Category: Human Nature

Need to Improve your Relations with Others? Start by Getting Human Nature Right

Most of us periodically struggle to manage our relationships, whether we’re trying to manage a company, a team, a marriage, or a friendship. The problem is that we’re often fighting, rather than riding, the tremendous current of human nature. And when we fight a tide we could be riding, we do ourselves a great disservice.

There are two possible causes of our struggle to act in harmony with the way people really are:

  1. We don’t understand human nature well enough, or
  2. We understand human nature well, but aren’t living in harmony with it.

The first one is addressable. Studying great practical philosophers is one step. AristotleMontaigneMarcus AureliusSeneca, and Munger are just a few of our favorites. Much has been written about human nature. The great classics of literature are really all about human nature. Great biographical works give us tremendous understanding of people if we are willing to read them and understand them. Even Seinfeld wasn’t really a show about nothing, but about how silly our behavior is around one another.

Studying evolutionary biology, a more modern development, is the other place to go. The biologists have done a good job explaining where we come from and what’s sitting there in our DNA. We get a lot of that by studying our evolutionary ancestors and cousins — the members of the animal kingdom. Chimps go to war. Bonobos have non-procreative sex, just like we do. Ants organize towards a common goal. We can derive a lot of knowledge about ourselves by asking how we’re similar and dissimilar to our “family tree.”

The second cause of our lack of congruence with human nature is tougher to solve for most. Are we aware of human nature but not executing on what we know? You might call this an Intention-Execution Gap. We know what to do, we just don’t have the discipline to do it. Success would mean closing that gap, probably through a great deal of self-criticism and working on our emotional discipline.

A wonderful Edge talk with Darwinian philosopher Helena Cronin has a telling excerpt on the topic:

Certainly, human nature is fixed. It’s universal and unchanging — common to every baby that’s born, down through the history of our species. But human behavior — which is generated by that nature — is endlessly variable and diverse. After all, fixed rules can give rise to an inexhaustible range of outcomes. Natural selection equipped us with the fixed rules — the rules that constitute our human nature. And it designed those rules to generate behavior that’s sensitive to the environment. So, the answer to ‘genetic determinism’ is simple. If you want to change behavior, just change the environment. And, of course, to know which changes would be appropriate and effective, you have to know those Darwinian rules. You need only to understand human nature, not to change it.

Munger has echoed this in the past, arguing that the way to have a happy partnership is to be a great partner. Buffett has echoed the same: Marrying with the intention of changing the other person is insane. Better to marry right with the intention to change yourself. Learn to be a better partner and create a better environment for the relationship to succeed. How do you think a manager operating in a business environment as awful as steel production was able to do it? He understood human nature and acted in accordance.


Who else understood human nature pretty well? Machiavelli. Quite possibly the most talked about, least actually read, practical philosopher of all time. For an example, here he is discussing why hiring mercenary soldiers was such a poor choice for 16th century Italy:

Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous; and if one holds his state based on these arms, he will stand neither firm nor safe; for they are disunited, ambitious, and without discipline, unfaithful, valiant before friends, cowardly before enemies; they have neither the fear of God nor fidelity to men, and destruction is deferred only so long as the attack is; for in peace one is robbed by them, and in war by the enemy. The fact is, they have no other attraction or reason for keeping the field than a trifle of stipend, which is not sufficient to make them willing to die for you. They are ready enough to be your soldiers whilst you do not make war, but if war comes they take themselves off or run from the foe.

Isn’t that a pretty simple idea, in accordance with our nature? Incentives drive behavior. And of course we see, with insights like that, The Prince has held up pretty well.


The modern book on dealing with others is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. It’s so popular, and so “out of date” that it’s easy to dismiss. But Carnegie, like Robin Dreeke, hit on some deep insights about human nature that, if taken seriously, really work. Like understanding others’ incentives:

Why talk about what we want? That is childish. Absurd. Of course, you are interested in what you want. You are eternally interested in it. But no one else is. The rest of us are just like you: we are interested in what we want. So the only way on earth to influence other people is to talk about what they want and show them how to get it.

Again, Carnegie’s wisdom is simple, but absolutely correct. (Another reminder that greats succeed by exploiting unrecognized simplicity.) We are all the protagonists of our own story, aren’t we? And yet, how often do we forget that as we go about our relations with others?

Ben Franklin phrased it famously by saying “If you wish to persuade, appeal to interest, rather than reason.” All that Carnegie and Franklin are doing is recognizing people for what they are, and living in harmony with that reality. When we do so, we go a long way towards well-deserved success. Failing here costs us greatly.

