Human Kind by Rutger Bregman

A few favorite excerpts (so many to choose from) of my review of Rutger Bregman’s Humankind: A Hopeful History.

…to stand up for human goodness is to take a stand against the powers that be. For the powerful, a hopeful view of human nature is downright threatening. Subversive. Seditious. It implies that we’re not selfish beasts that need to be reined in, restrained and regulated. It implies that we need a different kind of leadership.


…cynicism is just another word for laziness. It’s an excuse not to take responsibility. Because if you believe most people are rotten, you don’t need to get worked up about injustice. The world is going to hell either way.


The road to hell is paved with good intentions. But evil doesn’t live just beneath the surface; it takes immense effort to draw it out. And most importantly, evil has to be disguised as doing good.


The premise of so-called reality shows, from Big Brother to Temptation Island, is that human beings, when left to their own devices, behave like beasts….But take the time to look behind the scenes of programs like these and you’ll see candidates being led on, boozed up and played off against each other in ways that are nothing less than shocking. It shows just how much manipulation it takes to bring out the worst in people.


Across the board, their results were the same. The experiments revealed that even at the tender age of eighteen months children are only too eager to help others, happily taking a break from fun and games to lend a hand, helping a stranger even when you throw a ball pit into the mix. And they want nothing in return.


When modern economists assumed that people are innately selfish, they advocated policies that fostered self-serving behavior. When politicians convinced themselves that politics is a cynical game, that’s exactly what it became.


A few years ago, researchers at the University of Massachusetts analyzed fifty-one studies on the effects of economic incentives in the workplace. They found ‘overwhelming evidence’ that bonuses can blunt the intrinsic motivation and moral compass of employees. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, they also discovered that bonuses and targets can erode creativity.


A British study recently found that a vast majority of the population (74 per cent) identify more closely with values such as helpfulness, honesty and justice than with wealth, status and power. But just about as large a share (78 per cent) think others are more self-interested than they really are.


If we believe most people can’t be trusted, that’s how we’ll treat each other, to everyone’s detriment. Few ideas have as much power to shape the world as our view of other people. Because ultimately, you get what you expect to get.


In a weird way, to believe in our own sinful nature is comforting. It provides a kind of absolution. Because if most people are bad, then engagement and resistance aren’t worth the effort.


Every day, we make each other smarter or stupider, stronger or weaker, faster or slower. We can’t help leaking expectations, through our gazes, our body language, and our voices. My expectations about you define my attitude towards you, and the way I behave towards you in turn influences your expectations and therefore your behavior towards me.