Human nature

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Human beings, although generally lacking in strong instinctive behavior, do have certain innate tendencies that are not driven by pure reason. This page is about those tendencies, as well as any which may seem counter-intuitive or non-obvious regardless of whether they are grounded in rationality.


Studies indicate that approximately 5% of the general population is psychopathic, with a higher percentage among people in positions of power; the percentage appears to rise in correlation with the degree of power.

This may be the true explanation for the phenomenon which gave rise to the saying "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" – i.e. it is not so much the case that "anyone in a position of power will become corrupt" and more the case that "power tends to attract highly corruptible people". Both explanations, however, underscore the importance of limiting individual power in government, as in the US separation of powers.


There is a popular belief that humans are innately violent; comparisons with simian territorial behavior are often cited.

While there may be some truth to this, we are actually far less violent than any other mammalian species. According to biologist George C. Williams [W], "in all the mammalian species that have so far been carefully studied, the rate at which their members engage in the killing of conspecifics is several thousand times greater than the highest homicide rate measured in any American city." (cited in Darwin's Dangerous Idea p.478)


Humans are not always rational, though what may intuitively appear irrational may turn out to be rational in the larger analysis, given the complexity and uncertainty of reality.


Humans are not all equal in their mental abilities, but mental abilities are notoriously difficult to measure with any reliability or precision. (Related: Herrnstein, The Bell Curve)


Genetics appear to have a heavy influence on an individual's attitude regarding these issues1:

  • Life: voluntary euthanasia, abortion on demand, birth control, and organized religion.
  • Equality: open-door immigration, distinct gender roles, racial discrimination, and getting along with others

Genetics appear to have little or no influence regarding these issues:

  • Intellect: books, chess, education, and capitalism
  • Punishment: death penalty for murder, and castration for sex crimes

There is some evidence that highly heritable attitudes are psychologically "stronger" than less-heritable ones.

There is evidence that humans can evolve, i.e. beneficial genetic mutations can appear and spread in response to changed environmental conditions, over a small number of generations.2


Related Pages

Related Concepts

  • List of cognitive biases
    • Dunning-Kruger effect [W]: a cognitive bias in which "people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it". Leads to the well-known situation of competent people underestimating themselves and overestimating incompetent people.
  • Love bombing [W] is a deliberate, focused show of affection or friendship by an individual or a group of people toward another individual, with the effect that the target individual feels almost overwhelmingly welcomed by the group and is likely to actively seek additional contact. Critics have alleged that this technique is abused by cult religions such as the Church of Scientology.
  • Prospect theory [W] describes how people evaluate risk. (Daniel Kahneman co-developed the theory in 1979 and won the 2002 Nobel Prize for it.)
  • safety over accuracy: When presented a choice between an idea that makes one feel safe and an idea that hypothesizes a threat, there is often a strong cognitive bias towards the former.


