I have never been quite sure what the expression human nature really means.  The ‘nature’ bit seems to suggest something built into the system, something instinctive, something fixed and immutable, something impervious to change.

As a psychologist, I’m uncomfortable with ideas that challenge choice and free will.  I’d far rather believe that we are free to choose our actions.  I once wrote a song called Choose where the first verse went:

Choose, choose

You can choose

What to do

What to think

Win or lose

Swim or sink

Sink or swim

You can choose.

These words, by the way, sound more profound when they are sung!  Still, suffice to say that, even though I often suffer from choice overload when faced with products that are too similar (breakfast cereals for example), I’m an advocate of choice when it comes to behaviour . I also believe that human beings have gradually learnt to improve their behaviour.

Stephen Pinker (not just a psychologist, but a famous one) agrees with me!  In his latest book, The Better Angels of our Nature, he cites the widespread and continuing decline in the West of virtually all forms of violence; homicide, rape, torture, corporal punishment, capital punishment, war, genocide, domestic violence, child abuse, hate crimes and so on.  Beginning in the 11th century ‘Europeans increasingly inhibited their impulses, anticipated the long-term consequences of their actions, and took other people’s thoughts and feelings into consideration’.

Explanations for this lie in fundamental developments during medieval times where being polite at court began to matter more that being good at sword fighting and where it was more appropriate to treat strangers as potential customers rather than as foes.  You will have noticed that explanations like these are situational; in other words external circumstances were the catalyst for changes in behaviour.  It may well be, therefore, that underlying ‘human nature’ hasn’t changed, just behaviour. But, as a behaviourist, I’d argue that outward behaviour matters more than vague internal constructs that may or may not actually exist.

Anyway, whatever the explanation, there is no doubt that human behaviour in developed societies -sadly, not yet everywhere in the globe – has steadily become more considerate and, well, nicer.  This may be hard to accept when you read the newspapers with a preponderance of bad news, but there is no question about the trend.  In Victorian times, i.e. when my grandparents were children, extreme poverty and violence of all sorts was far more prevalent than it is today.

We have definitely improved – and long may it continue.  Have a polite and peaceful 2014 and help to continue the upward trend.

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