When it really comes down to it, when the chips are down and the lights are off, are we naturally good? That is, are we predisposed to act cooperatively, to help others even when it costs us? Or are we, in our hearts, selfish creatures? This fundamental question about human nature has long provided fodder for discussion. Augustine’s doctrine of original sin proclaimed that all people were born broken and selfish, saved only through the power of divine intervention. Hobbes, too, argued that humans were savagely self-centered; however, he held that salvation came not through the divine, but through the social contract of civil law. On the other hand, philosophers such as Rousseau argued that people were born good, instinctively concerned with the welfare of others. More recently, these questions about human nature; selfishness and cooperation, defection and collaboration have been brought to the public eye.
A new set of studies provides compelling data allowing us to analyze human nature not through a philosopher’s kaleidoscope or a TV producer’s camera, but through the clear lens of science. These studies were carried out by a diverse group of researchers from Harvard and Yale—a developmental psychologist with a background in evolutionary game theory, a moral philosopher-turned-psychologist, and a biologist-cum-mathematician—interested in the same essential question: whether our automatic impulse—our first instinct—is to act selfishly or cooperatively.
This focus on first instincts stems from the dual process framework of decision-making, which explains decisions and behavior in terms of two mechanisms: intuition and reflection. Intuition is often automatic and effortless, leading to actions that occur without insight into the reasons behind them. Reflection, on the other hand, is all about conscious thought—identifying possible behaviors, weighing the costs and benefits of likely outcomes, and rationally deciding on a course of action. With this dual process framework in mind, we can boil the complexities of basic human nature down to a simple question: which behavior—selfishness or cooperation—is intuitive, and which is the product of rational reflection? In other words, do we cooperate when we overcome our intuitive selfishness with rational self-control, or do we act selfishly when we override our intuitive cooperative impulses with rational self-interest? This study suggests that cooperation is the intuitive response only for those who routinely engage in interactions where this behavior is rewarded—that human “goodness” may result from the acquisition of a regularly rewarded trait.
Throughout the ages, people have wondered about the basic state of human nature; whether we are good or bad, cooperative or selfish. This question—one that is central to who we are—has been tackled by theologians and philosophers, presented to the public eye by television programs, and dominated the sleepless nights of both guilt-stricken villains and bewildered victims; now, it has also been addressed by scientific research. Although no single set of studies can provide a definitive answer; no matter how many experiments were conducted or participants were involved; this research suggests that our intuitive responses, or first instincts, tend to lead to cooperation rather than selfishness.
Although this evidence does not definitely solve the puzzle of human nature, it does give us evidence we may use to solve this puzzle for ourselves, and our solutions will likely vary according to how we define “human nature.” If human nature is something we must be born with, then we may be neither good nor bad, cooperative nor selfish. But if human nature is simply the way we tend to act based on our intuitive and automatic impulses, then it seems that we are an overwhelmingly cooperative species, willing to give for the good of the group even when it comes at our own personal expense.
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