So resolve this year, and all of the rest of your years, to come to a better understand of the way people really are and to start living in accordance with it.

How Analogies Reveal Connections, Spark Innovation, and Sell Our Greatest Ideas

Image Source: XKCD


John Pollack is a former Presidential Speechwriter. If anyone knows the power of words to move people to action, shape arguments, and persuade, it is he.

In Shortcut: How Analogies Reveal Connections, Spark Innovation, and Sell Our Greatest Ideas, he explores the powerful role of analogy in persuasion and creativity.

One of the key tools he uses for this is analogy.

While they often operate unnoticed, analogies aren’t accidents, they’re arguments—arguments that, like icebergs, conceal most of their mass and power beneath the surface. In arguments, whoever has the best argument wins.

But analogies do more than just persuade others — they also play a role in innovation and decision making.

From the bloody Chicago slaughterhouse that inspired Henry Ford’s first moving assembly line, to the “domino theory” that led America into the Vietnam War, to the “bicycle for the mind” that Steve Jobs envisioned as a Macintosh computer, analogies have played a dynamic role in shaping the world around us.

Despite their importance, many people have only a vague sense of the definition.

What is an Analogy?

In broad terms, an analogy is simply a comparison that asserts a parallel—explicit or implicit—between two distinct things, based on the perception of a share property or relation. In everyday use, analogies actually appear in many forms. Some of these include metaphors, similes, political slogans, legal arguments, marketing taglines, mathematical formulas, biblical parables, logos, TV ads, euphemisms, proverbs, fables and sports clichés.

Because they are so disguised they play a bigger role than we consciously realize. Not only do analogies effectively make arguments, but they trigger emotions. And emotions make it hard to make rational decisions.

While we take analogies for granted, the ideas they convey are notably complex.

All day every day, in fact, we make or evaluate one analogy after the other, because some comparisons are the only practical way to sort a flood of incoming data, place it within the content of our experience, and make decisions accordingly.

Remember the powerful metaphor — that arguments are war. This shapes a wide variety of expressions like “your claims are indefensible,” “attacking the weakpoints,” and “You disagree, OK shoot.”

Or consider the Map and the Territory — Analogies give people the map but explain nothing of the territory.

Warren Buffett is one of the best at using analogies to communicate effectively. One of my favorite analogies is when he noted “You never know who’s swimming naked until the tide goes out.” In other words, when times are good everyone looks amazing. When times suck, hidden weaknesses are exposed. The same could be said for analogies:

We never know what assumptions, deceptions, or brilliant insights they might be hiding until we look beneath the surface.

Most people underestimate the importance of a good analogy. As with many things in life, this lack of awareness comes at a cost. Ignorance is expensive.

Evidence suggests that people who tend to overlook or underestimate analogy’s influence often find themselves struggling to make their arguments or achieve their goals. The converse is also true. Those who construct the clearest, most resonant and apt analogies are usually the most successful in reaching the outcomes they seek.

The key to all of this is figuring out why analogies function so effectively and how they work. Once we know that, we should be able to craft better ones.

Don’t Think of an Elephant

Effective, persuasive analogies frame situations and arguments, often so subtly that we don’t even realize there is a frame, let alone one that might not work in our favor. Such conceptual frames, like picture frames, include some ideas, images, and emotions and exclude others. By setting a frame, a person or organization can, for better or worse, exert remarkable influence on the direction of their own thinking and that of others.

He who holds the pen frames the story. The first person to frame the story controls the narrative and it takes a massive amount of energy to change the direction of the story. Sometimes even the way that people come across information, shapes it — stories that would be a non-event if disclosed proactively became front page stories because someone found out.

In Don’t Think of an Elephant, George Lakoff explores the issue of framing. The book famously begins with the instruction “Don’t think of an elephant.”

What’s the first thing we all do? Think of an elephant, of course. It’s almost impossible not to think of an elephant. When we stop consciously thinking about it, it floats away and we move on to other topics — like the new email that just arrived. But then again it will pop back into consciousness and bring some friends — associated ideas, other exotic animals, or even thoughts of the GOP.

“Every word, like elephant, evokes a frame, which can be an image of other kinds of knowledge,” Lakoff writes. This is why we want to control the frame rather than be controlled by it.

In Shortcut Pollack tells of Lakoff talking about an analogy that President George W. Bush made in the 2004 State of the Union address, in which he argued the Iraq war was necessary despite the international criticism. Before we go on, take Bush’s side here and think about how you would argue this point – how would you defend this?

