Are People Inherently Good or Bad?

We read of mass shootings, hate crimes, terror attacks, and violence in the news almost daily. We also read of acts of kindness and beauty. What kind of people are we? Humans are capable of unspeakable horror, and are also capable of the highest form of altruism. We’re a complicated species–both moral and immoral as our environment and physiology dictate. Think of a bell curve with most people somewhere in the middle.

Paul Zak, PhD and professor says the biological answer to this question is that we have evolved behaviors that increase our chances of survival and reproduction. He says “When in a stable and safe environment with enough food in our bellies, having a biology of morality sustains our place in the community of humans who help ensure our biological imperatives. In highly stressful, resource poor environments, we’ll step on whoever is in front of us if it helps us survive.” The exceptions to this rule are the roughly 5% of the population on either end of the spectrum. The rest of us vacillate between good and evil.

Recent studies demonstrate that our initial instinct is to help others in need. The vast majority of people, when faced with simple, clear ethical choices, choose good over bad, and even good over neutral. Society rewards altruism. Our parents, educators, and institutions teach us to share, be polite, and consider others.

But some people are mostly bad. Studies show that 2% – 4% of men and .5% – 1% of women have antisocial personality disorders. Antisocial personality disorder is characterized by a pattern of socially irresponsible, exploitive and guiltless behavior. It is chronic and lifelong for most of these people.

Why does it matter whether we think people are naturally good or bad? Messages of good and evil influence how we process the world around us, making us optimistic or pessimistic, hopeful or frightened, stressed or relaxed. Our physiology is triggered to release stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Stress is associated with health issues, such as heart disease and sleep deprivation. Chronic stress can even shorten your life.

Messages of good and bad influence our daily choices and risk taking behaviors. If we believe in the goodness of people, we are more likely to take risks that could potentially put us in harms way. On the other hand, we may be enriched with new experiences.

If we are quick to label some people as evil, we won’t consider the source of their behavior. We might mislabel fear, illness and desperation for evil. Desperation is a natural consequence of abuse, poverty, or illness. We may find that alleviating the source of desperation changes “bad people” to people who have unmet basic needs.

So where do you fall on the good or evil, moral or immoral spectrum? And, how does your view of whether people are inherently good or bad effect your outlook and life choices?


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