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The Science Survey

We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

The Decline of Human Benevolence

What is the true cause of human evil? Let’s take a look from a psychological standpoint.
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Italian painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s ‘The Battle of Vercellae’ depicts the violent rage that fuels conflict and its consequences, death and destruction. (Image Credit: Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Through social connections, humanity has dominated planet Earth for thousands of years. We have pioneered and advanced the structure of our world. A majority of these changes have benefited humanity as a whole. However, despite possessing such intellectual prowess, humans seem to naturally be cruel to other members of their species. As we frequently engage in conflicts with each other over even the most miniscule reasons, we are one of the only species on Earth to exhibit cruelty without purpose. These conflicts have a wide range of intensity. Ranging  from a silly argument caused by bumping into somebody to military conflicts which cause death and destruction, mankind is its own worst enemy.

People are becoming more cruel to each other due to the increasingly stressful nature of human society today. Societal expectations have put more pressure on people over time. Expectations around a successful career, physical beauty, and having a good social circle are some that constantly shroud people today.  With a large portion of the population constantly plagued with living up to such demanding expectations, it is extremely common for human behavior to change negatively. An example can be seen in economic changes such as inflation. Overwhelming economic pressure can force people with no method of supporting themselves to turn to violence and crime.

Scientifically, stress and aggression bolster each other. The hormone corticosterone is produced in fight or flight situations, an evolutionary trait that prepares the body for sudden physical activity in order to survive danger. Corticosterone is also the hormone responsible for feelings of stress. A person under a lot of stress will produce a large amount of corticosterone, possibly causing uncontrolled aggression or unkindness towards others. At the end of the day, societal expectations prove to be psychological hazards that people have never faced before. The harsh actions of humans are inevitable, being a product of stress caused by demanding expectations. However, it is natural that questions arise from this concept. To what extent are people not responsible for their cruelty to others? Should the perpetrators of cruelty be excused and understood or should they be punished? The answer is not that simple.

It’s not just stress factors causing this cruelty. Ideological and psychological differences between individuals play a significant role in causing people to act poorly to others. These beliefs are fed by experiences in the past, taught to the individual, or are something that simply rubs off onto the person through being around people with these morals.    

From an ideological standpoint, an emphasis on kindness is seen in multiple parts of the world. These ideas can be parents nurturing their children to be kind, philosophical practices like altruism (a selfless concern for others), or even some religious sects like Buddhism and Christianity which encourage benevolent actions for salvation or a good afterlife. These ideas are widespread, but people still find ways to be selfish through their violence, greed, and hatred to others.

To add on, it has been shown on multiple occasions that humans have a natural tendency for kindness from birth. According to evolutionary theory, humans are psychologically programmed to feel compassion towards other humans due to frequently collaborating with one another.

Scientists from the Infant Cognition Center at Yale University tested this hypothesis in a 2010 study entitled The Moral Baby. The test involved presenting computer generated animations of two easy to understand scenarios to infants of varying ages. The animations featured geometric characters that each exhibited good and bad behavior. Data was collected by presenting the infants with the shapes as physical toys, observing which one they wanted to play with. Both scenarios involve a sphere that is attempting to climb a hill. In the first scenario, a square character appears and assists the sphere in its ascent by pushing it up the hill. In the second scenario, a triangle appears, and does the opposite of what the square does for the sphere. In the end, almost all of the infants within the data set chose the helpful individual: the square. The data collected from the experiment shows that even from birth, humans will naturally prefer benevolence.

If humans are evolutionarily made to be kind and compassionate, what causes them to stray away from their natural instincts? The answer to this question is not so concrete. Here are the possibilities that are most agreed upon today.

People appear to act selfishly in order to benefit themselves. Whether it is something as simple as hogging a chair on the bus from somebody who might need it, to emotionally manipulating an individual to raise their own self esteem, people appear to have very little remorse when it comes to getting some sort of reward out of their actions. Thieves physically maim others in an attempt to gain belongings from a target, liars create lies with the goal of portraying themselves as something as they are not, and narcissists put others down in order to protect and sustain their ego. It is incredibly rare to find somebody who acts terribly towards others without a reason, as it would simply be coldhearted.

Most humans are moral hypocrites. It is common for people to make excuses in order to justify certain actions. This can suggest either a degree of remorse and awareness behind their selfishness towards others or a desire to avoid possible punishment. Studies have shown that the people who preach the most about morals are victims of their own ideals, being the most guilty of what they are saying. With that said, they do not hesitate to shun others in the name of their own self-interest. In a competitive world of self gratification, it appears that some people live in a delusional state of mind that some actions are justifiable so long as they are the ones gaining from it.

Selfishness can also be brewed from negative emotions such as jealousy and envy towards others. Unfortunately, societal demands to live successfully and admirably only strengthen these negative emotions. With the natural human tendency of comparing oneself with another individual, it is common for people to drag others down to their own level instead of actually working towards their goals. To make matters worse, people can make up lies in order to soften the guilt of acting in such a manner towards somebody. In the worst cases, people can resort to physical violence to obtain what they desire or to show frustration to others. Whether it is money, reputation, or something entirely different, people who are selfish to others continue to act in such a manner until they get what they are searching for.

Although kindness is something acquired from birth, it is also something that can be nurtured and taught to individuals. The same can be said about the guilt that shrouds individuals who treat others poorly. Past experiences can shape an individual for good or for bad, with some experiences possibly teaching people to do the wrong things or leaving an individual desiring some sort of revenge. As surprising as it may seem, simple jealousy can quickly escalate to things such as violence and crime.

On a similar note, people find unsettling ways to justify their unkind actions towards others. Many people are angered when somebody disagrees with them, even if they do so in a respectful manner. Whether these ideals are conceptual or political, disagreement is a catalyst for human violence. When an idea is not accepted, violence is unfortunately something that is regularly seen as justified in order to force an idea on people. People have no issue turning to violence towards one another when their ego and ideologies are on the line. With this concept, the volatility of human emotions leads to conflict, fighting, and even war.

In order to ensure that mankind does not destroy itself due to abrasiveness towards one another, it is necessary to reflect on various methods that can be used to avoid conflict. When you disagree, communication can be difficult but useful. During an intense conversation, you may find yourself distracted by your own emotions rather than being focused on the subject at hand. Clear communication can help prevent a minor disagreement from occurring or escalating.

Overall, human volatility can have a plethora of causes depending on different individuals and is something that only increases with societal expectations and beliefs. The world is plunged in chaos, and it is due to conflicts between different groups of people that have been brewing for generations, unattended and unresolved. Understanding is the key to peace, and it is important to attempt peaceful negotiations prior to engaging in violence caused by blind rage.

If humans are evolutionarily made to be kind and compassionate, what causes them to stray away from their natural instincts?

About the Contributor
Ray Rivera, Staff Reporter
Ray Rivera is a Staff Reporter and Sports Editor for ‘The Science Survey.'  Ray enjoys journalistic writing due to a strong belief in the power of information, finding enjoyment in educating readers about lesser known topics or raising awareness about more serious topics that deserve more attention. Ray appreciates journalistic photography as well, adoring the idea of bringing the spotlight onto students at Bronx Science through photographs.  The concept of telling a story simply through visuals is one that is truly fascinating to Ray. He enjoys how photography also highlights the many positives of life at Bronx Science. Some of Ray’s interests include the outdoors, exercising, cooking, video games, and martial arts, as he has trained in kickboxing and karate for his entire life. Ray plans to continue studying journalism in college, wishing to live a quiet life where he can also focus on his martial arts training.