It’s one of the classic and timeless questions about human nature: Are people inherently good or evil? Recent studies suggest that our initial impulses are usually selfless, meaning that we’re a bunch of good eggs after all.
The question is one that philosophers have debated for centuries, with most people falling into the Hobbes (we’re evil) or the Rousseau (we’re good) camp, while a precious few outliers opt for Locke’s tabula rasa compromise (we can go either way).
A new set of studies probed human nature to find compelling scientific data that helps us understand our inherent nature as essentially selfish or selfless beings. Various scientific researchers from Harvard to Yale set out to answer the same question: What is our automatic impulse or first instinct? Do we act selfishly or cooperatively?
David G. Rand, a developmental psychologist with a background in evolutionary game theory at Harvard, Joshua D. Greene, a Harvard moral philosopher-turned-psychologist, and Martin Nowak, a biologist-cum-mathematician, all set out to answer this question with their own unique backgrounds and scientific tools at hand.
Out of seven studies and a total of 2,068 participants from campuses and nationwide sampling, researchers seemed to prove the Hobbes assumption wrong. Each test asked individuals to make decisions that would either maximize group benefits or individual benefit. Time was also a unique factor: The faster the decision is made, the more intuitive it was judged to be.
In every single study, the results showed that faster-made decisions benefited the group, while slower-made decisions tended to benefit the individual. That is, quick thinking favors the group, while slower thinking favors the selfish individual.
Though the study doesn’t definitively call the game in favor of good-natured human beings, it provides some interesting data that supports the idea, and shows that human beings are at least willing to work together initially before a situation’s unique concerns pollute our intentions. You can read more about the experiments at Scientific American.
What do you think? Are human beings essentially good or bad?