The delusion of human selfishness (and the role of the media)

Photo: Canva archive

This essay was previously published as episode #40 on Mind the Shift podcast

The Dutch historian Rutger Bregman has written an extraordinary book called ”Humankind”. One of my earlier guests on Mind the Shift podcast, the futurist Carin Ism, talked about Bregman’s trailblazing work, but I hadn’t heard of him then. Now I have read the book.

It is brilliant, and it is very important. It should be compulsory literature at universities, in every corporation and in every government authority.

When pronouncing the title, the stress should be put on the last syllable, ”kind”. Humans are inherently kind, and if no outer force meddles with the social dynamics, people almost always treat each other with respect and kindness in familiar as well as in unfamiliar circumstances. But this is not the story we are told in schools, by leaders or by the media. We are told a false story about a species with an intrinsic selfishness that has to be checked with laws and top-down control.

It is frankly outrageous that we have been conditioned to believe this upside-down narrative about the human condition. We have been living in a bad dream. As if the movie ”The Matrix” were a documentary.

It actually doesn’t take much self-reflection to realize that we all often want to do good things, and also difficult things, for no apparent reason and without incentives or punishments. We do them both for ourselves and for others. I mean, why would we otherwise play with kids? Why throw parties? Why climb freezing cold mountains? Why help the driver who’s stuck in the mud? Why help people in need at all?

Bregman shows that most of the stories about indifferent on-watchers at accident sites or when someone is assaulted are based on hearsay or bad journalism. And that toxic narrative about ”homo economicus”, who only follows their own interest, doesn’t hold water either.

This morose idea that we would all become Nazis if we just removed the thin layer of civilization, the ”veneer” theory, is a fantasy concept. It is the other way around: The violent competition that we undoubtedly witness among us and that scares us, is not simmering underneath a ”veneer of civilization”, it is unnatural and it didn’t begin until the day we left our life as hunter-gatherers, settled down and started organizing ourselves in cities and nations and introduced hierarchies and formal regulations.

Most of you have probably heard of one or more of the many studies and books that reached fame during the last century, which seemed to reveal an unreliable and greedy human race. We believed them to be true, or at least we thought they had heavy scientific significance — even people with a positive basic view of mankind like myself. But Bregman clobbers a good number of those works. It turns out they were manipulated or wrongly represented.

  • One example is Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment.
  • Another is Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience.
  • A third is the scientific reports about the grim destiny that the inhabitants of Easter Island are said to have met because of inherent human selfishness.

Bregman also slashes the much-hailed novel Lord of the Flies, which in a way gets a chapter of its own, because Bregman discovers that the story about a group of schoolboys who were marooned on an island and forced to fend for themselves there for a long time has actually happened in reality, about a decade after William Golding wrote his novel. And it turned out to be a very different story. In reality, the schoolboys cooperated and took care of each other.

It is saddening to think our poor kids in school have to suppress their natural openhearted approach and learn these false ideas about the nature of humankind. No wonder they feel disheartened and worried when they enter the adult world and are supposed to start taking responsibility for themselves and others.

And then there is the media. My God.

The news media narrative is practically based on the false assumptions about human lowness. I have had first-hand experience of journalistic dramaturgy for many years. There are a few basic principles. For example, news requires

  • drama, which for the most part means events that are perceived as bad,
  • some kind of conflict, a polarity between good and bad, rich and poor, etcetera, and
  • a speedy development of events.

When any or all of these requirements are met it is easy to create pieces of news. You can wake up an editor in the middle of a night and have her formulate a headline about some kind of fast deterioration; a disaster, say, or a stock market crash. But ask her to write a headline about an incremental improvement, which happens to be the way the world primarily develops in almost every area, and she will be caught empty, blank, with no ideas, scratching her head.

Occasionally positive change happens in a dramatic way. Then the good news spontaneously reaches the headlines. But we are talking about events like the fall of the Berlin Wall or sudden, surprising peace deals.

Bad stuff doesn’t even need to happen to get headlines. It is namely a toxic journalistic temptation to describe potential catastrophes as if they had already happened. You can always find experts who are willing to warn about new wars, new disasters, new diseases or increased poverty. These catastrophes on paper seldom materialize, but the audience will never know, because soon enough there are new threats to focus the media attention on.

The dramaturgy is the core problem, but the dilemma of the media’s skewed world view can be summed up in five items:

  • The dramaturgy.
  • The temptation to account for misery and conflict in advance.
  • A declining misery threshold. The better the world becomes, the lower the threshold for something negative to reach the headlines. A storm in Bangladesh doesn’t have to kill a hundred thousand people to be news; a thousand deaths would suffice.
  • Competition pressure. ”If we don’t push this dramatic piece out, our competitors will, and they will get the audience.”
  • Negative news is considered more serious than positive news.

Perhaps it needs to be said: Journalists are also humans. What they produce is a result of a problematic human trait. The question is to what extent this trait is innate and to what extent it is self-imposed.

I have seen the mental flaws in journalism as a distortion fundamentally created by the ”lizard brain”. You know, this ancient part of the brain that makes us constantly scan the environment searching for danger and prepares the body for fight or flight when danger is detected. The ”lizard brain” has failed to adjust to an ever safer environment, so it fools us to continue to believe that danger lurks out there even when there is nothing to fear.

Of course, sometimes real disasters occur, and in many people such events inflict life-long psychological scars.

But think of a gazelle on the savannah who is chased by a cheetah and whose life without doubt is acutely threatened. Let’s say it gets away. Is the hoofed animal then diagnosed with PTSD and recommended to make an appointment with a savannah psychiatrist who specializes in predator attacks? No. It returns to its herd almost immediately and continues to graze, as calmly as ever. The gazelle lives in the present moment and subconsciously acknowledges that the attack is in the past and not real anymore. Until the next time.

