Human nature and Social Control

Beginnings: The Right Thing is the Social Thing

An important feature of our public goods game the other day is that we removed the enforcement of two person agreements (contracts) from the situation. Participants were left to act on their own "values" - both in how much they would contribute and whether or not they would try to enforce good behavior in others. The game also had an underlying dimension of trust/expectation - one's behavior could be strongly influenced by trust in others to "do their part" or to "reciprocate." And the game revealed the importance of what can generally be called "reputation" - quite apart from monetary penalties, being thought of as "cheap" or "selfish" seemed to have an effect.

In our public goods exercise, we also learned that the mere hint of a grade payoff was enough to get some of us to disregard the welfare of others.

Or was it the other way round? Perhaps the idea of helping others actually pushed some folks to overcome their self-regard.

Or was the dominant experience to feel "fraught"? Was there a tension between "doing the right thing" and "doing the other thing"? Note that I'm being intentionally vague here — you probably expected that sentence to end "or to be selfish." We very easily assimilate the idea of "the good" and "doing the right thing" to doing the pro-social thing.


A set of ideas, a way of looking at the world, a comprehensive vision that may serve the interests of "society" or some group within society

But our point - indeed it is really just a side note - is not really to contrast natural and ideological — it's more natural vs. cultural. Just take a note of how easily we think of "the right thing" and "the social thing" as one and the same.

One source for this way of thinking is in Aristotle's idea of virtue and "the good" - in the small section of The Ethics that we looked at Aristotle1 described the concept of MAGNANIMITY: it's easy to read his description and think of arrogance but he is getting at the idea of a "higher state" of good that is attainable through fortune or hard work. One who has may be proud of the achievement and it is marked, among other things by rising above the pettiness of tit for tat and constant social climbing. It would not be hard to extract from it a picture of "gentelmanly values" that are easy for a rich person to hold to and to be dismissive. For our purposes what is important is the implication that the capacity to put others first is described as a higher form of existence. This corresponds with our fall back understanding of "do the right thing" as "do the pro-social thing."

That sets up a dimension in along which we have positive and negative evaluation attached to particular styles of behavior. Between it and our public goods game we have raised the implicit question of how does a society get more of this. But even before we ask this question another lurks in the background. Is it simply the case that some people are pro-social or magnanimous and some not? Or can we encourage more of it? Or are people a thing with an inside? Can we understand what makes people tick (and how to get more pro-social behavior out of them) by looking at what's inside?

The Self as Chariot From antiquity to classical theory

In at least two classical sources we get the same image of human nature — people are pulled in opposite directions by their "better nature" and their "worse nature." In the Katha Upanishad, a Hindu sacred text from the fifth century BCE (before the Christian era) we read2:

"Know the soul as lord of a chariot,
the body as the chariot.
Know the intuition as the chariot driver,
and the mind as the reins.
The senses, they say, are the horses;
the objects of sense the paths.
This associated with the body, the senses and the mind,
the wise call 'the enjoyer.'

"Those who do not have understanding,
whose minds are always undisciplined,
their senses are out of control,
like the wild horses of a chariot driver.

"Those, however, who have understanding,
whose minds are always disciplined,
their senses are under control,
like the good horses of a chariot driver.

Around the same time, in Plato's dialogue "The Phaedrus" (246a - 254e)3 we hear:

As I said at the beginning of this tale, I divided each soul into three — two horses and a charioteer; [253d] and one of the horses was good and the other bad: the division may remain, but I have not yet explained in what the goodness or badness of either consists, and to that I will proceed. The right-hand horse is upright and cleanly made; he has a lofty neck and an aquiline nose; his colour is white, and his eyes dark; he is a lover of honour and modesty and temperance, and the follower of true glory; he needs no touch of the whip, but is guided by word and admonition only. [253e] The other is a crooked lumbering animal, put together anyhow; he has a short thick neck; he is flat-faced and of a dark colour, with grey eyes and blood-red complexion; the mate of insolence and pride, shag-eared and deaf, hardly yielding to whip and spur. (Plato, Phaedrus, trans. Jowett:

This same motif shows up on Tarot card number 7, the Chariot. This card is sometimes said to represent victory, self-control, will-power. Here's one gloss on it:

Picture Julius Caesar riding his chariot triumphantly into Rome. He has defeated his enemies and conquered vast, new lands. This is the spirit of the Chariot. Card 7 represents the victories that are possible through willpower and self-mastery. A military image is appropriate for the Chariot because this card stands for the strengths associated with combat - discipline, grit, determination and assertiveness.

