The Sad, Selfish Reality of Human Nature

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Something I talk a lot about when it comes to sales (and specifically performing cold outreach) is the idea of “shared values.” These are values that you share with your buyer, and the general principle of shared values is important in pretty much any budding relationship in life. You may end up marrying someone with very different interests than you, but usually you will try to find someone who shares your values, whether they be family, community, religion, or otherwise. Why is that?

People have a biological interest in self-preservation. We have a fight-or-flight reflex and experience physiological sensations to mirror those impulses as needed. We experience physical pain when we incur physical harm on our bodies. But of course we experience this reality emotionally as well.

Think about this very simple example. Let’s say someone who went to your alma mater reached out to you cold asking for your time to pick your brain about something. I would imagine that most people would say “yes” to spending time with someone who went to their alma mater. It would at least elicit a response. But what makes someone who went to your alma mater any better than anyone else who did not? The answer is that they are not any better or worse than anyone else. They just have a shared experience with you (your alma mater).

Our propensity for identifying shared values is well-documented throughout human history. Think about most wars that have ever happened. It is almost always due to differences in political ideology, religion, or race. It is relatively uncommon to find examples where a different cause was at stake. Even the idea of rooting for a sports team is tribal in its own right. I am a die-hard Boston sports fan because I am from Boston, and I find myself insulting other fanbases (predominantly Philadelphia) from time to time. But isn’t something as innocuous as rooting for sports teams ultimately rooted in our selfish desire to gain acceptance by a group and to feel “better than”?

Unfortunately, I believe that this sad reality about our human nature extends to even the most benevolent people. Many of my friends are purported social justice warriors, and as far as I can tell, they spend a lot more time telling people about their virtuous beliefs than actually doing anything with feet on the ground to make a difference. This type of virtue signaling is quite common today. After Will Smith slapped Chris Rock in the face on national television, a handful of people stood up for Smith – who was objectively wrong – on the grounds that he was standing up for his wife. Within an hour of Kobe Bryant’s death, a Washington Post reporter tweeted about his past rape allegations in an apparent attempt to signal her own virtue with regards to victims of sexual assault. The body was still warm.

In today’s social media era, people cannot help but to portray the best vision of self to a public audience. This makes people feel good about themselves. It also has led to an epidemic of suicide among teenage girls who hopelessly see in their social feeds an image for themselves that they could never possibly become. And yet, the beat marches on, god forbid we try to do anything about that.

I would say that even those who do good anonymously still suffer from this complex of humanity. I mentioned a moment ago the people who publicly announce their good. And to be sure, most people who make a donation for some cause will do so in their own name. This assures others that they are a good person, and so in some ways, the donation is made for selfish reasons. But even someone who makes an anonymous donation has some degree of selfishness, albeit less so. Such a person feels good about themself for doing a good deed, and that in and of itself is a small form of selfishness.

I think that this reality explains a lot of the breakdown in our current political dialogue, especially at the extremes of the political spectrum, which ultimately have far more in common with one another than they do with anyone else. On one side – on the far left – you have (in my estimation) a large swath of people who may prefer external validation rather than internal validation. Much of their do-gooding is for the sake of fitting in with a crowd that has adopted a certain narrative. This gives them external validation that they are part of a group of “good” people. They pursue this dream despite obvious hypocrisy from time to time, like purporting to be proponents of women’s rights while staying silent when biological men compete in women’s sports. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez compared our southern border to Holocaust concentration camps, but is nowhere to be found these days as the problem is infinitely worse than it was under a Republican President. People are content to be hypocrites if it keeps them in the good graces of their group.

This actually in many ways explains why collectivist ideology has become so popular amongst this group of people. Collectivism is the idea that we can label people by groups rather than by their unique individuality. This is where you see expressions like “all white people are privileged” becoming normalized, and it has specifically led to the demonization of all straight white men in some circles since they check off three boxes of apparent privilege. By simplifying every person into a category, you judge them solely on immutable traits and not by their actions or underlying circumstances. Never mind if said straight white man is poor, from Appalachia, and has been the victim of something like an anti-Semitic crime. Obviously, people are not always a reflection of their “tribe,” so this collectivist behavior represses their individualistic behavior and forces people to conform into groups.

As for people on the far right, they generally seek internal validation more so than external validation. They have accepted the fact that something like socialism cannot work, not (necessarily) because it is a bad idea in theory, but rather because they are aware of the reality of our human nature as a gating factor in making such a system successful. As a result, they turn inwards, oftentimes adopting a mantra that it is best to go “all-in” on being self-interested, with no interest in helping others or even in being helped by a government. They often express their selfish desires in malevolent ways and try to leverage certain systems to enrich themselves at the expense of others. Consider the reality that in the world’s most desperate time of need – the COVID-19 pandemic – that the top .1% globally separated itself significantly from the rest of the world in terms of its accumulation of wealth. Aside from a pledge from Elon Musk to solve world hunger and finally pay some taxes, you do not hear many stories of these billionaires using their increased funds to undo the damage that has been done. You know why that is.

As in all things, the reality in how we should engage with one another is usually somewhere in the middle. After all, two things can be true at once: we can be aware of our self-preservation instincts but still be interested in reducing human suffering as much as possible through the God-given gift of empathy that we also possess. I think we possess this emotion to the degree that we do for a reason. Even if it ultimately makes us feel good to do good deeds for others, you have to imagine that we were designed that way on purpose. Why else would it feel good to do good for others if our creators did not think that societal collaboration was important?

I do not mean for this to be dark, but I think understanding the reality of our motivations is the key to solving a lot of puzzles. For example, we spend disproportionate energy on everything but trying to understand our own purpose on Earth. Could that be because we are scared of what we might uncover about ourselves?

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