In the speech, Bush proclaimed that “America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our people.”

As Lakoff notes, Bush could have said, “We won’t ask permission.” But he didn’t. Instead he intentionally used the analogy of permission slip and in so doing framed the issue in terms that would “trigger strong, more negative emotional associations that endured in people’s memories of childhood rules and restrictions.”

Commenting on this, Pollack writes:

Through structure mapping, we correlate the role of the United States to that of a young student who must appeal to their teacher for permission to do anything outside the classroom, even going down the hall to use the toilet.

But is seeking diplomatic consensus to avoid or end a war actually analogous to a child asking their teacher for permission to use the toilet? Not at all. Yet once this analogy has been stated (Farnam Street editorial: and tweeted), the debate has been framed. Those who would reject a unilateral, my-way-or-the-highway approach to foreign policy suddenly find themselves battling not just political opposition but people’s deeply ingrained resentment of childhood’s seemingly petty regulations and restrictions. On an even subtler level, the idea of not asking for a permission slip also frames the issue in terms of sidestepping bureaucratic paperwork, and who likes bureaucracy or paperwork.

Deconstructing Analogies

Deconstructing analogies, we find out how they function so effectively. Pollack argues they meet five essential criteria.

  1. Use the highly familiar to explain something less familiar.
  2. Highlight similarities and obscure differences.
  3. Identify useful abstractions.
  4. Tell a coherent story.
  5. Resonate emotionally.

Let’s explore how these work in greater detail. Let’s use the example of master-thief, Bruce Reynolds, who described the Great Train Robbery as his Sistine Chapel.

The Great Train Robbery

In the dark early hours of August 8, 1963, an intrepid gang of robbers hot-wired a six-volt battery to a railroad signal not far from the town of Leighton Buzzard, some forty miles north of London. Shortly, the engineer of an approaching mail train, spotting the red light ahead, slowed his train to a halt and sent one of his crew down the track, on foot, to investigate. Within minutes, the gang overpowered the train’s crew and, in less than twenty minutes, made off with the equivalent of more than $60 million in cash.

Years later, Bruce Reynolds, the mastermind of what quickly became known as the Great Train Robbery, described the spectacular heist as “my Sistine Chapel.”

Use the familiar to explain something less familiar

Reynolds exploits the public’s basic familiarity with the famous chapel in the Vatican City, which after Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is perhaps the best-known work of Renaissance art in the world. Millions of people, even those who aren’t art connoisseurs, would likely share the cultural opinion that the paintings in the chapel represent “great art” (as compared to a smaller subset of people who might feel the same way about Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, or Marcel Duchamp’s upturned urinal).

Highlight similarities and obscure differences

Reynold’s analogy highlights, through implication, similarities between the heist and the chapel—both took meticulous planning and masterful execution. After all, stopping a train and stealing the equivalent of $60m—and doing it without guns—does require a certain artistry. At the same time, the analogy obscures important differences. By invoking the image of a holy sanctuary, Reynolds triggers a host of associations in the audience’s mind—God, faith, morality, and forgiveness, among others—that camouflage the fact that he’s describing an action few would consider morally commendable, even if the artistry involved in robbing that train was admirable.

Identify useful abstractions

The analogy offers a subtle but useful abstraction: Genius is genius and art is art, no matter what the medium. The logic? If we believe that genius and artistry can transcend genre, we must concede that Reynolds, whose artful, ingenious theft netted millions, is an artist.

Tell a coherent story

The analogy offers a coherent narrative. Calling the Great Train Robbery his Sistine Chapel offers the audience a simple story that, at least on the surface makes sense: Just as Michelangelo was called by God, the pope, and history to create his greatest work, so too was Bruce Reynolds called by destiny to pull off the greatest robbery in history. And if the Sistine Chapel endures as an expression of genius, so too must the Great Train Robbery. Yes, robbing the train was wrong. But the public perceived it as largely a victimless crime, committed by renegades who were nothing if not audacious. And who but the most audacious in history ever create great art? Ergo, according to this narrative, Reynolds is an audacious genius, master of his chosen endeavor, and an artist to be admired in public.

There is an important point here. The narrative need not be accurate. It is the feelings and ideas the analogy evokes that make it powerful. Within the structure of the analogy, the argument rings true. The framing is enough to establish it succulently and subtly. That’s what makes it so powerful.

