Between Basic Goodness and the Lows of Human Behaviour

There is some research that suggests that children have natural altruistic impulses. A French-German ARTE documentary, “Die Revolution der Selbstlosen” (The Revolution of the Selfness), has documented some of these research results.

The ARTE documentary, however, also demonstrated that altruistic impulses can quickly cease, if “the other” is not seen as similar to oneself. In a baby lab it was at first investigated what the baby’s favourite morning cereals are. Then two hand puppets were used, one of them liked the favourite morning cereals of the baby and the other puppet liked the non-favoured morning cereals of the baby. When the babies were asked to show which puppet they liked more, 8 out of 10 babies pointed to the puppet that liked their favourite morning cereals. Not only this, when another puppet was mean to the puppet that liked the baby’s the non-favoured morning cereals, the baby pointed to the mean puppet when asked which of the two puppets it liked more.

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Though Buddhists are in general convinced, and there are many, very good reasons for this thesis, that there is a basic goodness in all beings – we call it in general “Buddha Nature” in Mahayana Buddhism – sentient beings’ attitudes, verbal and bodily actions are dominated by the imagination and grasping to a false, exaggerated sense of “I” and “mine”. This “false view of the self” and the belief in its validity divide the world into a very close and dear “I” and “faraway others” – with the exception, that if those “others” are somewhat serving, similar or needed for the wellbeing of this “I”, these “others” are seen as close or as “friends”.

Since this “wrong view of the self” is not based in reality, wisdom, which has a basis in reality, can overcome that wrong view of the self. Because wisdom is rooted in reality it is also stronger or more powerful than the fabricated illusions (about the self) that appear to be true though they are not. The “wrong view of the self” naturally leads to the perception of oneself as being more important than others and it uses the phenomena of the inner and outer world to elaborate that wrong view of the self, to solidify, to reify, to build on it – for instance by building identities around the self to which then is strongly grasped to (attachment). What is contrary to those identities (or the feeling) of the self is subsequently either ignored or it is feared and aversion, hostility, anger up to hate unfold easily. (Just remind soccer or football games and identifying with a soccer or football team and the strong feelings which arise due to these processes of identity. You can also consider racism as an expression of these mental processes: the other person has another skin colour, another type of nose or eyes etc., so he or she is perceived “different” to ourselves. As a result rather naturally a feeling of the other person as being “foreign” will arise. If you don’t want to build on that feeling – which is not in line with reality and a potential cause of suffering – it has to be noted. If you are aware of that feeling, then there are different ways to deal with it, e.g. just being aware without being carried away by it or you have to counter it by good reasonings [wisdom] or love which cause the person subsequently to appear close, precious or dear to yourself.)

[Charles] Darwin said, reason should make it obvious that individuals should not only be compassionate to strangers in his or her own nation but extend that concern to all peoples, of all nations, and of all races. – Paul EkmanThe good thing is, as human beings we can at least train to overcome such limitations in our thinking and perceptions. We can question our wrong sense of the self and all what we built on that wrong imagination.

We must stop competing with each other. We need to start cooperating and sharing the remaining resources of this planet in a fair way. We need to start living within the planetary boundaries, focus on equity and take a few steps back for the sake of all living species. – Greta Thunberg

We can question, ease or overcome our egoism and cultivate empathy and compassion or altruism which are in line with reality. What reality? The reality that all sentient beings, just as we ourselves, want to be happy and free from suffering. Love, compassion, non-harmfulness and wisdom are in line with that reality. We can use our intelligence to see the ridiculousness, limitations, divisiveness, craziness and pain racism, hostility and hate cause to ourselves and others, and that there is no good reason to place our importance above that of billions of sentient beings on whom we have to rely for our own wellbeing and ease from suffering and whom we owe everything we are, including our knowledge, skills, qualities, education, jobs, language, body and our very life.

