The 6 Most Uplifting Facts About the Human Race
If you want to break down mathematically how fast the Internet destroys our faith in humanity, I recommend the Schindler System: one rickroll destroys 0.4 Schindlers' worth of faith in the human race; getting Goatsed takes out 2.5 Schindlers; browsing Reddit kills three or four an hour. Rarely does it take more than a day or two for one to lose all trust in their fellow man.
But if people are so damn terrible, why does the world suck so much less today? Violence is at a historic low worldwide. It's easy to focus on outliers like Ted Bundy, Bashar al-Assad, and Mark Wahlberg, but they don't represent all of humankind. The great mass of us aren't just "not actively killing people"; we're genetically programmed to be super nice.
Except for Marky Mark, who blinded a Vietnamese man because racism.
Selfless Behavior Is a Drug
Helping other people even when it doesn't help you is pretty much the definition of "good person," but that sort of behavior doesn't come naturally. We're born as greedy little milk-sucking sociopaths, with no thought to anything but our next hit of sweet, sweet MomBoob. All the good qualities in humans have to be taught and carefully nurtured.
Here's the reality: Selflessness is a drug, and the best people on Earth are hardcore addicts.
Above: the milk of human kindness.
Back in the mid-2000s, scientists from the National Institutes of Health embarked on an epic journey to figure out which part of the brain was responsible for generosity, hoping to find and eat enough of those brain parts to finally become the most generous, a Voltron of generosity (science rules). The study went how you'd expect: Subjects were hooked up to fMRIs and handed a list of charities. They then had to choose whether to donate or hoard their money and receive a reward at the end of the study.
Rather than creating some sort of uncontrollable Lawnmower Man of altruism, the experiment revealed a shocking secret: Donating to a charity lights up the same chunk of the brain that makes us crave food and sex. Generosity is "neurologically similar" to a line of cocaine. We're happy when we do good things, and that makes us want to keep doing good things. (Can you imagine how good those people would have felt if they'd donated cocaine to the charity of their faces?) The super nice guy who always bends over backward to make his friends happy is caught in the same feedback loop as the dude sucking dicks for blow behind the 7-Eleven.
Jim seemed well-adjusted until his friends found him covered in vomit and wrapped around a Salvation Army donation bin.
Thinking About Science Makes You a Better Person
You might not think of science as an inherently moral pursuit, particularly if you've watched a Terminator movie or read Wernher von Braun's autobiography lately. But emphasis on science's ability to murder us all is a relatively recent thing. Traditionally, the act of scientific research is associated with austere, dignified British men like Charles Darwin.
Dignity is spelled "b-e-a-r-d."
Researchers have recently discovered just how deep this connection between science and morality goes. They primed one group of students with words like "microscope" and "fulcrum" to jump-start their brains in science mode, which is apparently a thing you can do. Next, they brought in detailed stories of date rape for the test subjects to read and quizzed them on their reactions. This revealed two critical things:
1. A shocking number of rape fantasies involve microscopes.
2. People primed with sciencey words had a stronger negative reaction to date rape.
"Thank you for teaching me right from wrong, microscope."
Does this mean ending the college rape epidemic is as simple as increasing the density of Bunsen burners? Probably. But scientists went ahead and conducted further tests, checking altruistic actions over the course of a month and giving subjects the opportunity to split an amount of real money with some anonymous person. Every test had the same conclusion: People thinking about science acted more morally.
So there you go: Science makes people less awful. If you want your kid to grow up right, buy him a biology textbook and a pint of mercury. He will, sure, get his ass kicked pretty hard for a while, but eventually he'll be a saint.
Or a mad scientist. It really depends on how much of that mercury he drinks.
Babies Aren't Just Milk-Sucking Sociopaths
I was totally out of line when I made that claim earlier, and I'd like to apologize to every baby in the audience. We tend to think of infants and toddlers as too young to really know much about right and wrong. It's the only time in life when utter, overwhelming selfishness is totally acceptable. We call them the "terrible twos" for a reason: Toddlers are complete bastards.
Look at those eyes, so full of wonder and unbridled cruelty.
Now, I've been saying for years that infant children need to be held accountable for their actions. More sentences to kid prison would cut down on our planet's "crying babies on airplanes" epidemic. And science agrees with me, kinda. Babies do know right from wrong. A study has found altruistic behavior in children as young as 18 months.
The test for this one was kind of genius. Experimenters would do something like drop a clothespin or fuck up at book stacking while children watched nearby. Once it was clear the experimenter had erred, almost every child would move to help. If it looked like the experimenter fucked up on purpose, though, the babies didn't act, because if you're going to dick around like that, they aren't about to waste their precious pooping and burping time to fix your goddamn messes.
What, are they made of poops and burps? Yes, but still.
For a variety of confusing reasons, scientists carried out this same battery of experiments on a group of young captive-raised chimpanzees. The results were almost identical, suggesting that altruism has deep evolutionary roots ... and that science can be pretty adorable when it isn't giving lab rats syphilis.