The Chariot represents the positive aspects of the ego. A healthy ego is one that is strong and self-assured. It knows what it wants and how to get it. We can get annoyed at someone whose ego is too healthy, but we often turn to that person to lead us through difficult moments. We know he or she won't be wishy-washy.

In readings, the Chariot often appears when hard control is or could be in evidence. At its best, hard control is not brutal, but firm and direct. It is backed up by a strong will and great confidence. The Chariot can mean self-control or control of the environment. This card also represents victory. There are many types of wins; the Chariot's is of the win-lose type. Your success comes from beating the competition to become number one. Such moments are glorious in the right circumstances.4

This same theme of the divide self shows up in Freud's tripartite model of the self — ego, superego, and id.

Selfish Human Nature

Taking a few liberties, we can glance back toward the Judeo-Christian model of humans as having been made in the image of god - that is, "good" - but having "fallen" from grace into a state of imperfection. You'd be right to see elements of the tension between good and evil here, but the part of the story that has a concrete break - Adam and Eve WERE expelled. Humans did become "lower" than god - is our starting point for the second approach to human nature.

Our paradigm in the social science literature is Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes was an English thinker who lived from


Hobbes (1588–1679) "Chapter XIII Of the Natural Condition of Mankind as Concerning Their Felicity and Misery"

Personality Types and Temperaments

Rousseau & Smith

Cue the 18th century, age of revolutions, beginning of modern democracy, onset of the "age of revolution."

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) is a French polymath who argues, in works such as The Discourse on Inequality (1754) that the human species in its natural state is "good" and that social institutions such as private property have corrupted its members.

In The Social Contract he wrote "Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains. Those who think themselves the masters of others are indeed greater slaves than they." And he developed the idea that the legitimacy of the government derives from a social contract in which all members of a polity forfeit an amount of freedom in return for an amount of common security and rights as equal members.

For our purposes two things to note. First, "Rousseau argued that compassion was simply present in the state of nature: just as cows lowed in anguish for a fallen comrade, humans instinctively felt pity for the suffering in their midst."5 Second, although ostensibly talking about political authority…. he argues that society emerges from

Adam Smith, the founder of classical economies, offered a similar argument in his Theory of Moral Sentiments. No matter who the individual might be, he observed, there were some principles "in his nature"' that prompted him to respond emotionally to the fortunes of others. "Of this kind," he wrote, "is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner." Everyone, Smith argued, had this capacity by nature: "The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it." Sec 1 ch 1 47 Wuthnow 1991 Acts of compassion : caring for others and helping ourselves. Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University p 56


Freud's Tripartite Model


Evolutionary Perspectives

Stuart A. West* and Andy Gardner* Altruism, Spite, and Greenbeards 12 March 2010, Science 327, 1341 (2010) DOI: 10.1126/science.1178332

Green MJ, Phillips ML. "Social threat perception and the evolution of paranoia." Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2004 May;28(3):333-42.

Clinical states of paranoia may therefore reflect normal variation (i.e. biases) in the adaptive mechanisms which have evolved, in the Darwinian sense, to facilitate efficient threat detection in humans. As such, clinical levels of paranoia may represent the inevitable cost of efficient threat perceptionor 'justified' suspicionthat is necessary for survival of the human species.

Gorman, James. "Survival’s Ick Factor" New York Times January 23, 2012

What disgusts humans is proving irresistible to researchers exploring the evolutionary value of revulsion.

Franz de Waal. Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved, edited by Josiah Ober and Stephen Macedo, with commentary by Robert Wright, Christine M. Korsgaard, Philip Kitcher, and Peter Singer. Princeton University Press, 2009, 232 pages, ISBN: 978-0-691-14129-9.