Resonate emotionally

The analogy resonates emotionally. To many people, mere mention of the Sistine Chapel brings an image to mind, perhaps the finger of Adam reaching out toward the finger of God, or perhaps just that of a lesser chapel with which they are personally familiar. Generally speaking, chapels are considered beautiful, and beauty is an idea that tends to evoke positive emotions. Such positive emotions, in turn, reinforce the argument that Reynolds is making—that there’s little difference between his work and that of a great artist.

Jumping to Conclusions

Daniel Kahneman explains the two thinking structures that govern the way we think: System one and system two . In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, he writes “Jumping to conclusions is efficient if the conclusions are likely to be correct and the costs of an occasional mistake are acceptable, and if the jump saves much time and effort.”

“A good analogy serves as an intellectual springboard that helps us jump to conclusions,” Pollack writes. He continues:

And once we’re in midair, flying through assumptions that reinforce our preconceptions and preferences, we’re well on our way to a phenomenon known as confirmation bias. When we encounter a statement and seek to understand it, we evaluate it by first assuming it is true and exploring the implications that result. We don’t even consider dismissing the statement as untrue unless enough of its implications don’t add up. And consider is the operative word. Studies suggest that most people seek out only information that confirms the beliefs they currently hold and often dismiss any contradictory evidence they encounter.

The ongoing battle between fact and fiction commonly takes place in our subconscious systems. In The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, Drew Westen, an Emory University psychologist, writes: “Our brains have a remarkable capacity to find their way toward convenient truths—even if they are not all true.”

This also helps explain why getting promoted has almost nothing to do with your performance.

Remember Apollo Robbins? He’s a professional pickpocket. While he has unique skills, he succeeds largely through the choreography of people’s attention. “Attention,” he says “is like water. It flows. It’s liquid. You create channels to divert it, and you hope that it flows the right way.”

“Pickpocketing and analogies are in a sense the same,” Pollack concludes, “as the misleading analogy picks a listener’s mental pocket.”

And this is true whether someone else diverts our attention through a resonant but misleading analogy—“Judges are like umpires”—or we simply choose the wrong analogy all by ourselves.

Reasoning by Analogy

We rarely stop to see how much of our reasoning is done by analogy. In a 2005 study published in the Harvard Business Review, Giovanni Gavettie and Jan Rivkin wrote: “Leaders tend to be so immersed in the specifics of strategy that they rarely stop to think how much of their reasoning is done by analogy.” As a result they miss things. They make connections that don’t exist. They don’t check assumptions. They miss useful insights. By contrast “Managers who pay attention to their own analogical thinking will make better strategic decisions and fewer mistakes.”


Shortcut goes on to explore when to use analogies and how to craft them to maximize persuasion.

The Four Types of Relationships and the Reputational Cue Ball

There are four types of relationships with people.

  1. Win Win
  2. Win Lose
  3. Lose Win
  4. Lose Lose

Seneca says “Time discovers truth.”

Only one of those relationships is sustainable over the long-term. And longevity is the key to so many things.

Yet so many of us operate in the short term. Today. This week. This Month. This Quarter. We want to WIN even if that means the other person LOSES.

We rationalize this behavior, arguing that, while it might not be fair today, we’ll make it right in the future. But do you really think that someone who takes advantage of you today with a lopsided deal will make it up to you?

Only this ignores all we know about game theory, biology (survival/evolution), physics (compounding), and psychology (reciprocation).


The most common strategy in life when you feel like someone is taking advantage of you is tit-for-tat. That is, return what you get. (Newton figured this out long ago.)

The person on the LOSING side of any relationship tends to coil like a spring, the latent energy building with time, frequency, and magnitude of slight. The more they perceive you taking advantage of them, the higher the odds they negatively become spring-loaded. This creates a negative leaping emergent effect. That’s human nature. Given the chance to punish someone that we feel wronged us, even at personal cost, we will often take it.

These outcomes are avoidable.

Biology has taught us that the key to evolving is to be sustainable over a long period of time. We must reproduce. A one-and-done species is not even a footnote in history.

“While others attempt to win every lap around the track, it is crucial to remember that to succeed at investing, you have to be around at the finish.”

— Seth Klarman

And yet so few of us design systems that incorporate duration as an element. We make them short term. Designed to maximize the short run while ensuring we never get on a path of sustainability.

  • When you treat people badly they will respond (eventually) in kind.
  • When you rip your customers off they will (eventually) go elsewhere.
  • When you rip off your suppliers they will (eventually) stop doing business with you or return your behavior in kind.

