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29. What makes humans tick?

Is there such a thing as ‘human nature’?

You might think this question is best left avoided, given the bizarre claims that are often made about human nature, and the sometimes horrendous policies that have sometimes been advanced under its banner.

But given we humans are the product of a long evolutionary history, it would be astonishing if we didn’t have some sort of ‘nature’. So the sooner (and better) we understand what it is, the better off we will be. After all, every beast has its characteristics, modes of behaviour and survival strategies. It’s in the nature of fish to swim in and breathe water, for example, for birds to fly, and for lions and tigers to have big sharp teeth and to be fierce. Humans are designed to have dextrous hands and large brains, which enable things like language, culture and the production of material goods.

An emerging consensus

Thankfully our understanding of what human nature is actually like has advanced by leaps and bound in recent decades, thanks to painstaking research by anthropologists, biologists, evolutionary psychologists, neuroscientists, social psychologists, sociologists (and more). All this research is now pointing to an emerging broad consensus as to what humans are actually like, starting with an astonishing array of human universals — characteristics that are common to all known human societies, both past and present.

In the blogs to come I’ll unpick this emerging consensus. I’ll argue that we humans are sentient, social, intelligent beings and I’ll unpack what this means in some detail. For example, survival instincts give us a constant urge to make our lives ‘better’. We are blessed (or cursed) with deep and powerful reciprocal, tribal and moral instincts, and with a deep desire to understand the world in which we live (if only to be able to act more effectively within it). We cannot help but to live within complex and powerful belief systems.

The challenge of institutional design

Why bother with this investigation? The reason is simple. If our goal is the sustainable enrichment of human lives (what I call real wealth creation), if we don’t understand makes humans tick our quest will be doomed from the start. I argued earlier, for example, that modern financial institutions are toxic and cancerous empowering wealth extractors to take over from wealth creators by riding on the back of the notion that humans are ‘rational’ beings always seeking to maximise their profits.

The last century has seen many tragedies unfold because of mistaken views of human nature: fascists who defined human nature and ‘better’ in terms of race, physical perfection and nation; communists with their focus on class and collectivism; and most recently neoliberal fanatics with their obsessions with profit and private property. All of them built on deep misunderstandings and misrepresentations of what humans are really like. All of them ending up trying to force people to behave as they ‘should’, thereby descending into tyranny.

The other side of the coin is that if we get our understanding right, we have huge opportunities to improve things. As I showed in my discussion of production, real wealth creation depends on know-how. But it also depends on the purposes to which this know-how is put, and how effective we are at organising and coordinating human efforts to achieve these purposes.

This is what this blog series is building up to: the challenge of institutional design (using the word ‘institution’ in its broadest sense as an arrangement, formal or informal, which brings people together in certain ways to achieve certain purposes).

Over the last few centuries humans’ material welfare has advanced by leaps and bounds, thanks to our improving understanding of the nature of things. But at the same time, our societies have often sickened thanks to misunderstandings of the nature of people. Now, perhaps, we have an opportunity to rectify that shortcoming.

This is how social networks researcher Nicholas Christakis put this idea.

“In the 20th century, there was a tremendous expectation, or appreciation, for the role that the biological and the physical sciences could play in improving human welfare and human affairs.

“In the 21st century, the social sciences offer equal promise for improving human welfare. The advances that we have made and will be making, especially in understanding human behavior and its very deep origins, will be translated into interventions of diverse sorts that will have a much bigger impact in terms of improving human welfare.”

Identifying design principles

Let’s consider some simple examples. If our goal is the sustainable enrichment of human lives — and if this is enrichment is both emotional and physiological — then peoples’ experiences of life including how well (or badly) they feel they are treated could become as important as the production of goods and services. It transforms both our view of what real wealth creation looks like, and how to achieve it.

If humans are instinctively reciprocal creatures, either trading gifts and favours or insults and harms, then ‘fairness’ matters hugely, because whether something is deemed fair or not determines whether it triggers mutual cooperation and support or mutual recrimination and conflict. And (as above) if how people feel about how they are treated is important, then fair processes may be as important to real wealth creation as fair outcomes.

If humans have tribal instincts of ‘us’ and ‘them’ then it’s no good lecturing people about how they shouldn’t feel these things. Instead, institutions need to be designed so that they draw on tribal instincts to unleash humans’ cooperative energies, and to channel potential tribal conflicts. Much better to have a World Cup than World War.

If humans have deep seated moral instincts by which they judge the moral worth of themselves and others, then appealing to and channelling these moral instincts becomes a key factor in institutional design — the exact opposite to the last 40 years, where economists have insisted that all motivations boil down to financial self-interest.

If humans act in the world based on their understandings of how it works, encoded into beliefs systems, and if they debate these understandings and beliefs through cultures and communication- then it matters crucially that we have the means and mechanisms to conduct such debates; to provide people with effective ‘voice’ as well as ‘choice’.

If humans’ welfare is closely bound up with a sense of agency and mastery — the sense that we can act effectively in the world rather than being powerless victims at the mercy of external forces — then ways of enabling agency and developing mastery are essential elements of real wealth creation. Perhaps ‘education’ and ‘training’ aren’t just a means to an end. Perhaps they’re a truly valuable end in their own right.

Opening up possibilities

I could go on (and will!), not to fantasise about some new utopia or build some new rigid blueprint, but to help identify possibility spaces: the different forms ‘better’ may take and the different ways in which we might make things better.

These questions will form the foundation of everything that follows in this blog. We’ll begin with the alpha and omega — the power and role of human feelings and why they matter so much.

Next in this series: 30. ‘Feelings’: the Sleeping Giant of Political Economy

Previous: 28. Why do humans make things?

The full contents of this blog series can be found here.


Books and articles I found particularly useful: The Nicholas Christakis quote can be found at



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