Workers leave the Detroit Ford factory (circa 1930) [Getty Images]

Human Nature Is Created, Not Discovered

Idea technology and how capitalism makes us miserable


Barry Schwartz is one of the most interesting thinkers of our time.

He is most famous for his work on The Paradox of Choice. Where conventional wisdom tells us that more possibilities is better, Schwartz makes a compelling case that the abundance of choice in today’s western world is actually making us worse off. Infinite choice is paralyzing, Schwartz argues, and exhausting to the human psyche.

His TedTalk is a classic, ramping up over 12 million views.

Today, a decade later, what got crystalized into the collective unconsciousness is how subjective experiences about what is good for us can be, and often are, misleading. What, on the other hand, got neglected is that Schwartz meant his book as a social critique of our obsession with competition (even in the public domain) and maximizing the number of alternatives.

In his recent work, he has continued drawing out the societal consequences of the newest psychological knowledge, further exploring the link between psychology and economics.

It hasn’t yet received the attention of his more famous theory, but its implications are even deeper.

Let’s take a look.

Introducing: the feedback loop of ideas about humans

Here’s the bumper slogan: human nature is much more created than it is discovered, and this has profound consequences.

To get an idea of what it means for something like human nature to be produced rather than detected, take a look at what the philosopher of science Ian Hacking calls making up people:

Take four categories: horse, planet, glove, and multiple personality. It would be preposterous to suggest that the only thing horses have in common is that we call them horses. We may draw boundaries to admit or to exclude Shetland ponies, but the similarities and differences are real enough. Arguably the heavens looked different after we grouped earth with the other planets and excluded the moon and sun, but I am sure that acute thinkers had discovered a real difference. Gloves are something else: we manufacture them. That the…



Maarten van Doorn
The Understanding Project

Essays about why we believe what we do, how societies come to a public understanding about truth, and how we might do better (crazy times)