Lying Makes Us Sick
Everybody lies. If you disagree with that, you're disagreeing with both Dr. House and centuries of people being dishonest shitheads. Deception is one of the three skills our species dominates on a global level (the other two being "narcotics" and "movies with kickboxing as a major plot point"). So if a group of people had the chance to make money by lying and knew they couldn't be caught, you'd expect most of them to go for it.
After all, that's basically the one-sentence summary for "capitalism."
Scientists at the University of Oxford figured out a way to create this exact situation. They called up hundreds of people and asked them to flip coins. Respondents were told that tails would earn them fat stacks of unrolled coke straws, while heads would win them fuck all. In a twist too shocking for network television, 55.6 percent of participants reported heads.
Clearly, honesty has virtues besides sorta rhyming with the word "policy." Researchers with the University of Notre Dame asked a bunch of subjects to spend 10 weeks trying their very hardest not to lie. A control group was, presumably, asked to go right on being a curse to all who knew and loved them. After 10 weeks, the no-lie group experienced "on average" four fewer mental health complaints and three fewer physical complaints.
Take it from me: All sick people are liars.
These studies make a lot of sense when you read them together: People don't like to lie because it makes them feel like shit. But there's an interesting exception to this rule -- the office. Another version of that coin-flipping study done in a laboratory found that 75 percent of participants claimed tails and a payday. We're much less likely to lie when we're in our homes, but our sense of self isn't as strong in less personal surroundings. So we say fuck it, and trade our ethics in for fancy green paper we can use to buy sandwiches.
Every Disaster Movie Ever Is Bullshit
The most realistic bit of any disaster movie is the part where all hell breaks loose and society collapses into looting and riotous violence. You're a panicking victim, a vicious predator, or a scheming Secretary of State with an evil plot to seize power. Real-life disasters seem to back Hollywood up. We all remember Hurricane Katrina.
With society in ruins, all that remained was Frank.
But people who focus on stories of robberies in the wake of major disasters often ignore that this shit goes on when there aren't storms, too. There's also the argument that a lot of "looting" was done by starving people trying not to die. Looting purists often argue that this doesn't really count.
No speakers? Try again, ladies.
OK, so people don't steal as much shit as you'd think. At least not recreational shit. But that whole "society collapsing into anarchic violence" bit still seems plausible. Take away three hot meals and electricity, and the average person will shoot their own aunt with a crossbow inside of 48 hours. That's not cynicism, just pragmatism.
We tend to assume that order is a fragile thing held tenuously in line by legions of police officers and National Guardsmen. Wash those dudes away in flood waters or blow them up with a bomb, and we'll make "Helter Skelter" look like "Imagine." But these scientists interviewed survivors of real-life disasters and terrorist attacks and found something shocking:
"Both those things suck."
When a group of people are attacked, the shared threat gives them a common identity. Panic is extremely uncommon, and the majority of survivors tend to exhibit altruistic behavior. They look out for injured or elderly members of the group and help herd kids away from the danger. In any disaster you care to look at, good behavior is the norm, not the exception.
It's Extremely Difficult to Make People Kill
The modern world gives any of us the potential to be a mass murderer. We're never short of examples of this. But murder is, on the whole, wildly uncommon. That's probably just because it's illegal, though. Give people a chance to kill some motherfuckers without those pesky "lawmen" getting all felony-y and you'll see serious bloodshed.
"Wait, you mean as long as I wear this uniform, I can shoot, like, whoever?"
In the aftermath of World War II, otherwise known as "the best excuse people ever had to shoot at each other," Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall decided to interview some of his soldiers. He asked them about this whole murdering Nazis enterprise they'd been working on and found, to his shock, that only about 15 to 20 percent of soldiers in the line of fire had actually shot at the enemy. These men were actively engaged in combat, being attacked by Nazis, and most of them couldn't bring themselves to pull the trigger.
This was apparently the first time in history a general thought to ask his men if they'd actually followed through on the whole war fighting thing. And the answer was a resounding "fuck no." Marshall spread his study out to thousands of soldiers in 400 companies across every theater of battle, and the results were identical. People don't like shooting other people.
"We're not wild about getting shot, either."
In 1986, the British military decided to take this study one step further. They looked into the "killing effectiveness" of units from more than a hundred battles across two centuries and compared that data to hit rates from simulated laser tag versions of those battles, because some British soldiers apparently had the best job in the history of both war and science. They found that kill rates from the simulated battles were vastly higher than the real ones. Conclusion: This whole "not wanting to kill people" thing isn't a new phenomenon.
And also, laser tag is awesome.
Here's the bad news (or if you consider the above paragraphs bad news, here's the good news): Modern militaries have successfully nipped most of this pacifist nonsense in the bud. You can't make people want to shoot the shit out of other random people, but you can make them rehearse the process so much that it becomes automatic.
So there you go: People are inherently peaceful. Ish.
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