This article is slightly liberally biased.
One of the most popular film franchises of the last decade has been The Purge series. The premise is simple: for twelve hours all laws are suspended and anything goes, always leading to horrendous and violent depravity. These films are popular in large part because they feed that pessimistic part of our brains that thinks: of course the world will go to hell, people are violent and without someone to stop them, most people will naturally resort to theft and violence. This is a natural impulse for most of us, at least we think so because, in reality, this is a totally unnatural impulse. You have to be taught to think the world is a shithole and that other people are dangerous. Our instincts as children are to love the world and everyone and everything in it. Our parents, our culture, our religions, and our media have lied to us because most people are in fact decent human beings.
And now we can prove it.
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was right: the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice (a phrase with a more curious and length provenance than I was aware of). More than any other narrative, human history is a long story of progressively better behaved and better-treated people trying to figure out ways to live in harmony with each other. War is the aberration, not the norm. Peace is not exceptional, it is the default. The world and the vast majority of the people on it are getting safer, healthier, more civilized, and peaceful. This is in large part because people are not assholes. The overwhelming majority of people will not steal from you and do not intend you any harm. Recruiting people to fight is not easy because our instinct is, contrary to what movies and religion tell you, not to hurt other people.
The Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker laid out a convincing and highly detailed account of how our global glass has been filling for centuries, not emptying. Especially over the last 100 years, humans live with a degree of prosperity unappreciated by most people. For one, wars are less deadly than ever before.
If we adjust for population growth, not a single one of the multiple wars, genocides, famines, or natural disasters of the 20th century ranks in the top ten deadliest historical human events. Interpersonal violence unrelated to war and state conflict is at all-time historical lows. We are less violent as a species than we have ever been before and this is something that we have basically always been able to say. This year is less violent than last year and this seems to have been largely always true.
Human rights have expanded in unprecedented ways. In 1892, not a single country on Earth allowed women to vote but since then it has been a steady creep upwards. Now, in 2019, only one single country (Vatican City) is left in which women do not get to participate to some degree in elections as voters or candidates, even Saudi Arabia has finally relented. Polling demonstrates widespread global support for women’s rights and equality.
One of the reasons for this steady and increasingly fast decline in violence and an increase in peace and cooperation is technological. Today, most of the people alive do not have to struggle to find food, clean water, and shelter. Violence always retreats quickly in the absence of poverty. Another reason is economic: when people have jobs and a way to reliably provide for their families they are less likely to be xenophobic or aggressive to others.
Another reason is that most people really are decent at heart. Nobody actually wants to be an asshole.
The journal Science this week published “Civic honesty around the globe,” describing the results of a global experiment in 335 cities around the world. “We mistakenly assume that our fellow human beings are selfish,” said Alain Cohn, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Michigan and first author of the study. “In reality, their self-image as an honest person is more important to them than a short-term monetary gain.”
The study dropped off over 17,000 ‘lost’ wallets in hundreds of cities in 40 countries over a course of two years. The wallets were unremarkable and with similar contents: business cards, shopping lists in a local language, a key, and sometimes a variable amount of cash. Researchers turned in the wallets at the sorts of places honest people may leave them for their owners, like police stations, hotels, and post offices.
The results astounded the research team. Contrary to economic theory and what may be termed as ‘common sense’ most people returned the wallets. Even wilder, people were more likely to return the wallet the more money was in it. When the wallets contained an amount that would be considered a large amount for the local economy the return rate was 72%.
There was a great deal of variance in return rates between countries. The most honest wallet-returners of large sums were Danes, Swedes and New Zealanders. While China, Peru, Kazakhstan, and Kenya, didn’t rise above a 20% average return rate. Perhaps most surprising, or most predictable depending on one’s cynicism, wallets dropped in Vatican City and at two anti-corruption agencies were never returned.
But why these surprising results? It turns out that classical economics is correct and people really are selfish but that this manifests in an unexpected way: proving to themselves that they are honest people.
The researchers concluded that the primary motivation for returning the wallets was not wanting to see themselves as thieves. The psychological cost of being dishonest was greater than the financial cost of giving up a one-time windfall. This may help explain the results from the Vatican and the anti-corruption bureaus: people working there already have robust self-images of altruism and beneficence which makes the moral justifications easier in their situations.
72% of the seven billion people sharing this planet are honest when nobody is looking – which is the best metric. Don’t be fooled by a media with little credibility and run under the “If it bleeds, it leads” business model. Remember Mr. Rogers’ suggestion to “Look for the helpers” during and after tragedies is not only uplifting it is statistically instructive. One sick person may be able to hurt or murder dozens of people at once with a bomb, gun, or car but that person is always outnumbered. Every time. One murderer versus dozens or hundreds of volunteers to fix and clean up after their horror.
The murderer is outnumbered by paramedics, the bomber outnumbered by firefighters, the thief outnumbered by honest people. This is the state of the world and it always has been. Thankfully there is finally some data to prove it.