Steven Pinker
Professor of Psychology, Harvard University

What is human nature?

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People will always have a measure of self-deception.

Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist and one of the world’s foremost writers on language, mind, and human nature. Currently Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, Pinker has also taught at Stanford and MIT. His research on vision, language, and social relations has won prizes from the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, and the American Psychological Association. He has also received eight honorary doctorates, several teaching awards at MIT and Harvard, and numerous prizes for his books The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, and The Better Angels of Our Nature. He is Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and often writes for The New York Times, Time, and other publications. He has been named Humanist of the Year, Prospect magazine’s “The World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals,” Foreign Policy’s “100 Global Thinkers,” and Time magazine’s “The 100 Most Influential People in the World Today.”


Question: What is human nature?

Steven Pinker: Well one example of how I’ve used ideas from other fields in my own thinking is a chapter I wrote on the emotions and how the mind works, which was heavily inspired by the political theorist and game theorist Thomas Schelling who wrote a remarkable book in 1960 called “The Strategy of Conflict”. Schelling was kind of a Doctor Strangelove among other things – a nuclear strategist of how you think through survival in a case in which you have to figure out what the other guy is thinking, about what you’re thinking, about what he’s thinking, about what you’re thinking and so on. One of the things that Schelling pointed out that there are certain realms in which a measure of irrationality and lack of control can actually work to your advantage. So for example if you’re negotiating with someone … Let’s say you’re negotiating over the purchase of a car, and you’d be willing to pay anything between $20,000 and $30,000 – of course the lower the better. And the car dealer would make a profit if he sold it at any price between … over $20,000. So you’d both be better off settling for a price in that range rather than walking away from the deal. On the other hand within that range the closer it is to $20,000 the better it is for you. The closer it is to $30,000 the better it is for him. How do you arrive at a figure? Well it turns out the advantage goes to the person who’s more irrational, stubborn, hotheaded – the person who would walk away from the deal unless he got the maximum. So a salesman who says, “I’d like to sell it to you for $20,000, but I’m not allowed. My supervisor isn’t here. He won’t authorize me to go under $30,000” will get the better deal. On the other hand the customer who says, “Well I’d love to but my hands are tied. The bank won’t loan me more than $20,000 so I can’t pay more than $20,000”, that lack of control worked to his advantage. What’s the analogy to human emotions? Well often humans do things that seem to be irrationally stubborn. They vow undying devotion to their friends. They fight a duel or retaliate if they’re insulted. They’re hotheads in other words. This is an example showing that it may not be irrational in some spheres of human life to be a hothead. The hothead is the winner. This is also true with threats, for example. The problem with issuing a threat is someone calling your bluff. If they insult you, or invade your space, or chat up your girlfriend and you say, “If you do something like that I’ll beat you up,” well you could get hurt beating someone up. You might be better off just letting them have your lunch money or your girlfriend than getting killed in the process. Get a person that can anticipate that, and therefore they can act with impunity. How do you defend yourself against that dynamic? Well if you’re such a hothead that it would be intolerable insult if someone took advantage of you, and you had to retaliate even if it did you harm in the long run, paradoxically that might be the most effective deterrent. They can’t call your bluff if it isn’t a bluff. There’s often game theory. No psychologist ever thought that up; but it might offer an explanation as to why so many of our emotions seem to be passionate and irrational. There may be a method behind the madness, and it took someone – not a psychologist, I think – to unlock the mystery of human irrationality and passion.Because I do believe that there is such a thing as human nature, I think there are some things that will always be with us. I think that people will always have a measure of self-deception, and so we always think that we’re right, and that we’re virtuous, and we’re omniscient. And so we have to have that beaten out of us by arguments, and debate, and reality checking, and mechanisms like peer review, and science, and laws, and fines in the legal system. I think that children will always be unruly. I think that men and women will always be distinguishable. I