politics psychology

Human nature is back

This Prospect article by the RSA’s Matthew Taylor reviews an impressive amount of socially relevant psychology research. “Human nature is back”, announces Taylor, showing how the “useful shortcut” of the rational actor is now ready to be replaced by an empircally informed model of man as a social, emoitonal, being. Conclusions include

if we want to live an ethical life we do not have to pore over self-help books, but instead choose the social context that is most likely to prompt us to automatic altruism. Blinkered by the idea of humans as entirely driven by self-interest, we believe that altruistic acts must require conscious effort, perhaps as a result of exhortation from leaders. But if we are living balanced lives and enjoy mutual trust with people, behaving well comes naturally.


…susceptibility to social influence is hard-wired in us and not simply a characteristic of those lacking willpower. It may not be as catchy as the original slogan, but “tough on crime, even tougher on the causes of crime”is where the evidence points.


social institutions and cultural taboos are ways in which “generations hand down… vital tacit knowledge about human nature.”…[they] have developed to protect us from our psychological frailties, encouraging us to act long term and be socially responsible. These devices include the family, the church and civic organisations. As we become richer, we mistakenly think we do not need them.

It’s a rich brew of research evidence and political ideas. Perhaps even enough to give us hope, as Taylor claims that “new ideas about human nature can contribute to a more substantive meeting of minds between left and right”

11 replies on “Human nature is back”

Interesting stuff and I’m generally with it.

Love to see Sarah Blaffer Hrdy represented, I have Mother Nature kicking about in storage somewhere, need to dig it out again sometime. Am also reading Supercooperators at the moment, another angle in on the altruism/self-interest debate.

Something I appreciate is the mainstreaming of the notion that “The brains that evolved to perform hunter-gatherer tasks for the first 180,000 years of Homo sapiens’ existence have, in the last few hundred, been confronted with a world that is changing ever more quickly. Our brains have not always adapted well to modern society.” Approached thoughtfully, rather than a kneejerk “ban twitter!” it can lead to really substantive critiques of eg lack of access to land, sunlight etc that’s really crucial. David Buss was in town earlier this year and referred to a camp/treatment for depression that focuses on supplying these kinds of evolutionary givens – exercise, outdoors time, communal contact – and getting real results. I think this stuff is deep-rooted and radical, and where a lot of the action needs to be.

There’s a bit of unnecessary brainification, eg

“Our brains pick up subconscious signals from those places where receiving and giving social support is the norm. ”

and I’m lukewarm on his prescriptions for more paternalism.

I continue to see the case for regulation, given that we are built with blind spots that self-interested agents can exploit, and companies are self-interested (or shareholder-interested) by design. But I’m unconvinced that this follows through to more paternalism and intrusion into individual freedom. Better to open up and shape information to be more useable at an individual level.

The institutional argument I’ve always been sympathetic to, it’s the part of conservative thought that has always resonated with me. At the same time, I think it pays to scrutinise those components of institutions that are malignant and magnify human habits rather than marshall and make them sensible.

There is a whole bigger piece around autonomy/free will etc that I’ll refrain from to avoid mammoth comment splurge!

I’m not sure where the meeting between left and right is taking place, as the quotes are completely compatible with a conservative world view. In other words, what’s left wing about this ?

I did read the article; sure, he’s flaunting his left wing credentials, but everything he writes is totally compatible with a conservative viewpoint (as opposed to a liberal one). Actually, what is surprising is how ideas that half a century ago would have been regarded as thoroughly reactionnary (and still are considered hopelessly outdated by liberals) now seem to be on the cutting edge of left-wing thought. Apparently you just need to add a few buzzwords in the mix which will signal that you are on the good side of the political divide…

Hubert, one thing that springs to mind is how at odds this view of human nature is with Hobbes’*. It doesn’t contribute to the view that our natural state is a self-interested war of all against all, needing rulers to impose order, but that we can naturally organise in amicable ways.

The other thing – and having read the article Hubert I presume you’ve seen it and have discounted it for some reason – is that it speaks against human nature embodying a classic economical model which is associated with what most people consider right-wing politics. Of course, this may not be ‘real conservatism’ in your eyes; conservatism is a complicated animal.

*I’m not claiming that Hobbes has been refuted, or that the balance of evidence in other fields may not be different.

Conservatism and (classical) liberalism are two very different things. Before the likes of Hobbes, the consensus was that there is a human nature and that human nature grounds the natural law (see e.g. Thomas Aquinas). Hobbes’ rejects the idea of natural law, which he replaces with the idea of a social contract that everybody enters into because of self-interest. That is not a conservative, but a liberal worldview.

I was about to say “a meeting of left and right? But this is straight left – what is right wing about this?” So I think that we may have managed to prove their point!

I’m a little confused about the terms you are using Hubert, but the way that I have generally heard the word ‘conservative’ used includes economic liberalism as part of its definition. That understanding of conservatism stretches back to Burke, who was a classical economic liberal, and is certainly true of most people who call themselves ‘conservatives’ now.

But I admit I’ve always been unclear on the meaning of ‘conservative’ and how it is supposed to be significantly different, in practice, from other mainstream parts of the right.

(Obviously I know that Americans use the word “conservative” for generic right wing or neoliberal and “liberal” for what most people call “social democrat”, but Hubert seems to be using the terms in a different way to this).

Liberalism is a political ideology which defends individual liberty both in the economical and in the social spheres. Maggie Thatcher famously said that “there is no such thing as society”, Less famous is the explanation, which is a pretty good illustration of the liberal mind: “There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.” In other words, when one says that “society” must do this or that, what it really means is that individual men and women must do this or that.

The reason why there seems to be an opposition between the European and the US use of the word is simply because the political fractures are different. In the US, there is a broad consensus between the Republicans and the Democrats on economical issues (basically, they are all economically liberal) but opposition on social issues – hence, the Republicans are reputed to be “conservative”, whereas the Democrats are “liberal”. In Europe, everybody who counts is socially liberal, whereas there is disagreement between the defenders of a free economy and those who defend some kind of “mixed” (i.e. moderately socialist) or even a command economy – hence the word “liberal” is used to designate the mainstream right wing. But basically, if you would superimpose the US political landscape on a generic European political landscape, most of the Republican Party is far outside the common area, as is most of the European left. And probably most US and most European liberals would find themselves more or less in the same place, both economically and socially, although their relative position on the political scale is different in their respective natural habitats. Also, Europe still has some fascists, who are inexistent in the US.

Pure conservatism is almost extinct, especially in Europe, which is probably why you use the word as a synonym for liberalism. It’s difficult to define conservatism, especially as it is not a systematical creed, but one could try to identify conservative values: traditional morality, religion, family, traditional social hierarchies, patriotism (not necessarily nationalism though) and in most countries local power as opposed to a centralism. Conservatives tend to stress social harmony (remember “One Nation Toryism” ?), which is why they a skeptical of individual liberty, even in economical matters, where they tend to be very moderate free-marketeers. Although Maggie mentioned “families” (she was leading a party which does have a couple of conservative members after all) her ideology and policies were liberal through and through: she steered the Tories away from conservatism and old social hierarchies to liberalism and new money.

Anyway, most of the ideas in the article Tom quotes are conservative through and through, which I confess to find rather amusing. Political thought seems to be some kind of never-ending spiral in which the same bases are touched over and over again, and in which ideas which started on the left become right-wing (e.g. nationalism) and ideas which started on the right (e.g. an unmoveable human nature) become left-wing…

One question: Burke was indeed a conservative thinker, where did you guys get the idea that he was some kind of manic free marketeer ???

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