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Much has been researched and written by researchers and other professionals (including me) about the “bad”  or dark side of humanity.

And the current chaos and conflict in our world would naturally lead many to believe in the darker side of humanity, leaving them to lose hope for the future of the human race.

According to research, we are dogmatic and overconfident, with a propensity to look down on minorities and believe that the oppressed deserve their lot in life. Even young children have been known to enjoy other people’s misfortune.

However, that just tells half of the tale. People throughout the world take up arms against injustices, give their time and money to aiding the less fortunate, or simply carry out small deeds of kindness that improve the lives of those around them. And psychology has much to say about the darker and lighter sides of human nature.

Here are just a few examples.

Children as young as two are selfless 

Although it seems that even very young infants are more prosocial than we give them credit for, we often stereotype toddlers as greedy beings. In one study, a set of marbles that made a pleasant sound when placed in a box was presented to two-year-old pairings. Although youngsters their age aren’t exactly known for sharing, the researchers discovered that the kids fairly split the marbles roughly half the time. One child greedily took all the toys for herself in only 19% of the trials. In an alternative version of the experiment, one pair of participants received three marbles while the other received only one. Even in this situation, roughly one-third of the trials resulted in the luckier youngster voluntarily giving one of their marbles to the less fortunate child. According to one study, young children appear to love lending a hand. When two-year-olds complete a job that helps someone else, they express positive body language and feelings. To them, helping others feels equally as satisfying as helping oneself.

Children have a strong moral compass 

According to a 2011 study, toddlers were exposed to numerous scenarios in which people misbehaved, committed a moral offence like stealing or did something terrible for the environment, like destroying a tree. The children rated environmental damage as being worse than poor manners, and they overwhelmingly cited “biocentric” explanations for their decisions rather than “anthropocentric” ones. They held that the environment is deserving of respect in and of itself, rather than just because it sustains humans. Of course, eight years later, when youngsters are driving a global campaign to demand action against climate change, most of us won’t likely be surprised by this discovery.

The “positive” aspects of our personalities have not received as much research as the “bad” aspects 

Numerous studies have examined the so-called “Dark Triad” of personality traits, including narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism, which are all linked to negative tendencies including manipulation, egotism, and callousness. But according to Scott Barry Kaufmann and colleagues, this emphasis on the negative aspects of our personalities “misrepresents the complete capacities of humanity.”  to assess what they refer to as the “Light Triad,” which consists of humanism, “Kantianism” (seeing people as an aim in and of themselves), and faith in people. High scores on the Light Triad attributes were linked to a higher quality of life, according to the team’s exploratory research, which is still in its early stages. Additionally, persons generally scored higher on the Light Triad than the Dark Triad.

We are all naturally altruistic

According to some researchers, we are all predisposed to helping others; it’s not just toddlers. We frequently act in the group’s best interests and penalize those who don’t, even when it costs us personally, even when we may never see them again. This behaviour is commonly referred to as “strong reciprocity.” This may help to explain why, in the tasks used by psychologists to examine economic behaviour, people frequently cooperate rather than behave selfishly and even give up some of their earnings to punish others who act unfairly. It might even explain our enjoyment of standing in lines (and shouting at those who skip the line).

Not just in movies, “paying it forward” also occurs in real life 

It may sound like the premise of an emotional movie from the early 2000s, but it turns out that when we are kind to others, they reciprocate by being kind to others. For four weeks, researchers urged a select set of workers to show their co-worker’s modest acts of kindness. By the end of the research period, those who had experienced those acts reported higher levels of morale and contentment. Importantly, these receivers also stated that they had started acting more kindheartedly toward others. The researchers write, “Our analysis demonstrates that although routine prosocial activities may be tiny, they are not inconsequential.” The advantages of prosocial behaviour do multiply, benefiting not only the givers but also the receivers and observers.

