everybody knows the definition of human nature, right? but, is there one definition of “human nature” or does it depend on your economic status?
“evolutionary theorists have traditionally focused on competition and the ruthlessness of natural selection, but often they have failed to consider a critical fact: that humans could not have survived in nature without the charity and social reciprocity of a group,” says maia szalavitz in an october 8, 2012 article for time magazine.
ah, so human nature is really both rugged individualism and the social reciprocity of a group. it seems that we live in an age where only the ruthlessness of natural selection is valued and the very idea of social reciprocity of a group is distained. as the economic gap grows, so grows the gap the definition of human nature.
psychologist paul piff studied the phenomenon in a scientific way and published a paper in the proceedings of the national academy of sciences that made him semi-famous. titled “higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior,” it showed through quizzes, online games, questionnaires, in-lab manipulations, and field studies that living high on the socioeconomic ladder can, colloquially speaking, dehumanize people.
“while having money doesn’t necessarily make anybody anything,” piff says, “the rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people. it makes them more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, assholes.”
well then. so, money allows us to be more independent and less interdependent, which in turn allows us to think more of ourselves and less of others.
in an interview with piff for new york magazine, lisa miller asks how living in an environment defined by individual achievement—¬measured by money, privilege, and ¬status—alter a person’s mental machinery to the point where he begins to see the people around him only as aids or obstacles to his own ambitions? piff won’t name a tipping point after which the personality transformation kicks in, only that his studies of ethical behavior indicate a strong correlation between high socio¬economic status and interpersonal dis¬regard. it’s an “additive” effect; the fever line points straight up. “people higher up on the socioeconomic ladder are about three times more likely to cheat than people on the lower rungs,” he says. piff’s research also suggests that people who yearn to be richer or more prominent make different choices than those more content with their present level of material comfort.”
here’s a great example.
okay, so let’s say you buy into the theory that selfishness becomes the “human nature” of those with more. so what? when selfishness extends beyond the scope of the personal social world it begins to tear at the entire fabric of a society. lopsided access to a political voice, correlates to an ever widening economic gap.
let’s just say that you don’t object to that on a moral, ethical, religious or societal basis because afterall, you got yours so screw everyone else. problem is, it won’t last.
economist robert reich says this: “…no economy can continue to function when the vast middle class and everybody else don’t have enough purchasing power to buy what the economy is capable of producing without going deeper and deeper into debt. seventy percent of the entire economy is basically consumer spending. and if consumers don’t have the wherewithal to spend because all the money’s going to the top, and the people at the top only spend a very small fraction of what they earn, then the economy is almost inevitably destined to slow.”
you stop everyone else from getting theirs, you may not be getting much for yourself either. in an interesting way, charitable and believing in the social reciprocity of the group is actually being selfish, kind of an “all for one, one for all” point of view. maybe that’s the kind of understanding of human nature from which we can all benefit.