Anyone can come into an organization and start throwing their title around to get things done. We’ve all met this person. This works for a while but eventually fails. And who is interested in a tactic that only works for a short time?

Ideally, we want something that works for a long time because most of the value in relationships that matter (whether customers, partners, friends) accumulates after the initial period of time.

If you’re offering a lopsided deal to someone, you’re signaling that you’re not in it for the long term. Similarly, if someone is offering you a lopsided deal, they’re signaling they’re not in it for the long term.

While taking advantage of another person or relationship may achieve the desired initial results, it comes at a high cost as it removes you from any path that involves time.  And time is the key because most value comes in long-term relationships.

The best results in the world are a function of time. The key component to compounding, which Einstein claimed was the most powerful force in the world, is time.

Peter Kaufman, who published Poor Charlie’s Almanack, describes this as the the Reputational Cue Ball

Non-Win/Win tactics are akin to playing a billiards tournament with a focus on sinking only the first shot or two. Billiards—or life—is a multi-shot game. When we fail to consider the future consequences of mistreating our counter-parties in a current “deal”‘ or first phase, it can wind up leaving our “reputational cue ball” ill-positioned for the next shot—the next deal or phase to come down the pike.


Focusing Illusions

focusing illusions

My favorite chapter in the book Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life by Winifred Gallagher is called ‘Decisions: Focusing Illusions.’ It’s a really great summary of how focusing on the wrong things affects the weights we use to make decisions. There is a lot of great content packed into this chapter but I’ll attempt to highlight a few points.

Bounded Rationality

According to the principle of ‘bounded rationality,’ which (Daniel) Kahneman first applied to economic decisions and more recently to choices concerning quality of life, we are reasonable-enough beings but sometimes liable to focus on the wrong things. Our thinking gets befuddled not so much by our emotions as by our ‘cognitive illusions,’ or mistaken intuitions, and other flawed, fragmented mental constructs.

Loss/Risk Aversion

If you’re pondering a choice that involves risk, you might focus too much on the threat of possible loss, thereby obscuring an even likelier potential benefit. Where this common scenario is concerned, research shows that we aren’t so much risk-averse as loss-averse, in that we’re generally much more sensitive to what we might have to give up than to what we might gain.

The Focusing Illusion

The key to understanding why you pay more attention to your thoughts about living than to life itself is neatly summed up by what Kahneman proudly calls his ‘fortune cookie maxim’ (a.k.a the focusing illusion): ‘Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.’ Why? ‘Because you’re thinking about it!

In one much-cited illustration of the focusing illusion, Kahneman asked some people if they would be happier if they lived in California. Because the climate is often delightful there, most subjects thought so. For the same reason, even Californians assume they’re happier than people who live elsewhere. When Kahneman actually measured their well-being however, Michiganders and others are just as contented as Californians. The reason is that 99 percent of the stuff of life – relationships, work, home, recreation – is the same no matter where you are, and once you settle in a place, no matter how salubrious, you don’t think about it’s climate very much. If you’re prompted to evaluate it, however, the weather immediately looms large, simply because you’re paying attention to it. This illusion inclines you to accentuate the difference between Place A and Place B, making it seem to matter much more than it really does, which is marginal.

To test the fortune cookie rule, you have only to ask yourself how happy you are. The question automatically summons your remembering self, which will focus on any recent change in your life – marriage or divorce, new job or home. You’ll then think about this novel event, which in turn will increase its import and influence your answer. If you’re pleased that you’ve just left the suburbs for the city, say, you’ll decide that life is pretty good. If you regret the move, you’ll be dissatisfied in general. Fifteen years on, however, the change that looms so large now will pale next to a more recent event – a career change, perhaps or becoming a grandparent – which will draw your focus and, simply because you’re thinking about it, bias your evaluation of your general well-being.

The Effects of Adaptation

Like focusing too much on the opinions of your remembering self, overlooking the effects of adaptation – the process of becoming used to a situation – can obstruct wise decisions about how to live. As Kahneman says, ‘when planning for the future, we don’t consider that we will stop paying attention to a thing.

The tendency to stop focusing on a particular event or experience over time, no matter how wonderful or awful, helps explain why the differences in well-being between groups of people in very different circumstances tend to be surprisingly small – sometimes astoundingly so. The classic examples are paraplegics and lottery winners, who respectively aren’t nearly as miserable or happy as you’d think. ‘That’s where attention comes in,’ says Kahneman. ‘People think that if they win the lottery, they’ll be happy forever. Of course, they will not. For a while, they are happy because of the novelty, and because they think about winning all the time. Then they adapt and stop paying attention to it.’ Similarly, he says, ‘Everyone is surprised by how happy paraplegics can be, but they are not paraplegic full-time. They do other things. They enjoy their meals, their friends, the newspaper. It has to do with the allocation of attention.’