think that we will never be born knowing how to read or to do math, but we’ll always need education. I think there are a large number of traits that I think will be here in a thousand years. On the other hand, among those traits are combinatorial abilities like the ones that I believe power language. Combinatorial abilities can give rise to an explosion of possibilities. There are a hundred, million, trillion different sentences, grammatical and meaningful sentences 20 words longer or less. Even if there’s a fixed set of rules that cranks out those sentences, there is in effect no limit as to the number of thoughts we can express in words. By analogy, human nature, the thoughts that we can think, the goals that we can have, if they’re combinatorial as well, there are maybe no limits in practice to the actual behavior that we can expect from people. They will be challenged in certain ways. They will still conform to certain rules; but we haven’t even sampled a remote fraction of them. That’s why ultimately even though I believe in a fixed human nature, I don’t believe in a fixed human condition. Because with the resources of human nature, there’s no limit to the … to the kinds of discoveries that we make with the kinds of ways we can figure out to get along with each other. People left to their own devices are dogmatic. They’d rather their truth be imposed than challenged. They are, I think, by nature self-deceived. It’s painful to work your way out of those alter human traits, and it’s a constant battle. each of us is a fallible and partly self-deluded agent. If I had to put my finger on anything, that is the beginning of wisdom and enlightenment; that as right as I think I am – and like most humans I think I’m right all of the time – I have to step outside myself and realize, “Well no. Probably some percentage of the time I’m wrong and that other people are right.” Both me as an individual, and my family, and my society, and this point in history that there’s always something to learn, ideas that have to be discarded in the light of the appearance of better ideas that we have to absorb from other people. That, I think, is the hardest nugget of knowledge that’s necessary for everything else to fall into place. It’s the opposite of faith. It’s the opposite of dogmatism. It’s the opposite of certainty. I don’t believe there’s such a thing as free will in the sense of a ghost and a machine, a spirit or a soul that somehow reads the TV screen of the senses and pushes buttons and pulls the levers of behavior. There’s no sense that we can make of that. I think we are . . . Our behavior is the product of physical processes in the brain. On the other hand, when you have a brain that consists of one hundred billion neurons connected by one hundred trillion synopses, there is a vast amount of complexity. That means that human choices will not be predictable in any simple way from the stimuli that I’ve hinged on beforehand. We also know that that brain is set up so that there are at least two kinds of behavior. There’s what happens when I shine a light in your eye and your iris contracts, or I hit your knee with a hammer and your leg jerks upward. We also know that there’s a part of the brain that does things like choose what to have for dinner; whether to order chocolate or vanilla ice cream; how to move the next chess people; whether to pick up the paper or put it down. That is very different from your iris closing when I shine a light in your eye. It’s that second kind of behavior – one that engages vast amounts of the brain, particularly the frontal lobes, that incorporates an enormous amount of information in the causation of the behavior that has some mental model of the world that can predict the consequences of possible behavior and select them on the basis of those consequences. All of those things carve out the realm of behavior that we call free will, which is useful to distinguish from brute involuntary reflexes, but which doesn’t necessarily have to involve some mysterious soul.I’m a cautious optimist about the near future. I think that by a lot of measures, things have gotten better. There’s last homicide now. There’s less rape. There’s less war. There’s less civil war. There are more freedoms. We know more. We live richer lives. We can listen to vast amounts of music at the press of a button. We have available a mind boggling library of information from the Internet, from sources like Amazon and other resources made available by the online world. The blogosphere allows for a richness of debate that didn’t exist 10 or 20 years ago. By a lot of indicators, things have gotten better and there’s no reason to think that that won’t trend . . . that trend won’t continue. The blot on the horizon is that there are some things that can happen that may be improbable; but if they do happen will be very, very bad, such as a nuclear device exploded by a terrorist. So the note of caution in my optimism is that although I think it’s … the chances are that things will get better, there are some low probability events that if they do occur, they will be very nasty indeed.

Recorded On: 6/13/07