“In spite of everything I still believe that people are good at heart.”
It’s hard to read these beautiful words of the young Anne Frank without the shadow of Bergen-Belsen behind them. Surely, one thinks, she would have changed her mind amid the depravities of the concentration camp in which she died. The view of human nature since World War II, supported by several well-known psychological experiments, has been one of almost unremitting negativity.
But the first two words in the title of Rutger Bregman’s new book, Human Kind: A Hopeful History, have been deliberately separated. This is not just another book about the human species; it is a book about the intrinsic goodness of human nature. In this respect it is truly shocking. We have been inured to think the worst of ourselves, from the world wars to Stanley Milgram’s electric shock experiments in 1961 and Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment a decade later.
But newly published research by Bregman and others into the manipulative tactics employed by the psychologists behind these classic experiments paints a very different picture. The wardens in the prison experiment were actors, not ordinary students obsessed with power. And the participants who thought they were administering painful electric shocks were bullied into doing it against their expressed wishes.