Like couples who’ve just fallen in love, professionals starting a career, or children who go to camp for the first time, paraplegics and lottery winners initially pay a lot of attention to their new situation. Then, like everybody else, they get used to it and shift their focus to the next big thing. Their seemingly blase attitude surprises us, because when we imagine ourselves in their place, we focus on how we’d feel at the moment of becoming paralyzed or wildly rich, when such an event utterly monopolizes one’s focus. We forget that we, too, would get used to wealth, a wheelchair, and most other things under the sun, then turn our attention elsewhere.

Good Enough

Finally, don’t worry if the choice you made wasn’t the absolute best, as long as it meets your needs. Offering the single most important lesson from his research, Schwartz says, ‘Good enough is almost always good enough. If you have that attitude, many problems about decisions and much paralysis melt away.’

Andy Warhol: Don’t Make a Problem of your Problems, How a Person Gets Disciplined, and The Value of Time on Values

warhol e

In The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), Warhol advises us not to make a problem of our problems.

Everybody has problems, but the thing is to not make a problem about your Problem. For example, if you have no money and you worry about it all the time, you’ll get an ulcer and have a real problem and you still won’t have any money because people sense when you’re desperate and nobody wants anything to do with a desperate person. But if you don’t care about having no money, then people will give you money because you don’t care and they’ll think it’s nothing and give it away—make you take it. But if you have a problem about having no money and taking money and think you can’t take it and get guilty and want to be “independent,” then it’s a problem. Whereas if you just take the money and act spoiled and spend it like it’s nothing, then it’s not a problem and people keep wanting to give you more.

How does a person get disciplined? More importantly Warhol comments on why it takes a while sometimes to see that we have the wrong values.

The telephone rang.

B answered it. “Pronto.”

It was my art dealer in Torino, calling to invite us to lunch. I tried to motion to B that I wanted to go someplace where they’d have cherries.

When B got off the phone he said that we were meeting our dealer for lunch, and then he asked me, “How do you get disciplined?”

“How does a person get disciplined?”

Right. I want to know how you’re supposed to pick up good habits. It’s very easy to pick up bad ones. You always want to go after the bad habits. Say you eat ravioli one day and you like it so you eat it the next day and the next day and before you know it you have a ravioli habit or a pasta habit or a drug habit or a sex habit or a smoking habit or a cocaine habit . . .”

Was he trying to make me feel guilty about the cherries? “You’re asking me how you get out of the bad habits?” I asked him. No, he said he didn’t want to know how you get out of the bad ones—just how you get into the good ones.

Everybody has their good habits,” he said, “that they do automatically that maybe they learned when they were little—brushing your teeth, not talking with your mouth full, saying excuse me—but other good habits—like writing a chapter a day or jogging every morning—are harder to get into. That’s what I mean by ‘discipline’—how do you get new, good habits? I’m asking you because you’re so disciplined.”

“No, I’m not disciplined, really,” I said. “It just looks that way because I do what people tell me to do and I don’t complain about it while it’s happening.” That’s a three-part rule of mine: (1) never complain about a situation while the situation is still going on; (2) if you can’t believe it’s happening, pretend it’s a movie; and (3) after it’s over, find somebody to pin the blame on and never let them forget it. If the person you pin the blame on is smart they’ll turn it into a running joke so whenever you bring it up you can both laugh about it, and that way the horrible situation can turn out to be fun in retrospect. (But it all depends on how mercilessly you hound the person you’re blaming, because they’ll only make a joke out of it when they’re desperate, and the more desperate you make them by hounding them, the better the joke they’ll make out of it.)

“It’s not discipline, B,” I repeated. “It’s knowing what you really want.” Anything a person really wants is okay with me.

“All right. But let’s take champagne. All my life I wanted as much champagne as I could drink, but now that I’m getting all the champagne I ever wanted and more, look what I’m getting—a double chin!”

“You’re also finding out that champagne isn’t what you really want, since you don’t want a double chin. You’re finding out that champagne isn’t what you want, it’s beer you want.”

“Then I’d get a beer belly.” B laughed at the idea of a champagne chin and a beer belly.

