Humankind – A Hopeful History

If you need a break from the news and all the negativity in the world, it’s worth considering reading Humankind by Rutger Bregman. The premise in itself is interesting, Bregman claims that people are inherently good. We can be made to do awful things but we’re not programmed to be awful. I must admit that I was skeptical. How can you not be, with everything that’s going on in the world? I’m not completely converted after reading it but the book did plant the seeds of several new ideas. I will mention a few in this post. If you are looking for a feel-good vibe that is substantiated by research I highly encourage you to read Humankind.

Pessimist or optimist?

One of the ideas that this book changed for me is that I thought I was a pessimist. That I didn’t believe people are naturally good. I didn’t want to be a pessimist, I think no one wants to be a pessimist. When Bregman compared countries to companies I realized that while I’m a pessimist when looking at a global scale, I’m an optimist at a smaller scale. I believe companies should be run in a way that assumes that people are inherently good. Giving people responsibility will make them act more responsible. Keeping people on a short leash will make them passive and disinterested. You get the best results when people are intrinsically motivated and to allow people to be intrinsically motivated you have to give them some responsibility and trust them with it.

Why do I believe people are mostly inclined to do the right thing at the small scale of a company (not just the company that I work for, any company) but do I find it difficult to believe the same thing at the larger scale of a country or even the world? People working for companies are very clearly people. I can relate to them. When talking about countries the numbers become too big. We can’t imagine 17 million people (in the case of The Netherlands) which means that people become anonymous statistics. And it’s hard to feel compassion for statistics. We need to remember that all these people are more similar to us than they are different. Refugees and soldiers are all people. They have friends and family as we do and they want a good life for the people that they love. They just might have a different idea of how to get there.

Following the news

Most of us tend to closely follow the news. And for most of us, the news won’t make us feel better about people or the world. What we need to remember is that the news shows exceptions. The behavior and ideas of the majority of people aren’t newsworthy. The news also focuses on negative stories, as they are more sensational and we’re more likely to click on their headlines. The people protesting against the Corona rules and guidelines are exceptions. Most people try to follow the rules and guidelines. The people who point guns at BLM protesters who walk past their house are also exceptions. Watching the news shows you the worst and most negative exceptions and a lot of us are addicted to checking the news several times throughout the day, constantly keeping negative examples top of mind. At this point, our built-in availability bias kicks in. We feel that things we can recall easily must be important and happen often. This means that we assume that what we see on the news (riots at protests, terrorist attacks, and people consciously breaking corona guidelines) happens all the time. Most people are a lot more afraid of getting killed in a terrorist attack than of being struck by lightning and yet the latter is four times more likely to happen.

We feel that it’s important that we are informed about the latest news stories. It feels irresponsible not to know. When you think about it that makes no sense as ninety-nine out of a hundred times (at least) us being aware of the news doesn’t change a single thing for anyone except ourselves and our anxiety about the state of the world. We’re much better off picking a limited number of topics or problems to follow somewhat closely and try to make a difference in them. Either by donating money or by actively getting involved. You can then focus on those topics and leave the other topics for other people to deal with.
I have used this realization to cut down on my news consumption by mostly staying off Twitter. I’ve also become an Amnesty International member. I’ll continue to promote having empathy and compassion for people with different experiences than your own, I’ll do whatever I can to make the company that I work for as inclusive as possible, and I’ll try to always be kind.

Empathy vs compassion

The focus on empathy is interesting. Bregman describes in the book that people are inherently good and friendly, but that we are also very tribal. And having empathy enhances the feeling of tribalism. It makes us identify with one group and almost by definition because of that, turn against another group. It brings out the best but also the worst in us. Empathy can make us care deeply and it can make hate with the same passion. Instead of focusing on empathy, we should have a closer look at compassion. Compassion is more restrained and constructive. It doesn’t let you share in the suffering of the other person, but it does help you to see their suffering and take action. If you empathize strongly with someone who is suffering it can paralyze and drain you. Feeling compassion means you can keep your energy and take constructive action.
The book provides a simplified example. When a child is scared of the dark, you don’t want to feel their fear as if it’s your own (empathy). You want to comfort and reassure the child (compassion).

World leaders

The group of people that most make me doubt if it can be that people are inherently good. Or even, not inherently bad, it’s our current world leaders. The thing that sets our current leaders (“leaders”) apart from the rest of us, is that they have no shame. Most of us can’t imagine knowingly lying, even if the consequences are small. Let alone lying to an entire country and negatively impacting the health and wellbeing of thousands (if not millions) of people.
Most people’s emotions show in their faces and body posture. They can’t hide how they feel. And shame is an emotion that is very powerful and extraordinarily difficult to control. When we feel shame we start blushing. Anyone who has ever tried to stop the blushing knows that this is impossible. Thinking about it will inevitably make it worse, not better. Having our emotions on display helps us to come across as trustworthy to others. It allows us to be part of a team and work together.
Powerful people often don’t blush. They are literally shameless. They are more impulsive, egotistical, reckless, and arrogant than the average person. They cheat on their spouses more often and care less about other people’s perspectives. Some leaders grow up like this but power can also trigger it. Power can be a drug that makes you focus on yourself and it can detach you from the people around you.

So now what?

Think critically, always. Don’t give up. We should try to be kind and compassionate to our family, friends, and co-workers and more abstract groups like refugees and people with a different sexual orientation, religion, gender, or skin color. Don’t think in big numbers, think in people.
Being kind doesn’t mean being meek or tame. We need to change things and the only way to do that is by pushing hard against institutions and structures that are causing harm to other people or the earth. Sitting back and smiling politely won’t get us there. Pick a small thing that you feel strongly about and that you can contribute to and talk about it, write about it, sing about, march for it, or donate to the cause.
We aren’t inherently bad but we are also not completely good. We all have good and bad sides and where on the spectrum we are depends on the subject and your point of view. If we focus more on our own and other people’s kindness and positive sides we will see more of it. And that in turn will inspire us to do better ourselves. Baby steps. We can do this!

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