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.


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
  • Love bombing 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.


  • 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


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.