“Our behavior toward each other is the strangest, most unpredictable, and most unaccountable of all the phenomena which we are obliged to live,” said the American physician and essayist Lewis Thomas. “In all of nature, there is nothing so threatening to humanity as humanity itself.”
Equally true is that there is nothing so enriching to humanity than for humans to deeply understand themselves—to study our inner workings, the foundation from which all else springs, and use this knowledge to grow an understanding of ourselves and the world.
The study of human nature (if it isn’t obvious by my work) is something that fascinates me. How do memories impact our lives? Why do we have status anxiety or feel envy towards others? What is talent? How does beauty affect us? Does practice really make perfect or does it merely invite “the perfection desired?”
In my commonplace book, the notes on human nature have aged five years from when I began intensely reading and writing. I want to share what I’ve collected on my journey thus far—insights from a constellation of luminous thinkers who masterfully expresses fundamental truths about who we are and why we do what we do.
These insights have helped me have empathy for people who, normally, I wouldn’t care to have any empathy for. These notes have grounded me in times of uncertainty, misunderstandings, and sheer ignorance. And above all, they have made me appreciate one truth to life: we’re all doing our best with what we have and what we know.
It’s human nature to tell stories
Writer Ursula K. Le Guin hit the nail on the head:
The story—from Rumplestiltskin to War and Peace—is one of the basic tools invented by the human mind for the purpose of understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.
Robert Burton, a neurologist and novelist, explained that our brains reward us with dopamine when we recognize and complete patterns. Stories are patterns: beginning, middle, and end. Stories clear up ambiguity in our minds—something that the brain doesn’t enjoy—so it rewards us with a dopamine cookie for organizing the mess into meaning.
Understanding the utility and predisposition to tell stories is an elemental power. The story you told yourself about your boss giving you harsh feedback is just that—a story that you invented. The way you describe the interaction can be a source of delight or contempt. Maybe this was the first time she spoke to you in this tone, and because it was an unfamiliar sensation, you told a story to self-protect. But what details did you miss out on? What did you accentuate or ignore?
By sticking to the original story, it impacts the way you think and behave. The great thing about these stories is that they’re written in pencil—you can go right in there, erase the harsh words, pay attention to different things, and change the story to change the outcome.
It’s human nature to be social
Our hardwiring for sociality is perhaps one of the most under-appreciated aspects of our nature. It is, as I learned a bit late, the fabric of our being. Almost everything—from table manners to fashion to social media to taking selfies to our identity—is because our brains are wired to be social.
As Matthew Lieberman said in Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect,
We are wired to be social. We are driven by deep motivations to stay connected with friends and family. We are naturally curious about what is going on in the minds of other people. And our identities are formed by the values lent to us from the groups we call our own. These connections lead to strange behaviors that violate our expectation of rational self-interest and make sense only if our social nature is taken as a starting point for who we are.
It’s human nature to imagine
Psychologist Dan Gilbert, in Stumbling Upon Happiness, shared a profound truth about our species when he said, “we think about the future in a way that no other animal can, does, or ever has, and this simple, ubiquitous, ordinary act is a defining feature of our humanity.”
The act of imagining is such a beautiful and mysterious function that rarely gets the appreciation it deserves. To literally create a mental picture in your mind about something that hasn’t happened or may not happen, to be able to visualize the details and derive pleasure from this is simply extraordinary—it’s a power that’s worth harnessing and understanding so we can use it properly.
But what’s the root of this—why, exactly, do we have this power that other animals don’t? Our brains differ and that makes all the difference, but what deeper insights are there? Gilbert continues by explaining how a desire for control pairs with humans’ need to imagine:
Prospection can provide pleasure and prevent pain, and this is one of the reasons why our brains stubbornly insist on churning out thoughts of the future. . . . We want to know what is likely to happen so that we can do something about it.
The fact is that human beings come into the world with a passion for control, they go out of the world the same way, and research suggests that if they lose their ability to control things at any point between their entrance and their exist, they become unhappy, helpless, hopeless, and depressed. And occasionally dead.
It’s human nature to wear multiple masks
I can recall many times when I was truly baffled by my friends’ or coworkers’ behaviors. Their ability to change their tone, body language, and attitude around specific people was like possessing the adaptability of a chameleon. It made me wonder if I did the same thing around different people, if it was that blatantly obvious that my voice or facial expressions changed the moment a new person was added into the equation.
It’s like going from workplace language to at-the-bar language at the flip of a switch without knowing it. I believed that who I was at this moment was who I was in any environment or context—until I read a fabulous insight from David McRaney in You Are Now Less Dumb that made me, well, less dumb:
The idea is this: You put on a mask and a uniform before leaving for work. You put on another set for school. You have a custom for friends of different persuasions and one just for family. Who you are alone is not who you are with a lover or a friend. You quick-change like Superman in a phone booth when you bump into old friends from high school at the grocery store, or the ex in line for a movie. When you part from that person, you quick-change back. The person on your arm forgives you. He or she understands; after all, he or she is also in disguise. It’s not a new or novel concept, the idea of multiple identities for multiple occasions, but it’s also not something you talk about often. The idea is old enough that the word person derives from persona, a Latin word for the mask a Greek actor sometimes worn so people in the back rows of a performance could see who he was onstage. This concept—actors and performance, persona and masks—has been intertwined and adopted throughout history. Shakespeare said, ‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.’ William James said a person ‘has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him.’ Carl Jung was particularly fond of the concept of the persona, saying it was ‘that which in reality one is not, but which oneself as well as others think one is.’”
It’s human nature to play tit for tat
I give you a present and you feel compelled to reciprocate. I hold the door for you and you rush to hold the next door for me. I hurt you and you want to hurt me worse. Why?
