The Bell Curve Of Human Nature

The range of human nature falls along a bell curve of behavior, with saints at one extreme, and fascists on the other. Most of us fall in the middle. Although it is unlikely that we will all become saintly altruists, leaders can shift the center of gravity of our collective intention in one direction or another. New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman describes these two sides of human nature as the three Cs compassionate, connected and courageous or the three Ss, selfish, separate and scared.

It turns out that altruistic actions can arise from two very different motivations, empathy and reciprocity. These motivations follow distinctly different neural pathways. Brain scans show that empathy-based altruism flows from the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) to the anterior insula (AI). Reciprocity-based altruism flows in the opposite direction the AI to the ACC with an even strong flow between the AI and the ventral striatum. (1) People who by nature are on the pro-social end of the bell curve of motivations act out of empathy. People who are on the selfish end tend to act altruistically out of reciprocity induced behavior. Understanding the range of ways to stimulate altruism will help leaders move a larger portion of their citizens towards the pro-social end of the bell curve.

In volatile times, the center of gravity of nations are particularly unstable. When its people are scared of an uncertain future, they often cling to messages of fascism or fundamentalism, with promises certainty. Time and time again, these isms have undermined compassion, expended cruelty and unwoven the diversity of the fabric of communities. The alternative extreme is anarchy, grounded in a nihilistic view that the whole represses its parts, rather then supports them.

Just as the healthy mind must steer between rigidity and chaos, so the healthy society must steer between the banks of anarchy and fascism. In the middle is compassion, a society that recognizes its deep interdependence, infuses it with altruism, and has the courage to face an uncertain future with hope for a better world for all. Although altruism is inherent in each one of us, it also requires trust, and belief that we can all thrive together, and delivering the experience that we do.

Great leaders generate trust in collective efficacy, and inspire citizens to work for the wellbeing of the whole. The most likely place for such leaders to emerge is in our cities. To shift the bell curve of a nation, the mayors of hundreds of its cities must lead their people towards altruism. The time for that is now.