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On Human Nature

Human Nature

A usual argument put forth to justify the Private Corporate Economic Model (Capitalism) is that, “because of human nature,” the profit motive and other material incentives are necessary to adequately motivate people to perform well. The argument goes that people, “by nature,” are selfish and tend to not work hard or well, unless they are either watched closely or are provided with some form of monetary reward (incentive). The further claim is that any economic model that relies on altruism and is not driven by monetary incentive is doomed to fail, again, “because of human nature.”

The above view of “human nature” accentuates the negative capacities of human beings and is incomplete. It ignores the positive capacities of human nature. It is anti-people in that it shows little respect for and little faith in the positive capacities of human beings.

There is another, more positive, more complete, more accurate, deeper and more helpful understanding of “human nature.” It is this:

Human beings innately have capacities for both altruistic and selfish behaviors. There is a spectrum regarding the extent to which individual people have innate inclinations to express their altruistic capacities versus their selfish capacities. At one end of the spectrum are people who have very strong natural tendencies to behave altruistically and have large consciences (almost saints, perhaps). At the other end are people who have a strong natural inclination to be selfish and appear to have small consciences (ruthless, sociopathic mobsters, e.g.). In the exact middle are people who struggle with roughly equal tendencies. There is probably a bell-shaped curve regarding the distribution of these innate tendencies, although it is likely that this curve, in actuality, is shifted considerably towards the altruistic end—that is, considerably more than half of people probably fall along the altruistic half of the spectrum.

People not only differ regarding their innate tendencies, but also regarding the extent to which they have been taught or otherwise influenced (by their upbringing, role models, education, institutional experiences, other life experiences, and behavioral practice) to exercise their altruistic capacities versus their self-serving ones. That is, environmental factors, including simple practice and development of habits, can influence whether a person is more likely to express their innate altruistic capacities than their innate selfish capacities, or vice versa. Such factors can either up-regulate or down-regulate the expression of an individual’s capacity for altruism; and can either up-regulate or down-regulate expression of an individual’s capacity for selfishness. In that sense, environmental factors are capable of skewing the bell-shaped curve of innate tendencies (toward the altruistic, or toward the selfish) when it comes to the actual expression of those tendencies.

Because of the above-mentioned differences in innate tendencies and life experiences, people are drawn toward different types of human activity. Albert Schweitzer, the famous German physician who altruistically dedicated his life to developing a hospital in the heart of Africa, was probably naturally drawn to that challenge. That was his natural inclination and interest. He was also undoubtedly influenced by role models, his upbringing, his religious beliefs, his education, and other life experiences. He probably had little innate inclination or interest in building a highly profitable business empire. That kind of accomplishment, for him, probably would not have created much satisfaction, either.

In contrast, other people have strong natural inclinations to acquire wealth and/or obtain power over others, and they vigorously exercise those capacities, with enthusiasm and excitement. Such people become either further inclined or less inclined to express those tendencies, depending on their life experiences and role models. If a child is brought up in a family dominated by a father who is a ruthless business tycoon, and that child is encouraged and taught how to be a “chip off the old block,” then it is likely that the child will exhibit behaviors similar to the father’s, particularly if the child is sufficiently indoctrinated and not encouraged to think independently and question things. If that same child, however, were to spend summers working in a hospital in the slums of a big city and being mentored by an altruistic soul, he/she may learn to exercise innate altruistic inclinations and greatly increase (up-regulate) expression of them.

So, how a family or a society organizes itself can have a tremendous influence on whether its members express their innate altruistic capacities/inclinations, or their selfish capacities/inclinations. If a society teaches a negative, anti-people view of human nature and insists on an economic system that is based on that view, dependent on that view, and virtually requires and rewards selfish behaviors—then, its people will tend to exercise their selfish tendencies, and their altruistic inclinations will be repressed, under-exercised, under-practiced, under-valued, and under-supported. On the other hand, if a society teaches a positive view of human nature and develops an economic system that promotes expression of the altruistic capacities in all of us, and gives ample practice to those capacities—then, its people and its institutions will behave increasingly altruistically and less selfishly.

It should also be realized that individual human beings need help from their society and culture, if they are to optimize expression of their altruistic capacities and minimize expression of their selfish tendencies. Most of us cannot do this alone. Some people may be able to this without help, because of extraordinary make-up and/or very helpful life experiences. “Religion” helps some people, but has historically failed to adequately affect the big picture, primarily because the prevailing economic model gives practice to behaviors that contradict what most of the world’s religions teach. Religions would have far more beneficial effects on individuals and society as a whole, if the economic system that so profoundly affects people’s daily lives were to reinforce and give practice to desired behaviors, instead of promoting and rewarding the very behaviors that most religions warn against.

It would seem wise, therefore, to strongly challenge the simplistic notion that our current economic model (the Private Corporate Economic Model) is the best that we can do, “because of human nature.” We can and we need to develop a much better economic model—one that helps all of us to maximize expression and development of the altruistic capacities that we all have.