Jonathan Haidt, in Happiness Hypothesis, explains why the game of tit for tat is built into our nature and how our social hardwiring is the root cause:
Vengeance and gratitude are moral sentiments that amplify and enforce tit for tat. Vengeful and grateful feelings appear to have evolved precisely because they are such useful tools for helping individuals create cooperative relationships, thereby reaping the gains from non-zero-sum games. A species equipped with vengeance and gratitude responses can support larger and more cooperative social groups because the payoff to cheaters is reduced by the costs they bear in making enemies. Conversely, the benefits of generosity are increased because one gains friends.
Tit for tat appears to be built into human nature as a set of moral emotions that make us want to return favor for favor, insult for insult, tooth for tooth, and eye for eye. Several recent theorists even talk about an “exchange organ” in the human brain, as though a part of the brain were devoted to keeping track of fairness, debts owed, and social accounts-receivable. The “organ” is a metaphor—nobody expects to find an isolated blob of brain tissue the only function of which is to enforce reciprocity.
It’s human nature to form tribes and label outsiders
A tribe, according to author Seth Godin, is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. “For millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another. A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.”
People who buy and collect sneakers—called sneakerheads—are a tribe. The vegan community is a tribe. The runners that meet at 5:30 a.m. on Sunday are a tribe. People who subscribe to HONY are part of a tribe. Trump’s supporters are a tribe.
Think back on the idea that we’re wired to be social—forming tribes, and also shunning outsiders, is the work of our nature. It makes me wonder if the world can truly unite as one—what happens when there are no outsiders, when there’s no one left to shun to make us feel better about ourselves?
In Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson explain it clearly:
Evolutionary psychologists argue that ethnocentrism — the belief that our own culture, nation, or religion is superior to all others — aids survival by strengthening our bonds to our primary social groups and thus increasing our willingness to work, fight, and occasionally die for them. When things are going well, people feel pretty tolerant of other cultures and religions — they even feel pretty tolerant of the other sex! — but when they are angry, anxious, or threatened, the default position is to activate their blind spots. We have the human qualities of intelligence and deep emotions, but they are dumb, they are crybabies, they don’t know the meaning of love, shame, grief, or remorse. The very act of thinking that they are not as smart or reasonable as we are makes us feel closer to others who are like us. But, just as crucially, it allows us to justify how we treat them.
It’s human nature to see losses as more powerful than gains
For the vast majority of human history, avoiding threats and potential losses has been a matter of life or death. Over time, our species learned to view the prospect of loss more powerfully than the possibility of gains. Although our world is much safer today, we’re still hardwired like our ancient ancestors and thus are prone to making the same irrational decisions. (Here’s a must-read paper by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky who pioneered the notion of loss aversion.)
A solid example of this is the sunk cost fallacy. Sunk costs are investments that you cannot recover: time, money, and effort. For example, you go to a movie and within fifteen minutes you hate it. What would you do? Most people would stay, justifying the time it took to drive to the theatre and the cost of the ticket. Rather than gaining back 2 hours of time to do something more enjoyable and take the loss of a half-hour and $12, most of us would finish the movie.
This is a flat-out bad decision, and when we continuously make decisions like this, it compounds and also forms habits. Ignoring sunk costs is hard because losses hit us in the gut. This is why ending a relationship that lasted for many years is so difficult and painful. The memories of good times, the struggles that you had to overcome, all the vacations you took and the great sex you’ve had, and for what—to throw it all away? The thought of that triggers us to become defensive of what we have, because we just can’t imagine being happy without it; we can’t imagine what replaces it or if it will ever be replaced.
It’s human nature to gossip
I always viewed gossiping as one of the most depraved and fruitless human behaviors. If you went through any kind of schooling, then you know how toxic and shame-ridden gossiping can be. It undermines someone’s confidence, self-worth, and identity, all the while bolstering the other parties’ egos. It is usually the soil where lies are planted as seeds and begin to germinate as more people water their false opinions on it. I would sometimes catch myself with a friend, stop myself, and say, “Look at us—we’re talking about someone who isn’t even here!”
It’s one of the behaviors that I just try not to take part in, whether in the living room of my friend’s house or at the workplace. But it’s worth understanding why we do this, and Edward O. Wilson, in The Meaning of Human Existence, explained it well:
All human social behavior is based on prepared learning, but the intensity of the bias varies from one case to another as a product of evolution by natural selection. For example, human beings are born gossips. We love the life stories of other people, and cannot be sated with too much such detail. Gossip is the means by which we learn and shape our social network. We devour novels and drama. But we have little or no interest in the life stories of animals—unless they are linked in some way to human stories. Dogs love others and yearn to return home, owls ponder, snakes sneak, and eagles thrill at the freedom of the open sky.”
So when you’re at a bar and hear two colleagues gossiping about another colleague, it’s okay to be frustrated about this display of weak character or pettiness of ego-inflation, but equally important to realize is that it’s a display of the human condition, and therefore you should know where to place your emotions.
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“It is very reasonable for humans to want to understand something of our context in a broader universe, awesome and vast,” said the great scientist Carl Sagan in The Varieties of Scientific Experience. “It is also reasonable for us to want to understand something about ourselves. Since we have powerful unconscious processes, this means that there are parts of our selves that are hidden from us. And this two-pronged investigation into the nature of the world and the nature of our selves is, to a very major degree, I believe, what the human enterprise is all about.”
Hopefully these insights have stirred your curiosity and have opened your mind to more questions about how our species thinks, feels, and behaves. Use this knowledge daily. Like the gossiping example, if you had no knowledge about why this behavior happens or what the root cause is, it’s easy to let every whisper of gossip raise your ears and make you hot around your neck. No need to live life like that—the futility of unnecessary provocations can be alleviated through a healthy and steady understanding of ourselves.