themselves. We often pull together and support each other.
  • Neanderthals had bigger heads and were likely smarter than early humans. Our superpower is sociability and relating to each other. We flourished because we’re friendlier, communicate better, and work together. He calls us “homo puppy.”
  • Less than 20% of soldiers fire their guns in combat. We’re not wired to kill other humans face to face. The vast majority of killing in war comes from military leaders ordering the use of bombs, shells, land mines, and weapons of mass destruction from a distance.
  • Power can corrupt. Many leaders see people as lazy and unreliable (classic Theory X thinking). They must be supervised, managed, regulated, and monitored (often with technology). Sound familiar? “And because power makes you feel superior to other people, you’ll believe all this monitoring should be entrusted to you.”
  • The Pygmalion Effect’s been thoroughly tested and proven hundreds of times over the last fifty years. Yet leaders, parents, teachers, coaches, etc. persist in holding low expectations and feeling proved right when people live down to them. Many of Bregman’s recommendations for applying his findings center on raising expectations and elevating leadership behaviors to draw out the best in people.
  • Most of us are intrinsically motivated. But most people believe money, power, status, or similar extrinsic drivers motivate others. Research clearly shows these assumptions — which way too many leaders hold – are wrong and often destructive.
  • Over 515 studies from 38 countries show that the surest way to reduce prejudice and racism is by increasing contact with each other. It helps us see the world through other people’s eyes, makes us more tolerant, and is contagious.
  • Nonviolent resistance or campaigns for social justice have proven to be twice as effective as violence. Over eleven times more people will join nonviolent campaigns and can “overpower evil by outnumbering it.”
  • Small hate-mongering groups such as internet trolls on Twitter or Facebook can seem to represent humankind’s true underlying nature just below the veneer. But the clear reality is the vast majority of people are kind, compassionate, and peaceful.

Rutger gives a five-minute video overview of the book here. Many of its key points are points are summarized in a Time magazine interview.

It’s so easy to believe many of those opening statements — especially with news and social media feeding our negativity bias to increase their views, clicks, and likes. I highly recommend Humankind: A Hopeful History as a thoughtful antidote to the poisons of cynicism, pessimism, and negativity.