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‘Acts of Kindness Are Really Contagious.’ Historian Rutger Bregman Argues for a New Way of Thinking About Humanity

13 minute read
Billy Perrigo is a correspondent at TIME based in the London bureau. He covers the tech industry, focusing the companies reshaping our world in strange and unexpected ways. His investigation ‘Inside Facebook’s African Sweatshop’ was shortlisted for the 2022 Orwell Prize.

The world found out about Rutger Bregman in 2019 when, on a panel organized by TIME at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the Dutch historian lambasted businesspeople in the audience for trying to fix the world economy without talking about taxation. “It feels like I’m at a firefighters’ conference and no one is allowed to speak about water,” he said.

Now, he has a new book out, titled Humankind, in which the unconventional historian tries to unravel even more of the conventional wisdom that, he says, actually stands on empirically shaky ground. Bregman spoke to TIME in March, while the coronavirus pandemic was spreading rapidly around the world.

In your new book, Humankind, you make the argument that, humans are not as intrinsically selfish as much literature would have us believe. Since you wrote it, the coronavirus pandemic has changed everything. Do you stand by your argument?

Obviously I think I’m right! The old fashioned “realist” position has been to assume that civilization is only a thin veneer, and that the moment there’s a crisis we reveal our true selves, and it turns out that we’re all selfish animals. What I’m trying to do in this book is to turn this narrative around, to show that actually, over thousands of years, people have actually evolved to be friendly.

There’s always selfish behavior. There are lots of examples of people hoarding. But we’ve seen in this pandemic that the vast majority of behavior from normal citizens is actually pro-social in nature. People are willing to help their neighbors. That is the bigger picture that we’re seeing right now.

Is this moment a fertile time for that idea?

I hope that the message of my book is extra relevant right now. Because it’s not only the virus that is contagious, but our behavior as well. If we assume that most people are fundamentally selfish, and if we design our response to this virus with that view of human nature, then we’re going to bring that out in people. Whereas, if we assume that most people are cooperative and want to help, then we can actually inspire other people. This may sound a bit cheesy, but there’s actually a lot of psychological research that shows that acts of kindness are really contagious. They really spread throughout a social network, even influencing people who you don’t know, who you haven’t seen.

The other thing this crisis shows very clearly is how dependent we are on certain professions. Around the globe, there are governments coming up with lists of so-called vital professions. If you look at those lists, you won’t find the hedge fund managers or the marketeers or whatever. But you’ll find the garbage collectors and the teachers and the nurses, people who we often don’t pay very well, but turn out to be people we can’t live without. So just imagine what the influence of that could be for the longer term. Because there’s now a whole generation growing up that will be impacted by this pandemic. We’ll all remember 2020 as an historic year. And for decades, people will be able to say, remember 2020. Remember when things were really tough. Who did we rely on? I think that could impact a whole generation.

Why do our assumptions about human nature matter? What’s at stake in the debate?

I think everything starts with your view of human nature, because what you assume about other people is often what you get out of them. So if we assume that most people deep down are selfish and cannot be trusted, then you’ll start designing your institutions around that idea. And you’ll create exactly the kind of people that your view of human nature presupposes.

People who think other people tend to be selfish have come to be called realists, whereas people who are more trusting are sometimes called idealists. Do you think those labels are fair?

I’m trying to redefine what the realist position is. I go over all this empirical evidence in my book, and I show that actually, what you see most in times of crisis is an explosion of altruism. We’ve got more than 500 case studies of natural disasters from around the globe. And every single time sociologists and anthropologists find that it’s almost as if you push a reset button in people’s heads and they go back to their better selves. They will start helping each other. And this is the opposite of what we’ve been told for decades, for centuries even in Western culture, and what the news tells us every day.

Connected to the idea that humans are intrinsically selfish is the idea that the free market is the most efficient way to run an economy. Do you think the two ideas are connected?

Yes, but I’m not part of the generation of the Cold War when the debate was all about capitalism versus communism or market versus state, right? I don’t live in that binary world. Sometimes markets work best, sometimes the state has the best solution. During the Enlightenment, there were brilliant thinkers who realized that, if you assume most people are naturally selfish and you construct the market around that, sometimes it can actually work for the common good. I just think that in many cases, it went too far. What many economists forget is that this view of humanity, the so-called “homo economicus,” can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What kind of world do you hope to see if people change their minds, maybe from reading your book? What kind of world could be possible?

You could do pretty much everything in a different way. In maybe one of the most radical examples in my book, I look at how the prison system works in Norway. They basically give prisoners the freedom to do whatever they want, right? Often, they even have the key to their own cells. And you’ve got prisons there with cinemas and libraries where they can just relax around on a friendly basis with the guards. Now, if you look at that, from an American perspective, you’re like, these people are totally crazy. But then if you look at it from a scientific perspective, you look at the recidivism rate, right? The odds that someone who has committed a crime commits another one once he gets out of prison. Well, the recidivism rate is very high in the U.S. – it’s one of the highest rates in the world. But it’s the lowest in Norway. So actually the “realist” prison here is the Norwegian prison, where inmates are treated like humans and as adults, whereas many American prisons where inmates are often treated as animals, as beasts. At the moment those are taxpayer funded institutions to educate people for more criminal behavior. That’s basically what they are.

