Inherent Goodness or Badness: A Reflection

January 16, 2024 BY Dan Ariely

An ancient question has been whether human nature is inherently good or inherently bad. From as early as I can remember, I thought that the right view is that human nature is inherently good. Over the years, my professional experience in social science gave me further support for that view. Why? Because if you consider that the main lesson from social science — that the environment matters! — you have to also believe in a deep disconnect between the potential of people and their ultimate behavior. You put people in one environment and they behave as angels, but put them in another environment and the same people can act in much much worse ways.

What this means is that behavior, good and bad is not a direct reflection on the goodness or badness of human nature and instead, it is to a large degree an outcome of the environment.

As someone who has internalized social science into everything I do, including my basic beliefs and approach to life, my conclusion was ended up being that people are inherently good and with the right environment this goodness can come out. Everything we see that is not great is an outcome of mistakes, bad information, a bad environment, and so on.

Recently, however, the images and stories from the brutal attacks of Hamas on Israel forced me to stop, think, and reflect, and that’s precisely what I have been doing. Should I change my belief about the basics of human nature? Should I update it?

I went over all kinds of evidence in the news and in social media — information that is impossible to reconcile with the idea that people are inherently good. But, even though I struggled with lots of evidence, at the end of the day, I decided that I’m not yet ready to accept that human nature is evil, and I am going to keep on holding onto the belief that people are inherently good.

Yes, it’s true that the evidence for people being inherently evil is much more powerful than I had imagined, and every day I see more and more examples of unbelievable brutality. But, I’m not yet ready to make this shift. Much like Jean Piaget’s approach to child development and their stages, I think that for me too, the evidence is there, but I’m not yet ready to move to a different developmental stage and to admit that maybe people are not as good as I once believed.

Or, maybe I just need to hold on to the goodness view for the sake of my own motivation. I know that we will all keep on revisiting this question over and over in the near future and I hope that in time we will find more reasons to view the world and the people in it in a more hopeful and positive way.