Filed Links

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to be filed

  • 2011-04-17 What you think about evolution and human nature may be wrong: "There was no hierarchy; there were no leaders. HGSB (Hunter-gatherer society) members were fiercely egalitarian. Even Christopher Boehm (Hierarchy in the Forest) concludes that political egalitarianism, universal among HGSB, is ancient. Yet [evolutionary psychology] assumes hierarchy and dominance are natural parts of our evolutionary nature."
  • 2009-05-04 Anger is in the genes "Isolation of a gene called DARPP-32 helps explain why some people fly into a rage at the slightest provocation, while others can remain calm. ... Those who had the "TT" or "TC" versions of the gene portrayed significantly more anger than those with the "CC" version. ... TT and TC versions are much more common in Western populations, with the researchers suggesting that demonstrations of anger can help people get ahead in life. ... Earlier this year it was reported that showing anger rather than repressing emotions is the key to a successful professional and personal life. ... those who keep a check on their frustrations are at least three times more likely to admit they have disappointing personal lives and have hit a glass ceiling in their career." (kudos: David Brin)
  • The Fourth 'R', or Why Johnny Can't Reason by Dr. Herman T. Epstein: amazingly, studies show that over half of adult humans are "stuck" at a non-abstract level of reasoning. This information needs to be taken into account when planning the future of civilization, as it indicates that most people are not capable of the level of reasoning necessary to make sound decisions on major issues without depending on the opinions of others.
  • 2008-01-03 One in three people born stubborn (and if you don't agree, tough): "...scientists say they have pinpointed a gene – held by an estimated one-third of the world's population – which is nature's way of ensuring that some people keep on trying when the rest of us give up." This summary makes it sound like the gene allows perseverence in the face of adversity (refusal to admit failure), but the description of the study makes it sound like unwillingness to accept reality. Which is it?
  • 2007-10-22 Picking Election Winner By Appearance Accurate 70 Percent Of The Time: "Princeton psychologist Alexander Todorov has demonstrated that quick facial judgments can accurately predict real-world election returns."
    • The assumption everyone seems to be making about this study is that humans will choose a pretty face over true competence. However, the study did not address the question of how aesthetically pleasing the participants found each face, but rather how "competent" they judged each face to be. Secondly, I am not aware of any reasons to think that there could not be a genuine correlation between facial appearance and actual competence. I would like to see a follow-up study correlating the results of this study with the performance in-office of the winning candidates. Only if that study shows no (or negative) correlation can we declare the fallaciousness of {snap judgments of competence based on facial appearance alone}; until then, it's just an assumption. (...unless there have been other studies along these lines which have already demonstrated said fallaciousness.) --Woozle 08:51, 24 October 2007 (EDT)
  • 2007-04-16 Humans hot, sweaty, natural-born runners: humanity's evolutionary heritage
  • 2007-03-22 [reg req]Brain Injury Said to Affect Moral Choices: the ventromedial prefrontal cortex appears to be responsible for the human reluctance to hurt one person in order to save the lives of others, as well as human compassion in general
  • 2007-01-22 Why Do Good? Brain Study Offers Clues: People may not perform selfless acts just for an emotional reward, a new brain study suggests. Instead, they may do good because they're acutely tuned into the needs and actions of others. New research at Duke University shows that a piece of the brain linked to perceiving others' intentions shows more activity in people who display unselfish behavior, and less in those who act more selfishly.
  • 2006-07-03 Not Your Average Summer Camp describes an experiment done in 1954 (Muzafer Sherif's landmark study of group conflict) which tells us a lot about how people (or pre-adolescent boys, anyway) form group loyalties.


It has been suggested that studies such as the Stanford prison experiment [W] and The Third Wave [W] (not to mention the events in Nazi Germany which were the inspiration for the latter) strongly argue in favor of the evilness of human nature. Note for later: also the Milgram experiment [W], which is put nicely in context in one of the chapters of The Authoritarians

Jonathan Haidt and others have proposed that there are 5 "innate psychological systems form the foundation of intuitive ethics", and that one's political affiliation (conservative vs. liberal) is largely determined by one's awareness (or unawareness) of three of those systems.

see also 25 Intriguing Psychology Experiments


One of the primary functions of the human brain is pattern detection. It is so good at detecting patterns, in fact, that in the absence of any real pattern, it will often conjecture that there is a pattern and cling stubbornly to the idea that the pattern is real. This is probably one of the ways in which superstitions begin, and why they persist tenaciously when higher reasoning tells us that a correlation cannot possibly exist.

We also have a hard-wired tendency to find ways to ignore information which does not fit our existing biases:

This is among the main reasons why the scientific method is designed to carefully filter out observer bias, so that we can discover true things about the universe regardless of whether they meet our preconceived notions or make sense to us on a "gut" level.

We can learn a lot about human nature by studying animal behavior:

  • Which practices are things we are "taught by society" and which emerge naturally?
  • What are the similarities and differences between humans and our nearest genetic relatives (primates)? Much discussion of morality rests upon assumptions about which attributes are key to being human and which are not.
  • Many moralistic arguments rest on the premise that non-human animals do or do not do certain things; it is important to establish which of these premises are true, even if many of the arguments are no better than appeal to nature or its opposite (which might be called the animalistic fallacy (is there a better name for this?)) which argues that a particular practice is something only animals do and is therefore uncivilized and bad
  • 2007-04-19 'Freakonomics' writer talks monkey business: capuchin monkeys are given a monetary system and independently discover sexual prostitution

Average IQ test scores have been rising consistently since testing began; it is not clear what this means, although the effect has been studied extensively. wikipedia:Flynn effect [1]

Game theory can often tell us a lot about why people behave in seemingly counter-intuitive ways that may actually be rational:

Other miscellany:



1998-03-01 The Heritability of Attitudes: A Study of Twins

  • 2006-11-22 Beware Heritable Beliefs has a summary and some quick analysis, with comments
  • The study apparently did not look at the role played by variations in the prenatal environment, which is known to have dramatic effects on sexuality; however, the differentials between the "identical" and "fraternal" twins should take care of this factor also. I think.
  • Has anyone worked out what the columns mean in Table 1 (page 5)?

More traits were studied than are listed here; this list is derived from the summary at Overcoming Bias.