“Then beer isn’t what you want, either.”

“But that’s not hard to figure out—nobody wants beer.”

“Yes they do,” I told him. “You’re the one who told the joke about an Irish seven-course dinner being a boiled potato and a six-pack.”

“Yes, I suppose … But it’s not the thing I want so much as the idea of the thing.”

“Then that’s just advertising,” I reminded him.

“Right, but it works because the reason I want champagne, the reason most people want champagne, is they’re impressed with the idea—Champagne!—like they’re impressed with the idea of caviar. Champagne and caviar is status.”

That was not completely true. In some society shit is status. “Look,” I told him, “you realized when you ended up with a double chin that your values were misplaced. Right? It takes time to find out, but you’re finding out. Even today you put your nose up in the air if you don’t have dinner with the Afghanellis, the Cuchinellis, the Pickinellis, the Mount- bottoms, the Van Tissens—”

Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil

"Children are sensitive to inequality, then, but it seems to upset them only when they themselves are the ones getting less."
“Children are sensitive to inequality, then, but it seems to upset them only when they themselves are the ones getting less.”

Morality fascinates us. The stories we enjoy the most, whether fictional (as in novels, television shows, and movies) or real (as in journalism and historical accounts), are tales of good and evil. We want the good guys to be rewarded— and we really want to see the bad guys suffer.

So writes Paul Bloom in the first pages of Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil. His work, proposes that “certain moral foundations are not acquired through learning. They do not come from the mother’s knee … ”

What is morality?

Even philosophers don’t agree on morality. In fact, a lot of people don’t believe in morality at all.

To settle on some working terminology, Bloom writes:

Arguments about terminology are boring; people can use words however they please. But what I mean by morality—what I am interested in exploring, whatever one calls it— includes a lot more than restrictions on sexual behavior. Here is a simple example (of morality):

A car full of teenagers drives slowly past an elderly woman waiting at a bus stop. One of the teenagers leans out the window and slaps the woman, knocking her down. They drive away laughing.

Unless you are a psychopath, you will feel that the teenagers did something wrong. And it is a certain type of wrong. It isn’t a social gaffe like going around with your shirt inside out or a factual mistake like thinking that the sun revolves around the earth. It isn’t a violation of an arbitrary rule, such as moving a pawn three spaces forward in a chess game. And it isn’t a mistake in taste, like believing that the Matrix sequels were as good as the original.

As a moral violation, it connects to certain emotions and desires. You might feel sympathy for the woman and anger at the teenagers; you might want to see them punished. They should feel bad about what they did; at the very least, they owe the woman an apology. If you were to suddenly remember that one of the teenagers was you, many years ago, you might feel guilt or shame.

Punching someone in the face.

Hitting someone is a very basic moral violation. Indeed, the philosopher and legal scholar John Mikhail has suggested that the act of intentionally striking someone without their permission— battery is the legal term —has a special immediate badness that all humans respond to. Here is a good candidate for a moral rule that transcends space and time: If you punch someone in the face, you’d better have a damn good reason for it.

Not all morality has to do with what is wrong. “Morality,” Bloom says, “also encompasses questions of rightness.”

Morality from an Evolutionary Perspective

If you think of evolution solely in terms of “survival of the fittest” or “nature red in tooth and claw,” then such universals cannot be part of our natures. Since Darwin, though, we’ve come to see that evolution is far more subtle than a Malthusian struggle for existence. We now understand how the amoral force of natural selection might have instilled within us some of the foundation for moral thought and moral action.

Actually, one aspect of morality , kindness to kin, has long been a no-brainer from an evolutionary point of view. The purest case here is a parent and a child: one doesn’t have to do sophisticated evolutionary modeling to see that the genes of parents who care for their children are more likely to spread through the population than those of parents who abandon or eat their children.

We are also capable of acting kindly and generously toward those who are not blood relatives. At first, the evolutionary origin of this might seem obvious: clearly, we thrive by working together— in hunting, gathering, child care, and so on— and our social sentiments make this coordination possible.

Adam Smith pointed this out long before Darwin: “All the members of human society stand in need of each others assistance, and are likewise exposed to mutual injuries. Where the necessary assistance is reciprocally afforded from love, from gratitude, from friendship, and esteem, the society flourishes and is happy.”

This creates a tragedy of the commons problem.

