Capitalism, democracy and the rule of law are all built on the assumption that people are selfish. That assumption is wrong. People are usually socially minded and sympathetic. That is the central thesis of this book by Dutch journalist Rutger Bregman.
Many people assume that human civilization is a thin veneer over a barrel of a dark, fuming, stinking, secretive mix of real feelings, emotions and desires. The genie definitely should be kept in the bottle. There is evil in each of us and beware for the opprtunity that might awake the evil.
Bregman demonstrates in his book that this thinking is plainly wrong. When an airplane crashes, people help each other, even if they risk their own lives. The same happened after hurricane Katrina put New Orleans under water: the newspapers reported incidents of violence but much more the city was flooded by courage and charity. Emergencies bring out the best in people. Bregman writes that he isn’t aware of any other sociological insight that has been substantiated so well and is ignored so radically.
Bregman builds on Darwin and writes that humans haven’t evolved in a survival of the fittest but in a survival of the friendliest. We have become Homo Puppy. Our brains are smaller than those of some of our predecessors, our teeth and jaws are more childlike and partly because of that we have become great in cooperating: we have become hypersocial learning machines. We are born to learn, connect and play and that makes us strong as a species. The Homo Puppy has an antenna that is continuously tuned to others. We are good in connecting to other people and we enjoy doing it, consciously as well as subconsciously; emotions are leaking out of our bodies all the time, waiting to be picked up by the other puppies. Our minds need contact in the same way as our bodies need food.
Human beings are group animals, but with a twist. We are most attracted to people that are like us and we don’t like, even might feel revulsion for, strangers. Even babies show this behavior. We feel attacted to a group and we find it hard to go against that group. That is were xenofobia starts.
Our assumptions about each other are relevant, says Bregman. If we believe that most people are good, we will treat each other better than if we believe something is wrong in most people. Our assumptions determine our actions. That is demonstrated by the well-researched Pygmalion-effect: if a teacher treats children as if they are smart, they will become smart. And vice versa.
Bregman realizes that people are no angels. He says that we have a good leg and a bad leg; the question is which leg we want to exercise.
He also writes that people only act maliciously if they have been indoctrinated. Even in Auschwitz nazis believed that they were at the right side of history. Adolf Eichmann, one of the major organizers of the Holocaust, convinced himself that he had created great works for which he would be admired for ages. Nazis acted horribly but thought they were doing good. Humans are seduced by evil that is disguised as good. That is not an excuse, according to Bregman, but it is an explanation.
The book also contains some parts about leadership. Those in power often think that people are selfish because they are selfish themselves. Bregman quotes research that shows that some people in power behave as if they have suffered brain damage. They are more impulsive, selfish, reckless, shameless, arrogant, narcistic and rude than an average person. They cheat more often, listen less and are less interested in other perspectives.
Bregman’s solution is to get rid of hierarchies. He writes admiringly about Buurtzorg, a Dutch healthcare provider with self-steering teams, and Agora, a Dutch school without teachers, classes or lessons. He considers it plainly wrong that managers should supervise employees because they wouldn’t do their work if left to their own. People should be left free to act upon their intrinsic motivation, which is always there. As in the Pygmalion-effect: if you treat employees as if they are repsonsible and reliable, they will be.
De meeste mensen deugen is a well-written, well-researched book. Bregman even dived into the original archives of historical psychological experiments like those of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo and found that many of their conclusions that have determined academic text books of psychology are just wrong. A new history of humankind is a bit pretentious as a subtitle but this book deserves to be read widely and make people think about their own assumptions about fellow human beings. What if you treat every human being you encounter as if they are good?
Rutger Bregman. De meeste mensen deugen. De Correspondent, 2019