In this regard, it is instructive to realize that Academic Pediatricians have already developed such a model—the Academic Pediatrician Economic Model (Economic altruism). This model is based on a positive view of human nature, and is designed to promote full expression of altruistic capacities and behaviors. This model has been practiced naturally and voluntarily in academic Pediatrics for many decades, to the great benefit of the world’s children, at a bargain price for societies. Historically, physicians who have gone into Academic Pediatrics have done so primarily because the thought of helping sick children (through direct care, research, and teaching) harmonized with their natural, learned, and practiced altruistic inclinations and interests. Most were not motivated by or interested in thoughts of wealth or power. They were primarily motivated by the feelings associated with helping sick children become healthy. Accordingly, they were very happy to try to work altruistically, collaboratively, and very hard, for an appropriate (not excessive) salary. Most did not feel monetary incentive was necessary. In fact, most are offended by the idea of monetary incentives, because of its contaminating and down-sizing effects on the altruistic spirit.

The Academic Pediatrician Economic Model that pediatricians have been naturally and voluntarily practicing for many decades has served children very well and has provided pediatricians with extraordinarily meaningful experiences that have made them even more inclined to exercise their altruistic capacities. Accordingly, academic pediatricians strongly recommend the Academic Pediatrician Economic Model, not just for the health care economy, but for the general economy. It is recommended that a more positive, more accurate, deeper, more helpful understanding of Human Nature be appreciated. And, it is recommended that the justification for and the advisability of the Private Corporate Economic Model be thoroughly re-evaluated.


Postscript: When people behave selfishly, it is typically said, “that’s human nature,” or “To look after your self-interest is human nature,” But, when people behave altruistically, it is rarely said, “that’s human nature,” or “to behave altruistically is human nature.” Why is that? Both are expressions of capacities of our human nature.

For further reading about Human Nature, please see:

  • Up-Regulation and Down-Regulation of Human Behavioral Capacities
  • Power Point Presentation: Human Nature—A Graphic Depiction


  1. Karell Acosta

    It is a privilege to get your insights on human nature.
    Let me share some ideas from psychology’s Historical Cultural Approach (HCA):
    Humans are defined, to a great extent, by our personality. Personality is a psychological configuration whose emergence and development are determined by the complex interaction among biological (genetic and epigenetic), environmental, social and psychological factors. This interaction is unique in each individual and results in a unique personality which regulates our behavior.
    Personality is stable although not static. It evolves although usually in a gradual way. It is a system inasmuch as it is not the simple sum of its components. It is a holistic emerging entity. The parts manifest themselves in the whole and viceversa. At birth, the human psyche is incipient and it is the social interactions that gradually play a leading role in the development of the individual’s personality through different phases, each with its distinctive characteristics. As I stated at the beginning, biological tendencies and environmental factors are also at play during the formation of personality. Also, the very psychological features that emerge throughout the process have an impact on the further evolution of the very same personality.
    HCA argues that, although all factors are relevant, social ones take the leading role, together with the psychological ones that emerge and become determinants themselves. It is the nature of human interactions -marked by family relations, education, the type of society the individual lives in and the values it promotes, together with all the social interactions with friends, acquaintances, the media, etc.- that influence the formation of personality.
    In this sense, there is no human nature per se. Human nature is variable, it is expressed by personality and therefore depends on the complex interactions of social, pychological, biological, and environmental factors referred to before. Then, human nature does not exist a priori. It is created by the complex and unique interaction among all those factors listed before.
    Of course, given the strong leading influence of societal factors, including the set of values promoted in different societies, some of these societies “tend” to produce a larger number of people whose “human nature” is characterized by altruism, solidarity (let’s say ‘society type A’), on one hand, or selselfishness, egotism, rugged individualism, on the other (let’s call it ‘society type B’) . However, you can find selfish people in ‘society type A’ and altruistic people in ‘society type B’, indicating that all factors have a say and they interact in a unique individual manner.
    As far as biological factors are concerned, of course there may be some predispositions -with a variable degree of strength and influence depending of each individual-, either of a genetic or epigenetic character, that are at play and interact with the other factors during the formation of personality and thus “human nature”. For instance, let’s imagine an individual with a highly choleric temperament, which has to do with the way the brain activity is activated and deactivated (a very biological factor). That individual may have a natural tendency to violence and he may end up being a murderer. However, if that biological tendency is properly counterbalanced by a good education, love and good discipline provided by family and friends, as well as a society which promotes equality, solidarity and altruism, while it discourages the use of violence and prohibits guns in the hands of civilians, that individual is less likely to become a murderer.
    There is much more to say, of course, but these are some basic ideas.

  2. Robert M Rennebohm

    Thank you for your comments, Karell. I appreciate learning about the Historical Cultural Approach. Your comments add depth to our understanding of human nature. I appreciate your emphasis on the complex, multi-dimensional, multi-factorial, dynamic, living/changing/growing aspects of human nature. Although there are genetic and epigenetic factors involved, human nature is certainly not a fixed entity—individually or collectively. As you briefly point out, epigenetic factors will be an important area for further exploration. I fully agree that social interactions “take a leading role” in determining what human behavioral capacities are most expressed. I would add that one of the social factors that has great influence on expression of human behavioral capacities is the economic model under which we live—hence, the emphasis on economic models throughout these Notes from the Social Clinic.


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