"The Compassionate Instinct": Uncovering the New Science of Human Goodness

Where once science painted humans as self-seeking and warlike, today scientists of many disciplines are uncovering the deep roots of human goodness.
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We are witnessing a revolution in the scientific understanding of human nature. Where once science painted humans as self-seeking and warlike--simplified notions of killer apes and selfish genes that still permeate popular culture--today scientists of many disciplines are uncovering the deep roots of human goodness.

Now this scientific revolution is chronicled in "The Compassionate Instinct," a new book (WW Norton) that I edited with Dacher Keltner and Jeremy Adam Smith. As we've done for the last six years in Greater Good, a magazine (of which I'm editor-in-chief) based at UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, "The Compassionate Instinct" fuses this exciting new research with inspiring stories of compassion in action, explaining not just what science has found but why those findings are so important, and how they can be applied to everyday life.

When we consider the massive implications of this new research, it's surprising that more people don't know about it. That's why we've published "The Compassionate Instinct." The book offers readers a thorough and far-reaching overview of the new science of human goodness: evolutionary studies of peacemaking among our primate relatives; neuroscientific experiments that have identified the neural bases of emotions like love and compassion; discoveries of how hormones like oxytocin promote trust and generosity; and psychological studies of how and why people can be moved to practice kindness, even when it seems to cut against their own self-interest.

Taken together, this research challenges some long-held notions about human nature, revealing that the good in us is just as intrinsic to our species as the bad. Empathy, gratitude, compassion, altruism, fairness, trust, and cooperation, once thought to be aberrations from the tooth-and-claw natural order of things, are actually core features of primate evolution.

But our motivation for publishing "The Compassionate Instinct" isn't just to shed light on some interesting science; it's to offer readers practical tools that can improve their personal and professional lives. As the essays in the book make clear, the research we cover offers new pathways to healthier bodies, marriages, workplaces, families, and cultures. For example, neuroscience suggests that when we give to others, our brain shows heightened activity in the nucleus accumbens, a region known to have many dopamine receptors and process rewards; in other words, kindness really is its own reward. Moreover, kindness is contagious: research finds that when we offer modest expressions of gratitude--the simple "thank you," smile, or warm gaze--we prompt other people to reciprocate the kindness toward us and toward others.

This research suggests that compassionate behavior not only exemplifies a good, moral way to live, but carries huge benefits for compassionate people, their families, and their communities. More and more, it seems that rather than being irrational and superfluous, behaviors like compassion and kindness are actually conducive to human survival--and essential to human flourishing.

We want to get the word out about this research because it has the potential to reshape the way we think about human nature. Without a doubt, our expectations for ourselves play a strong role in shaping our behavior. For too long a view of humans has prevailed that assumes we are wired to compete, to act aggressively, to pursue unbridled self-interest. These are no doubt facets of human nature, but they represent only half of the story. "The Compassionate Instinct" reveals another story, one that places goodness at the center of human nature. The book doesn't deny the existence of the violence and selfishness we see in the world around us. But it offers scientific evidence that another world is possible.

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