How do you explain the power of nationalism as an ideology? The process of building an idea of a nation requires excluding out-groups. And by extension, denying them certain benefits. Often violence is involved in this as well. How does that fit with the idea of human nature as inherently decent?

Well, this is the big question hanging over my whole book. We do terrible things that are not done by any animal in the animal kingdom. There’s never been a penguin that says, let’s lock up a group of other penguins and exterminate them. These are singularly human crimes. We can get the beginning of an answer if we look at this theory from biology that people have evolved to be friendly, what they call the self-domestication theory. And the idea here from some biologists is that there’s a dark side to that as well. Because, friendliness, wanting to fit into a group can sometimes stand in the way of justice and truth. We find it very hard not to be included in our own social groups, to go against the grain. You even find it with babies, studies show as young as three to six months old that they already seem to know the difference between good and evil, and they prefer the good — but they also have xenophobic tendencies. Babies do not like unfamiliar sounds, unfamiliar faces. So this is a tribal button that can be pushed in our brain.

But if you watch a lot of Hollywood and Netflix series, you might get the impression that people find it really easy to commit violence against each other. Well, we actually know from psychological studies and from the history of warfare, that people find it really, really hard. For example, during the Second World War, it’s estimated that only around 15 to 20% of soldiers actually managed to fire their gun. When they had to look the enemy in the eye and pull the trigger, most of them couldn’t do it, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t condition people to do it, you can’t make them push a button of an artillery device or something so that they can kill people from the distance. So there are all kinds of technological and psychological means to get people to commit violence, but it is not deep in our nature. For most people, it’s actually really hard to do.

The other fascinating thing unique to humans is that we blush. How could this ever have been an evolutionary advantage that we involuntarily give away our deepest feelings? This shows that we evolved to cooperate. The thing is, this works really well on a small scale. Now, when we settled down, 10,000 years ago, and we first started living in villages and cities and doing agriculture, we also lost sight of each other, literally. And some of the things that we evolved for didn’t work anymore. And I think it’s no coincidence that this is also the time in world history where you see the first wars breaking out. The reason is that the distance between people has increased.

And so obviously the simple solution that you come to if you want to do something against racism or prejudice or all these tribal instincts in our nature, the ultimate solution is obviously contact. People gotta meet each other.

I suppose, to use a British example, the constituencies that voted most heavily for Brexit (and by extension against immigration) were generally the ones with the lowest immigration rates.

Yeah, that’s obviously the classic example. And in very diverse neighborhoods, most people wanted to stay within the E.U. And the same is actually the case during the Trump election in 2016. Neighborhoods with very little diversity voted for Trump. It is something that you should always keep in mind when you design your institutions, like schools. It matters so much that from a very early age we encounter different kinds of different people, because that’s what real life should be about as well.

You were on a panel organized by TIME at Davos last year when you called on billionaires to stop talking about philanthropy and pay their taxes. The video went viral. It’s a bit more than a year on, now. Have you noticed any improvement on that?

I’m optimistic actually. I think to be honest, that we’re living through extraordinary times. The Zeitgeist is really shifting before our eyes. You have to remember that even Joe Biden’s climate plan is more ambitious than Bernie Sanders’ climate plan was in 2016. Even Biden wants to have higher taxes on the rich. This has become the new normal right now. So I really think that, what they call the Overton window, you see it moving. And you really see it with taxes as well. So the worst period was 10 to 15 years ago, when we weren’t even talking about it.

Now of course, the coronavirus is changing everything. Maybe this can become a bigger movement that you could call some sort of a “neo-realistic” movement, right, with a new updated view of human nature. Maybe this will be the end of neoliberalism, the incredibly powerful idea that basically conquered the West since the 1970s. The ideology was that most people are selfish. Now, maybe we can move into a different era, because this whole idea that most people are selfish is simply unworkable during a pandemic. I’m not predicting this will happen. It’s just a hopeful scenario, that may be accelerated by this pandemic.

Hanging over the pandemic is another threat to humanity: climate change. One thing that we keep hearing is that in order to avert the crisis, even with systemic change, we are going to need to make severe behavioral changes, we’re going to need to give up our luxuries for the good of the human race. And yet, that kind humanity-wide decency, if we’re putting it in those terms, is very hard to achieve. How do you square that with your argument that humans are inherently good?

Well, actually, my book is all about the power of human beings collectively, right? So individually, we can’t achieve much. We’re not very smart and we’re not very strong. The strength of human beings only really comes out on a big scale. So the same is true for climate change. We’re never gonna solve anything about climate change if we keep making it into this individualistic discussion. I’m not saying that doesn’t have a role. I mean, the personal is political. But I think the message of scientists right now is that as a society, we need to go through this huge transformation. And we need to do something that’s never been done before in peacetime. Move to half emissions in 2030 and zero emissions in 2050. That means that radical is the new reality. Greta Thunberg is totally right about this. We’re now going to a world that will be three degrees warmer. And that’s the average prediction. It could be worse. Now, I’m living in the Netherlands, where big parts of the country are meters below sea level. So I’ve been interviewing experts who say, it’s not certain that our grandchildren can still live here in the 22nd century. It’s not certain that we can save this country. And so the stakes are incredibly high. But then again, it’s technically feasible. And we’ve done similar things in the past. So it’s not impossible. But this shift in the Zeitgeist needs to speed up quite a bit more.

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Write to Billy Perrigo at billy.perrigo@time.com

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