Such a broad view is not contrary to the fact that we have to take first responsibility for ourselves, for our own wellbeing, because otherwise we delegate that task to others. We can also learn to take care of ourselves – before we take care of others – in ways that are not at the cost of others or egoistic. Actual, taking care of ourselves and taking care of others is a mutual dependent arising. By taking care of ourselves, we take care of others. By taking care of others, we take care of ourselves.

Protecting oneself, one protects others. Protecting others, one protects oneself. – The Buddha

Having stressed this background, I would like to share now with you an overview over some of our limitations, findings based on psychological research. It can be a bit dispiriting or depressing to read that. But if you see these “findings that reveal the worst of human nature” in the context of that we can actually work to overcome these limitations, and if you consider or check that these limitations are not “in the nature of our mind” (our very nature) but just built on superficial ignorance and hallucinations which have no basis in reality, then I think, you won’t be depressed too much. Also, if you detect (some of or all of) the traits described in the article in yourself and if you are patient and strong enough to see and stand with them in peace you can use your insights into these limitations as an inspiration for mental training, i.e. all of this information can become an extremely useful, inspiring teaching what to avoid and what to adopt.

The following article is an adaptation of an article originally published by The British Psychological Society’s Research Digest and written by Christian Jarrett. The article was originally published at Aeon under Creative Commons and has been republished by RawStory from where I took it.

What Are We like? 10 Psychology Findings That Reveal The Worst Of Human Nature

It’s a question that’s reverberated through the ages – are humans, though imperfect, essentially kind, sensible, good-natured creatures? Or are we, deep down, wired to be bad, blinkered, idle, vain, vengeful and selfish? There are no easy answers, and there’s clearly a lot of variation between individuals, but here we shine some evidence-based light on the matter through 10 dispiriting findings that reveal the darker and less impressive aspects of human nature:

We view minorities and the vulnerable as less than human. One striking example of this blatant dehumanisation came from a brain-scan study that found a small group of students exhibited less neural activity associated with thinking about people when they looked at pictures of the homeless or of drug addicts, as compared with higher-status individuals. Another study showed that people who are opposed to Arab immigration tended to rate Arabs and Muslims as literally less evolved than average. Among other examples, there’s also evidence that young people dehumanise older people; and that men and women alike dehumanise drunk women. What’s more, the inclination to dehumanise starts early – children as young as five view out-group faces (of people from a different city or a different gender to the child) as less human than in-group faces.

We experience Schadenfreude (pleasure at another person’s distress) by the age of four, according to a study from 2013. That sense is heightened if the child perceives that the person deserves the distress. A more recent study found that, by age six, children will pay to watch an antisocial puppet being hit, rather than spending the money on stickers.

We believe in karma – assuming that the downtrodden of the world deserve their fate. The unfortunate consequences of such beliefs were first demonstrated in the now classic research from 1966 by the American psychologists Melvin Lerner and Carolyn Simmons. In their experiment, in which a female learner was punished with electric shocks for wrong answers, women participants subsequently rated her as less likeable and admirable when they heard that they would be seeing her suffer again, and especially if they felt powerless to minimise this suffering. Since then, research has shown our willingness to blame the poor, rape victims, AIDS patients and others for their fate, so as to preserve our belief in a just world. By extension, the same or similar processes are likely responsible for our subconscious rose-tinted view of rich people.

We are blinkered and dogmatic. If people were rational and open-minded, then the straightforward way to correct someone’s false beliefs would be to present them with some relevant facts. However a classic study from 1979 showed the futility of this approach – participants who believed strongly for or against the death penalty completely ignored facts that undermined their position, actually doubling-down on their initial view. This seems to occur in part because we see opposing facts as undermining our sense of identity. It doesn’t help that many of us are overconfident about how much we understand things and that, when we believe our opinions are superior to others, this deters us from seeking out further relevant knowledge.