We care more about the suffering of others than our own 

The well-known Stanley Milgram experiments involved getting subjects to give electric shocks to another person under the influence of a superior. However, additional research has discovered that humans are not particularly eager for another person to suffer physically. As a result, not only has the traditional interpretation of these studies been called into doubt. In a 2014 study, participants were offered financial benefits in exchange for receiving electric shocks, with the option to raise the severity of the shock for an additional fee. Sometimes the shock was experienced by the participants, but other times it was a stranger in a different room. Surprisingly, the team discovered that people were considerably more likely to shock themselves more severely in exchange for more money: they need a twofold increase in the monetary incentive to make the stranger feel greater agony.

Reality TV shows featuring unhappy people can improve our relationships 

The rise of reality TV may appear to be sure evidence of humanity’s greatest excesses. It doesn’t exactly give us hope for the future of our humanity that we shall spend our leisure time watching strangers’ romances dissolve or individuals’ ambitions dashed in front of millions of others. However, a 2016 study found that our desire to watch reality TV may have far happier roots. Researchers polled participants’ views on reality competitions like Big Brother and MasterChef, as well as their interest in participating in them and their reactions if a member of their family expressed an interest. People expressed greater happiness if they or a loved one participated in the presentations the more they delighted in watching them. The research, according to the authors, suggests that viewers of reality television do so out of sympathy for the candidates rather than a desire to see them treated badly, as they would undoubtedly object to their loved ones competing. Even if that conclusion needs to be viewed with a grain of salt, the research does seem to indicate that our motivations aren’t always as bad as we initially think.

People who have experienced the most suffering tend to have the most compassion for others 

Trauma can be traumatic and have a variety of detrimental effects. However, according to a study by Daniel Lim and David DeStono, those who have experienced more negative things also tend to be more empathic. According to their research, those who have experienced more traumatic events like natural disasters, bereavement, and injuries exhibit greater empathy and are more likely to donate to charitable causes. That appears to be the result of their greater confidence in their capacity to help those who are suffering. Adversity is not a nice thing, but this does imply that occasionally something good might come out of the gloom.

New research has cast doubt on many old studies that portray human nature in its darkest light 

Every student is taught about a select group of well-known social psychology results, most of which reveal depressing facts about the human condition. However, a closer look reveals that the textbook explanation of these investigations is not necessarily accurate. Consider the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which volunteers acting as prison guards started mistreating volunteers acting as prisoners. Recently, psychologists have questioned this widely accepted narrative. One analysis of the experiment’s audio recordings suggests that the researchers were much more actively involved in encouraging the guards to act toughly than they originally claimed, undermining the sombre inference that is typically made from that study. Another example is the bystander effect, which is typically demonstrated using the Kitty Genovese case. Genovese, a 28-year-old bartender, was raped and stabbed outside the apartment building where she lived in New York City. Two weeks after the murder, The New York Times published an article erroneously claiming that 38 witnesses saw or heard the attack and that none of them called the police or came to her aid. However, the way that case was described in most textbooks is not entirely accurate. The bystander effect is unquestionably real, and there have been many appalling instances of people abusing their power to damage others throughout history, but it’s also obvious that human nature is much more complex than that.

Hope for Humanity

Rutger Bregman illustrates the “good” side of humanity in his best-selling book, Humankind: A Hopeful History. Bregman provides a new perspective on the past 200,000 years of human history, setting out to prove that we are hardwired for kindness, geared toward cooperation rather than competition, and more inclined to trust rather than distrust one another. This instinct has a firm evolutionary basis going back to the beginning of Homo sapiens.

From the real-life Lord of the Flies to the solidarity in the aftermath of the Blitz, the hidden flaws in the Stanford prison experiment to the true story of twin brothers on opposite sides who helped Mandela end apartheid, Bregman shows us that believing in human generosity and collaboration isn’t merely optimistic—it’s realistic. Moreover, it has huge implications for how society functions. When we think the worst of people, it brings out the worst in our politics and economics. But if we believe in the reality of humanity’s kindness and altruism, it will form the foundation for achieving true change in society, a case that Bregman makes convincingly with his signature wit, refreshing frankness, and memorable storytelling.L