The Left is supposed to believe in an essentially benign human nature. Casting a nod to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the noble savage, there is a strain of left-wing thinking that holds that beneath the perversions inflicted by our capitalistic, racist, patriarchal culture, there exists a basically cooperative, peaceable, altruistic human nature. This stance is traditionally invoked in contrast to that of the Right which sees human nature in an irredeemably pessimistic light.
A recent experiment by University College London which found that people were willing to sacrifice money to reduce the pain of others seems to lend credence to this optimistic view.
In the experiment, participants revealed themselves as ‘hyperaltruistic’ - they would give up a monetary reward in order to spare another person the pain of an electric shock. They were happy to take more electric shocks themselves to earn more money, but they were unwilling to raise the number of shocks if someone else was receiving them.
Inevitably, this experiment has been contrasted with the famous 1961 Stanley Milgram one in which participants inflicted what they were thought were painful, possibly lethal, electric shocks on a stranger, when ordered to do so. ‘Man is a wolf to man’, many have interpreted Milgram as demonstrating, while the recent UCL experiment seems to show an altruistic, sacrificial human nature on display. But actually the two experiments have more in common than you’d think.
They actually both demonstrate altruism at work. While the altruism in the UCL experiment is worn on its sleeve, altruism is also, paradoxically, an integral part of Milgram’s set up. What Milgram put on display was obedience, not sadism. Participants did not like giving the electric shocks (it should be pointed out also that a third of participants refused to give them); they sweated, they shook, they laughed hysterically, but they still gave the shocks because they bridled at disobeying the authority figure telling them to do so. Ironically what held them back from disobeying and not carrying out the shocks, was, in part, a strong desire not to undermine the authority figure. “It is a curious thing that a measure of compassion on the part of the subject, an unwillingness to ‘hurt’ the experimenter’s feelings, are part of those binding forces inhibiting disobedience,” wrote Milgram is his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority. Altruism, in fact.
But what both experiments prove, if that is not too strong a word, is not that the vast majority of people are inherently altruistic, but that they are not psychopaths. In the UCL experiment, “those with subclinical psychopathic traits … were more likely to inflict harm on others as well as themselves for a bigger payout.” When Milgram’s experiment was altered, so that people were told it was perfectly ok if they went up to the highest shock level, only a couple of, psychopathic, participants did so. Most delivered shocks below the level where the person they thought they were shocking would feel any discomfort.
I would predict that were you to conduct the UCL and Milgram experiments back to back with the same participants, you would end up with the same people refusing to shock and then agreeing to shock. Which sounds paradoxical, but isn’t.
What that would show is not that people have two sides to their personality but the realisation that non-psychopathic people, are, under certain circumstances, quite capable of acting psychopathically. Altruism and compassion can easily be subverted, overwhelmed, or channelled in specific directions (such as a desire not to hurt the authority figure’s feelings).
The reason why Milgram’s experiment still resonates is that it shows the overwhelming importance of institutions in shaping human behaviour; the power of institutions is such that it overpowers subjective feelings. In the Milgram designed experiment, cruel people did not shock more than kind people. And obedience, according to Milgram humanity’s fatal flaw, has become, if anything, more entrenched since he wrote Obedience to Authority in the early 1970s.
A political outlook rooted in the belief that people are essentially altruistic and decent is doomed to misunderstand the problem that confronts us. It would be futile to replace all the ‘bad’ people at the top with ‘good’ people. Either the good people would swiftly become bad, or they would be replaced by others who didn’t let ethical scruples get in the way. In order to effect real change, you have to address how the system works. You have to change how institutions behave, not the people that make them up.
Looked at another way, it is not psychopaths who are leading our elite corporate and governmental institutions astray. Apparently, 4% of corporate CEOs are psychopaths, four times the rate in the general population. But that still means that 96% of corporate executives are not psychopaths.
The mistake made by the researchers who have interpreted the UCL findings is that they assume that the subjective, altruistic, feelings laid bare will somehow “guide social decision making”. It is naïve in the extreme to assume that in the ‘democracies’ in which we live, our collective, unadulterated voices will determine social decisions. As things stand, the dominant voices belong to corporations and to governments. Most people are mute, except when they echo governing assumptions. Especially now, the views and interests of the 1% and 0.1% have an overwhelming influence, through think-tanks, the media (which they largely own), and the funding of political parties. And ideas, unlike wealth, trickle down through society.
Moreover, what the UCL experiment shows is that people don’t like hurting others face to face. This finding is reminiscent of the John Nash game theory experiments undertaken on Rand Corporation secretaries in the 1960s. They were expected to betray each other, but instead they cooperated. But with the anonymity of distance, dispensing hurt and hostility becomes much more possible. It is quite common for people to like immigrants they know, but hate immigrants in general or believe it’s a disgrace that the disabled person they know is waiting months for their living allowance, while thinking millions of others are faking it. This is why a media that accurately reports what is happening in the world is so crucial.
While altruism is real, human beings can be many other things as well. But our inner nature is not the problem; the giving away of power to amoral institutions is.