We would rather electrocute ourselves than spend time in our own thoughts. This was demonstrated in a controversial 2014 study in which 67 per cent of male participants and 25 per cent of female participants opted to give themselves unpleasant electric shocks rather than spend 15 minutes in peaceful contemplation.

We are vain and overconfident. Our irrationality and dogmatism might not be so bad were they married to some humility and self-insight, but most of us walk about with inflated views of our abilities and qualities, such as our driving skills, intelligence and attractiveness – a phenomenon that’s been dubbed the Lake Wobegon Effect after the fictional town where ‘all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average’. Ironically, the least skilled among us are the most prone to overconfidence (the so-called Dunning-Kruger effect). This vain self-enhancement seems to be most extreme and irrational in the case of our morality, such as in how principled and fair we think we are. In fact, even jailed criminals think they are kinder, more trustworthy and honest than the average member of the public.

We are moral hypocrites. It pays to be wary of those who are the quickest and loudest in condemning the moral failings of others – the chances are that moral preachers are as guilty themselves, but take a far lighter view of their own transgressions. In one study, researchers found that people rated the exact same selfish behaviour (giving themselves the quicker and easier of two experimental tasks on offer) as being far less fair when perpetuated by others. Similarly, there is a long-studied phenomenon known as actor-observer asymmetry, which in part describes our tendency to attribute other people’s bad deeds, such as our partner’s infidelities, to their character, while attributing the same deeds performed by ourselves to the situation at hand. These self-serving double standards could even explain the common feeling that incivility is on the increase – recent research shows that we view the same acts of rudeness far more harshly when they are committed by strangers than by our friends or ourselves.

We are all potential trolls. As anyone who has found themselves in a spat on Twitter will attest, social media might be magnifying some of the worst aspects of human nature, in part due to the online disinhibition effect, and the fact that anonymity (easy to achieve online) is known to increase our inclinations for immorality. While research has suggested that people who are prone to everyday sadism (a worryingly high proportion of us) are especially inclined to online trolling, a study published last year revealed how being in a bad mood, and being exposed to trolling by others, double the likelihood of a person engaging in trolling themselves. In fact, initial trolling by a few can cause a snowball of increasing negativity, which is exactly what researchers found when they studied reader discussion on, with the ‘proportion of flagged posts and proportion of users with flagged posts … rising over time’.

We favour ineffective leaders with psychopathic traits. The American personality psychologist Dan McAdams recently concluded that the US President Donald Trump’s overt aggression and insults have a ‘primal appeal’, and that his ‘incendiary Tweets’ are like the ‘charging displays’ of an alpha male chimp, ‘designed to intimidate’. If McAdams’s assessment is true, it would fit into a wider pattern – the finding that psychopathic traits are more common than average among leaders. Take the survey of financial leaders in New York that found they scored highly on psychopathic traits but lower than average in emotional intelligence. A meta-analysis published this summer concluded that there is indeed a modest but significant link between higher trait psychopathy and gaining leadership positions, which is important since psychopathy also correlates with poorer leadership.

We are sexually attracted to people with dark personality traits. Not only do we elect people with psychopathic traits to become our leaders, evidence suggests that men and women are sexually attracted, at least in the short term, to people displaying the so-called ‘dark triad’ of traits – narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism – thus risking further propagating these traits. One study found that a man’s physical attractiveness to women was increased when he was described as self-interested, manipulative and insensitive. One theory is that the dark traits successfully communicate ‘mate quality’ in terms of confidence and the willingness to take risks. Does this matter for the future of our species? Perhaps it does – another paper, from 2016, found that those women who were more strongly attracted to narcissistic men’s faces tended to have more children.

Don’t get too down – these findings say nothing of the success that some of us have had in overcoming our baser instincts. In fact, it is arguably by acknowledging and understanding our shortcomings that we can more successfully overcome them, and so cultivate the better angels of our nature.

— By Christian Jarrett for The British Psychological Society’s Research Digest

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