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Niall Ferguson, MA, D.Phil., is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a senior fellow of the Center for European Studies, Harvard, where he served[…]

Greed and fear are high on the list.

Question: What are forces have shaped humanity?

Niall Ferguson: Greed and fear are pretty high up on the list. 

It’s interesting though how complex human motivation is in shaping the process that we call history.  There were people who were unquestionably actuated by greed, by the profit motive, when they crossed the Atlantic and began the process of colonization of the new world that ultimately produced, low and behold, the United States. 

But there were also people who were convinced they were going to build a new Jerusalem whose motivations were primarily religious.  And it’s striking to me how powerful those missionary impulses remain even into the 21st century. 

People do behave in ways that are not simple profit maximizing.  A lot of what gets done by non-governmental organizations today is analogous to what missionary societies were doing in the 19th century.  It’s just that the motivations are secular in many cases, but not all, rather than religious.  So there’s an interplay, to put it really simply, between economic motivations; but also on the other side, religious or ideological motivations if you prefer. That in itself is a simplification, because within that broad interplay of forces, individual motives can, in fact, be highly complicated and even irrational because human beings are not well designed by evolution to make careful calculations of probability. What we know from a lot of what has been done by behavioral psychologists how bad people are at assessing their own self interest; and how poorly they attach probabilities to future scenarios; and how readily they make snap decisions rather than weighing evidence. 

So a really critical force – as important as the profit motive, as greed; as important as religion, ideology, and fear – is human stupidity.  And in many ways, of the three I suspect that the central inability of the individual human being efficiently to calculate self-interest and accurately to attach probabilities to future scenarios – that is really the main driving force in history.  And it is remarkable given the force of stupidity that there has been any material progress at all. 

But then I console myself with the thought that, although we’ve made enormous leaps and bounds in the realm of economics, around science, we live longer, we live more comfortably, we have a better physical health during our lives.  All of this is one of the most astonishing achievements of humanity.  We have made life materially so much better, and most of that improvement happened in the last 100 years. 

But before you get carried away and conclude that history is a progressive phenomenon, remember in the process we’ve done enormous harm to our environment, to other human beings who haven’t shared in the benefits, and we have developed the technology to destroy ourselves and all living things. 

So that’s what I mean by human stupidity.  I may be I’m putting it too crudely, but let me be more precise: about the human inability accurately to access future scenarios, and probabilities, and individual self interests.

Recorded on: Oct 15 2008