There seems to be more to the human fear problem than this simple lizard brain theory.

Bregman’s book has made me realize that the negativity bias can be blamed to a large extent on the powers that be, which have painted false images of human beings for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. Because, of course, the ”veneer theory” fits perfectly well with the interests of the ruling elite: take away control, and chaos ensues.

Ever since Thomas Hobbes book ”Leviathan” in the 17th century, this narrative has also been conveyed by respected philosophers, psychologists and other thinkers.

And the media has played along. News organizations like to think of themselves as independent and as a thorn in the side of the elite. Many journalists have chosen this career because they want to reveal injustices and contribute to a better world. They often dig up dirt in bits and pieces. Sometimes a minister has to go because of some bribery scandal. Occasionally an entire government has to face harsh criticism because the newspapers have disclosed serious flaws in some policy area.

But the media never really questions the general order of things, and it is striking how closely the media follows the power when it comes to the big narratives: migration, climate, terrorism, the covid pandemic. Its independence is certainly not absolute.

I seldom get upset nowadays. But I was both angry and sad when I read the chapter about Catherine Susan Genovese, who was stabbed to death just outside the house of her apartment in Queens, New York, in March 1964. The tragic event was described by the papers at the time primarily as a flagrant case of human indifference. The reason was that no less than 37 people were said to have witnessed the murder in one way or another without intervening. The first call came to the police more than half an hour after the first attack. An officer arrived after two minutes, but it was already too late.

The murder of ”Kitty” Genovese was soon to be used as a chilling cautionary tale and as a case in psychology textbooks, and it even became the subject of plays and songs.

When Bregman read more about what had actually transpired and interviewed people from the area who still remembered that cold spring night more than half a century ago, he discovered a completely different story. For example:

  • The police did get an early call but dismissed it.
  • Almost all the 38 witnesses (the 37 plus the caller) were potential witnesses, that is: this was the number of neighbors that the police interrogated. Almost none of them had realized — if they even heard anything — the severity of the sounds of screams that seeped in through the closed windows.
  • Only two people realized what was happening, and one of them did act. Kitty died in the arms of one of her closest friends.

This true description of what unfolded was never conveyed by the press. And reporters who suspected there was more to the story than just a horrific example of an ”epidemic of indifference” were told by their bosses that any complication would ”ruin the story” and didn’t dare to stand up for themselves because they didn’t want to lose their jobs.

Five days after Kitty’s death her murderer was apprehended thanks to the intervention of two bystanders. Not a single paper reported it.

This is just one single case, you might think. But as Bregman points out, several studies have debunked the so-called bystander effect, which stipulates that bystanders as a rule do nothing. A meta-analysis from 2011 reviewing 105 of the most important studies of the bystander effect concluded that in reality it is the other way around: As a rule, bystanders do intervene when someone is in distress.

The good news here is that I believe we are in fact leaving this false narrative behind, this toxic mindset. Slowly but steadily. My view on the evolution of humankind and the world tells me this. I am also strengthened in this belief by the fact that scores of highly conscious people are saying the same thing.

I don’t think it was by chance that Bregman wrote his book now. He clearly admits that he too believed firmly in the ”veneer” theory until he began questioning it and it dawned on him that it was just that: a theory, and a sadly ill-founded one.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I and others realize the scale of the deception now, in this time, and that we feel a combination of sadness that we have believed this for so long and elation that reality is so much brighter and more hopeful than we thought.

What forces have made us live in such a delusion for so long? Well, as many of you probably know, there are ideas out there about deliberate manipulation by certain elite groups. To me that is not a very constructive notion, and I sense that it may create more polarization, which is the last thing we need.

Suffice it to ascertain that we have collectively tweaked our perception of reality, so that we have come to believe that the illusion — living a hard and polarized life in a purely material world — is reality, and that reality — eternal existence in love, joy and abundance — is an illusion. Maybe this gloomy shift thousands of years ago is the ”fall from grace” that Christianity talks about (but misinterprets). It was perhaps necessary for us to go through this grim experience of polarity, fear and a sense of scarcity in order to understand the wondrousness of our pure self and the universe that it is a part of.

The ”slingshot” analogy tells us that the more the rubber band has been stretched, the faster and stronger it will release its force in the opposite direction. The darker it has been, the brighter it will get.

It is important to realize that no part of the experience is inherently bad. It’s all neutral. But it’s good to fully and conclusively learn that we cannot create what we desire when we are in fear. All creation is based on love.

Marco Missinato talked about the delusion in episode 36 of Mind the Shift. He said that everything in this world, or rather everything that reaches you from what you perceive as the outside, is upside down, and that the operating system has been like that for thousands of years. But if you are in tune with your soul, you realize that what you are told is inverted. And these deceptions are amplified by our ego.

We have been capable of doing bad things to others, of inflicting pain, because we have been fooled to forget what every soul (and, increasingly, science) knows: that we are all connected, and what I do to you, I do to myself.

When you remember that, you will also remember this:

You don’t owe anyone anything. Your only duty in life when you are born is to make sure that you feel good inside and that you love yourself unconditionally, with all your traits. We have been conditioned to believe that this is selfish. But it is the opposite.

No one has the right to tell you to do anything unless you feel ready and willing to do it. When you are, when you love yourself, THEN you are able to love every other soul unconditionally, and then you WILL give, you will do it because you want to, not because of sticks or carrots. As Patricia Williams writes in a beautiful little piece: ”You cannot give from an empty cup. So learn to fill your cup with love and joy to the point where it’s overflowing.”

When we all have learned this, we will live in a very different world, where every heart is overflowing with a desire to give and create for each other — which is the same thing as giving and creating for ourselves. One day we will be there. When? Oh, time is malleable.

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