But there is a wrinkle here; for society to flourish in this way, individuals have to refrain from taking advantage of others. A bad actor in a community of good people is the snake in the garden; it’s what the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins calls “subversion from within.” Such a snake would do best of all, reaping the benefits of cooperation without paying the costs. Now, it’s true that the world as a whole would be worse off if the demonic genes proliferated, but this is the problem, not the solution— natural selection is insensitive to considerations about “the world as a whole.” We need to explain what kept demonic genes from taking over the population, leaving us with a world of psychopaths.

Darwin’s theory was that cooperative traits could prevail if societies containing individuals who worked together peacefully would tend to defeat other societies with less cooperative members— in other words, natural selection operating at the group, rather than individual, level.

Writing of a hypothetical conflict between two imaginary tribes, Darwin wrote (in The Descent of Man): “If the one tribe included … courageous, sympathetic and faithful members who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would without doubt succeed best and conquer the other.”

“An alternative theory,” Bloom writes, “more consistent with individual-level natural selection:”

is that the good guys might punish the bad guys. That is, even without such conflict between groups, altruism could evolve if individuals were drawn to reward and interact with kind individuals and to punish— or at least shun —cheaters, thieves, thugs, free riders, and the like.

The Difference Between Compassion and Empathy

there is a big difference between caring about a person (compassion) and putting yourself in the person’s shoes (empathy).

How can we best understand our moral natures?

Many would agree … that this is a question of theology, while others believe that morality is best understood through the insights of novelists, poets, and playwrights. Some prefer to approach morality from a philosophical perspective, looking not at what people think and how people act but at questions of normative ethics (roughly, how one should act) and metaethics (roughly, the nature of right and wrong).

Another lens is science.

We can explore our moral natures using the same methods that we use to study other aspects of our mental life, such as language or perception or memory. We can look at moral reasoning across societies or explore how people differ within a single society— liberals versus conservatives in the United States, for instance. We can examine unusual cases, such as cold-blooded psychopaths. We might ask whether creatures such as chimpanzees have anything that we can view as morality, and we can look toward evolutionary biology to explore how a moral sense might have evolved. Social psychologists can explore how features of the environment encourage kindness or cruelty, and neuroscientists can look at the parts of the brain that are involved in moral reasoning.

What are we born with?

Bloom argues that Thomas Jefferson was right when he wrote in a letter to his friend Peter Carr: “The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree.” This view, that we have an ingrained moral sense, was shared by enlightenment philosophers of the Jefferson period, including Adam Smith. While Smith is best known for his book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, he himself favored his first book: The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The pages contain insight into “the relationship between imagination and empathy, the limits of compassion, our urge to punish others’ wrongdoing,” and more.

Bloom quotes Smith’s work to what he calls an “embarrassing degree.”

What aspects of morality are natural to us?

Our natural endowments include:

  • a moral sense— some capacity to distinguish between kind and cruel actions
  • empathy and compassion— suffering at the pain of those around us and the wish to make this pain go away
  • a rudimentary sense of fairness— a tendency to favor equal divisions of resources
  • a rudimentary sense of justice— a desire to see good actions rewarded and bad actions punished

Bloom argues that our goodness, however, is limited. This is perhaps best explained by Thomas Hobbes, who in 1651, argued that man “in the state of nature” is wicked and self-interested.

We have a moral sense that enables us to judge others and that guides our compassion and condemnation. We are naturally kind to others, at least some of the time. But we possess ugly instincts as well, and these can metastasize into evil. The Reverend Thomas Martin wasn’t entirely wrong when he wrote in the nineteenth century about the “native depravity” of children and concluded that “we bring with us into the world a nature replete with evil propensities.”

In The End …

We’re born with some elements of morality and others take time to emerge because, they require a capacity for reasoning. “The baby lacks a grasp of impartial moral principles—prohibitions or requirements that apply equally to everyone within a community. Such principles are at the foundation of systems of law and justice.”

There is a popular view that we are slaves of the passions …

that our moral judgments and moral actions are the product of neural mechanisms that we have no awareness of and no conscious control over. If this view of our moral natures were true, we would need to buck up and learn to live with it. But it is not true; it is refuted by everyday experience, by history, and by the science of developmental psychology.

It turns out instead that the right theory of our moral lives has two parts. It starts with what we are born with, and this is surprisingly rich: babies are moral animals. But we are more than just babies. A critical part of our morality—so much of what makes us human—emerges over the course of human history and individual development. It is the product of our compassion, our imagination, and our magnificent capacity for reason.


Still Curious? Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil goes on to explore some of the ways that Hobbes was right, among them: our indifference to strangers and our instinctive emotional responses.