karl_sabbagh's picture
Producer; Founder, Managing Director, Skyscraper Productions; Author, The Antisemitism Wars: How the British Media Failed Their Public
The Behavior Of Normal People

The most worrying aspect of our society is the low index of suspicion that we have about the behavior of normal people. In spite of the doctrine of original sin that permeates Christianity, the assumption most of us hold about most people in everyday life is that they are not, on the whole, criminals, cheats, mean-spirited, selfish, or on the lookout for a fast buck. Bad behavior is seen as something to be noticed, reported on, and analyzed, whereas people who do not lie and cheat are taken for granted. Good behaviour is seen as the default mode for humans, and bad behaviour is seen as 'aberrant', even though from self-knowledge as well as experiments like Stanley Milgram's, we know that 'normal' people are not always saints.

This unwillingness to believe the worst of people permeates society and harms us in all sorts of ways. The most egregious current example, of course, is bankers and financiers, who have shown that only the most severe constraints on their activities would stop them filching our purses, and grabbing huge salaries or severance payments which are usually rewards for failure. And it is precisely those constraints that the institutions resist most strongly, promising after each one of their crimes is exposed, that self-regulation will prevent the next. But any daily newspaper will show countless examples of individuals who demonstrate that when they (we?) can get away with it, they will.

There is much psychological research into the nature of evil. This usually starts from the basis that people are naturally good, and tries to explain why some people depart from this 'norm'. Isn't it time we took the opposite view and looked into why some people, perhaps not many, are 'good'? If you look hard, you can find examples of these. Whistleblowers, for example, who cannot stand by while bankers fiddle, doctors cover up mistakes, priests abuse children, or statesmen cheat on their expenses. Paradoxically, instead of their good deeds being welcomed whistleblowers are often ostracized, even by people whose behavior is not—at least overtly—meretricious, but who feel that reporting illicit behavior is itself distasteful. 

Just as there is emerging evidence of a biological basis for political beliefs, left wing versus right wing, perhaps we should be looking for a biological basis of goodness. So many of the world's problems have at their root the propensity of humans, and indeed nations, to behave in ways which try to maximize benefits to themselves at the expense of others. Even attempts to instigate solutions to climate change are bedeviled by personal and corporate selfishness.

What we should be worried about, therefore, is that science is missing out on a possible alternative solution to many of our problems—it should be considering how to make more people 'good' rather than trying to understand what makes people 'bad'.