Thursday, March 24, 2011

“Fight or Flight” vs. “Tend and Befriend:” The Yin and Yang of Human Social Life

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Last week I wrote a post suggesting that goodness, compassion, and cooperation with others is a biological imperative. I argued that being good to others is part of our evolutionary history—a response that developed to solve the problems of our harsh physical environments. In essence, humans as a species have underwhelming physical capabilities, and so overcoming obstacles in the environment through brute physical force becomes difficult. Instead, infants rely on mothers, adults cooperate with neighbors, and farmers barter with hunters. In this way, humans cooperate to survive.

In the comments section of that post, one of our readers made a second observation about human nature—that we also have a tendency to think in terms of “Us” versus “Them.”  That is, humans also have an innate ability to identify and respond to potential dangers, threats, or competitors in their social environments. This is also a result of our evolutionary history in that being able to identify environmental threats is important for survival.

So who is right? Are we Born to Be Good or are we cursed with a Selfish Gene?

The answer is both of course. Our survival as a species still depends (even today I would guess) on our abilities to both cooperate with others, and to resist threats through self-preservation. So when someone (a religious leader, professor, politician, etc…) claims that compassion, kindness, and trust are hard-wired parts of our being, he/she is not claiming that people are devoid of capacities for aggression, prejudice, and selfish self-preservation tendencies. They are two sides of the same coin.

Recently researchers have turned toward the study of the positive aspects of human nature, and at first glance this seems like researchers are now ignoring the aggressive/selfish tendencies built into our DNA. That couldn’t be further from the truth: Researchers in psychology have been studying fear, aggression, prejudice, discrimination, and other darker aspects of human life since we started studying humans in laboratories (circa 1890). The study of compassion and caretaking, in contrast, started in the last 25 years (Taylor, 2006). In my view, researchers spend far too much time talking about the selfish side of human nature.

We also get a healthy dose of “Us” versus “Them,” aggression, and prejudice in the news. I try to avoid the 24-hour news cycle at all costs. But, when I do watch, I see story upon story about people who are aggressive, tensions between neighboring nations or politicians, or neighborhood violence. I’m not arguing that these things don’t happen. Instead, I think we spend far too much time thinking about and rehashing these aggressive/selfish events in the world, and far too little time thinking about and rehashing the compassion that we see around us everyday.

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 What would happen if the 24-hour news cycle focused on compassion, caretaking, and friendship? Think about it, what if political coverage focused on the 75 pleasant conversations senate democrats and republicans have with each other in their subcommittees rather than the 1 conversation that went badly? I’m not sure what would happen. What we do know from psychology research is that rehearsing negative feelings toward others, aggressive tendencies, or anxiety about competition exacerbates, and does not diminish, these tendencies in us (Anderson & Bushman, 2002).

Would calling attention to the good deeds around us increase our compassion and altruism? We’d love to hear what you think in the comments section.


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