Which of these worldviews (from an Economist—YouGov poll) comes closest to your view?
“It’s a big, beautiful world, mostly full of good people, and we must find a way to embrace each other and not allow ourselves to become isolated.”
“Our lives are threatened by terrorists, criminals and illegal immigrants, and our priority should be to protect ourselves.”
Psychological science offers support for both the humans-are-basically-good view and the humans-are-prone-to-evil view.
Humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers recognized cruelty but did “not find that this evil is inherent in human nature.” Instead, he argued, evil springs from toxic cultural influences. Fellow humanistic psychologist Rollo May disagreed, noting that “The culture is evil as well as good because we, the human beings who constitute it, are evil as well as good.”
Several research streams support May’s acknowledgement of our human capacity for evil:
Selfish genes (to use the title of Richard Dawkins’ famous book) predispose what social psychologist Donald Campbell called our “self-saving selfishness.”
Self-serving biases lead people to perceive and present themselves as relatively superior—a phenomenon that also feeds ingroup favoritism and prejudice, which then often gets amplified by group polarization.
Evil situations can overwhelm good intentions, inducing people to conform to falsehoods or capitulate to cruelty. (Psychology students: think Asch and Milgram.)
But if our minds of late are filled with images of evil—senseless police killings; anti-Black, anti-Asian, and anti-Semitic sentiment and violence; anti-vax conspiracy spreaders—we also have abundant images of human generosity: of anti-racism initiatives and self-sacrificing health care workers. Our capacity for selfless altruism also appears in psychological science:
Group selection. Some evolutionists contend that in competition with other groups, groups of mutually supportive altruists will survive and spread their group-serving genes.
Compassionate acts. Altruism researchers explore our unhesitating willingness to offer directions, give blood, donate money, and volunteer time.
Empathy. Observing someone’s suffering, we naturally empathize. And if we can do something, we’re often willing to help even when our helping is anonymous. We are not just selfish animals; we are social animals.
Still, on balance, is the world “mostly full of good people”? Or does the threat of terrorists, criminals, and immigrants loom larger?
Our answer to that worldview poll question matters. Of Biden voters, 77 percent saw a “big, beautiful world” mostly populated by good people. Of Trump voters, only 21 percent saw that world; 66 percent perceived a more threatening world. Our worldview can foretell our politics.
Now consider a second question: How large is the circle of people with whom you identify and about whom you care? Does it include the people in your community? Your country? The whole world?
As the COVID-19 pandemic raged, a University of Washington research team put that issue to people from 80 nations, asking various questions to gauge their identification with their community, their country, and all of humanity: “How much would you say you care (feel upset, want to help) when bad things happen to people in my community? My country? All over the world?” Then, they investigated: What best predicted people’s willingness to follow pandemic public health guidelines? To engage in prosocial behaviors, such as donating from their own household mask supply to a hospital? To come to the aid of someone with COVID?
The striking finding: Compared with identification with one’s own community and nation—as well as other predictors, such as age, gender, and education—identification with all humanity was the runaway winner. Psychologist Andrew Meltzoff explained: “Our research reveals that a crucial aspect of one’s world view—how much people feel connected to others they have never met—predicts people’s cooperation with public health measures and the altruism they feel toward others during the pandemic.”
Social psychologists offer many examples of how specific attitudes (toward exercise, toward religion, toward one’s workplace) predict behavior. As these studies demonstrate, our larger worldview matters, too. So what do you think? Is human nature, at its core, mostly good or mostly evil? And how wide is your circle of care and concern?"
(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com; follow him on Twitter: @DavidGMyers.)