People: Nicer than You Think

Cutting-edge research suggests that human beings are much kinder than most people realize.

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Are people selfish or generous? Most people seem to agree with the opinion expressed by Jerry and Elaine in the classic TV show, Seinfeld:

Elaine: “I will never understand people.”

Jerry: “They’re the worst.”

Are we really “the worst”? Do greed and self-interest really drive most of what we do? Or are we capable of putting the needs of others ahead of our own? Traditionally, social scientists leaned toward the cynical view. They believed in principles such as “rational self-interest” — which says it’s human nature to minimize our costs and maximize our gains. Likewise, evolutionary psychologists argued that altruism — helping another person without expecting anything in return — is implausible. But in contrast to such unflattering views of human nature, consider four recent lines of evidence suggesting that human beings are a lot kinder and more generous than you might think.

Even Toddlers Love to Help. Felix Warneken — who studies cooperation in kids — suggests that before very young children are socialized to help others, they display a natural tendency to be little helpers. He further suggests that, in the environments in which people evolved, any small amounts of help kids could provide to others (fetching, for example) would have contributed to a family’s survival. Warneken’s finds that toddlers happily and spontaneously help an adult stranger — as long as the need for help is clear enough for toddlers to understand it. For example, if an adult stranger needs help getting past an obvious obstacle or needs help retrieving a dropped object, toddlers readily offer help. Warneken concludes that “early helping behaviors are genuinely prosocial and serve an evolutionary function in humans.”

Those who Feel Empathy Engage in Extreme Helping. Both classic research on empathy and recent research on living kidney donors suggest that altruism is real. Daniel Batson, a social psychologist who studied altruism for four decades, finds that if a complete stranger for whom we feel empathy is suffering, we will almost always intervene and suffer in the person’s place. This is true even when we could easily have walked away. Likewise, Abigail Marsh’s neuroscientific research on living kidney donors shows that these donors have brains that are wired to help. For example, the brains of living kidney donors are much more responsive to faces that show fear than are the brains of most other people. Marsh suggests that the same psychological mechanisms that promote caring for our helpless children can be activated by strangers who are suffering. She suggests, for example, that human beings are so social that we evolved to extend the web of compassion and parental care even to unrelated strangers. This is especially true if the strangers activate our parental care module. Just try looking at baby Yoda without wanting to care for him!

Helping is Truly Rewarding. Research by neuroscientists Naomi Eisenberger and Matt Lieberman shows that we experience pleasure when we see good things happen to people who need help. This even happens when we help others at our own expense. They suggest that, because we are such social creatures, we’re wired by evolution to feel pleasure when we help others. This is true even when the cost is time, effort, money, or discomfort.

Elizabeth Triconi would surely agree. She and her colleagues scanned the brains of people who played a game of chance with a stranger. Early in the game, people won $50, while the unlucky other player won nothing. Unsurprisingly, winning $50 activated areas of people’s brains known to produce feelings of reward. But there was even more activity in these reward regions on later trials of the game, when the other player finally won some money. This was true even though the other player won money at people’s own expense. Similar studies have shown that the reward regions of our brains become more activated when we give money to charities than when we keep money for ourselves. As Matt Lieberman put it, “Our supposedly selfish reward system seems to like giving more than receiving.”

The Defector Argument. A classic argument against altruism is Richard Dawkins’s defector argument. The argument says that, if a gene did promote altruism in certain people, other members of a person’s group could be expected to take advantage of these do-gooders and become free-riders — always taking without giving. Because this would obviously benefit free riders and harm do-gooders, genes that promote unselfishness should disappear. But this logic is based on some questionable assumptions. One assumption is that do-gooders tolerate cheaters. They don’t. They often punish them. At other times, as Athena Aktipis has shown, cooperators merely walk away from cheaters, leaving them to fend for themselves. Such reactions to cheating makes cooperation a good strategy after all.

Perhaps the best evidence against Dawkins’s defector argument comes from recent research in health psychology. Stephanie Brown and her colleagues followed more than 800 seniors (aged 65+) for five years — to see who survived. People who were most likely to survive over the five-year window were those who reported at the start of the study that they offered the most emotional and physical help to other people. This “giving leads to living” effect held up even after controlling for a wide range of other known influences on longevity — such as age at the beginning of the study, health at the beginning of the study, gender, education, income, exercise level, smoking status, alcohol consumption, and marital satisfaction, to name just a few. So, the evidence does not support the defector argument. People who help others actually thrive.

There can be no doubt that we are all capable of being selfish. But it looks like most people are also capable of acts of great kindness. So, sure, there are times when our selfish nature gets the better of us and makes us “the worst” as Jerry Seinfeld suggested. But it is becoming increasingly clear that, from toddlerhood to old age, there are plenty of times when we can also be “the best.”

For Further Reading

Brown, S.L., Nesse, R.M., Vinokur, A.D., & Smith, D.M. (2003). Providing social support may be more beneficial than receiving it. Results from a prospective study of mortality. Psychological Science, 14, 320–327.

Lieberman, M.D. (2013). Social: Why our brains are wired to connect. New York, NY: Broadway Books.

Warneken, F. & Tomasello, M. (2006). Altruistic helping in human infants and young chimpanzees. Science, 311, 1301–1303.

Note: An earlier version of this blog appeared in Character and Context.

Brett is a social psychologist at Montgomery College, MD. Brett studies health, gender, culture, religion, identity, and stereotypes.

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