From Homo Solidaricus
by Wegard Harsvik and Ingvar Skjerve
Published by Res Publica, Oslo, 2019
Translated from the Norwegian by Alison McCullough
People are alright
On the whole, people are alright. This is the good news from an increasing number of researchers. Based on the scientific progress that has been made in recent decades, biologists, neuroscientists, economists, anthropologists and psychologists are uncovering new knowledge about the nature of human beings. A not insignificant number of recent publications illustrate how people have an innate ability to treat each other well, co-operate and share – if only we facilitate this. And societies built on this insight are good to live in.
One of the stories that motivated us to write this book is an ostensibly trivial one. While out jogging around the Sognsvann lake, a mutual acquaintance of ours lost his wallet – it held his credit cards, driving licence and much else that is necessary for normal life in Norway. Luckily, another runner found the lost wallet that same day, googled its owner, called him, and agreed to leave the wallet with the staff of a nearby Rema supermarket. Our unlucky acquaintance was therefore spared much inconvenience.
This story probably doesn’t seem very special to most Norwegians. Many of us have had a similar experience, and felt glad and relieved, and so might wonder whether this is something to get overly excited about. How much enthusiasm should we be expected to summon for people, just because they behaved with appropriate decency? But in thinking this way, what we forget is that the story might have turned out very differently. Especially if our friend had lost his wallet in an American city, or the slums of Kolkata.
A society in which people bother to make sure that your wallet is returned to you if you lose it – without first removing its contents or seeking out someone who can hack straight into your bank account – isn’t something that should be taken for granted. In fact, if we look at the bigger picture, we’ll see that we are actually pretty lucky to be able to live, work and raise our children in this kind of community.
Of course, you might protest that not all lost wallets are returned to their owners in Norway, either. But the chance of it happening here is far greater than in many other parts of the world. And there are several reasons for this.
Firstly, the chances of the person who finds your wallet being a desperate soul who needs your money to simply make it through the day are far lower here than in the slums of Kolkata.
Secondly, Norwegians have managed to create a society in which there is a high level of trust between people. The nice guy who found our friend’s wallet first trusted that he would encounter a decent person on the other end of the phone – someone who wouldn’t accuse him of theft. Then he trusted that the staff at the Rema supermarket wouldn’t steal the wallet or the cash it contained for themselves. Attempting to find the wallet’s owner was therefore worth the trouble.
Thirdly, practically everyone in Norway has a smart phone. If you find a wallet, it takes relatively little effort to locate the poor soul who lost it. Quite simply, it’s easy to be a decent person if you live in an affluent, egalitarian society with a high level of trust and accessible technology.
We – the authors of this book – know quite a lot about what it takes to create this kind of society. In our different careers, we have enjoyed reviewing research results which show that given the right circumstances, people can be kind and helpful, and have the desire to collaborate and share. Evolutionary psychology and anthropology, behavioural economics and game theory paint a rather encouraging picture of how Homo sapiens can also be Homo solidaricus (and yes, we know that this isn’t correct Latin. Romanes eunt domus!). But when we started to discuss these things, we discovered some answers to the challenges of the future that were not so widely known.
We should probably make you aware that we are not biologists, psychologists or behavioural economists. We are both political animals, Zoon Politicon, as the Greek philosopher Aristotle put it, with extensive experience from the trade union movements and from the Socialist Left Party and the Labour Party. It is through this lens that we read, write about and – perhaps a little audaciously – gather results from research undertaken in all these fields.
We have neither the qualifications nor desire to write a standard work about human nature and society, but we do hope to open more people’s eyes to new and exciting perspectives. So together – through dugnad, that Norwegian tradition of voluntary community work – we have to find out how we’re going to ensure that Norway continues to be a society in which it isn’t such a big deal to lose your wallet while out on a jog. Because if there’s one thing we’re sure of, it’s this: that the vast majority of us would prefer to live in a society like this one over anything else.
The Right and nature
So let’s start by taking a look at how some widespread ideas about human nature have had, and continue to have, significant political consequences.
‘If you aren’t a liberal when you’re young, you have no heart, but if you aren’t a middle-aged conservative, you have no head,’ or so the old saying goes. This illustrates that there’s a general assumption that the political Right is factual and realistic. The Left runs on bleeding hearts and idealism, while the Right is built on cool-headed logic and an understanding of human nature. The Left’s optimistic view of humanity and the opportunities to create peaceful, fair societies don’t seem up to scratch when pitted against the hard reality or science of how people really are and function.
There are a number of objections that can be made against this. Firstly, the picture of human development and the human brain as painted by science is not nearly as gloomy and dark as many of us might believe. Secondly, the Left’s desire for peaceful, fair societies is not necessarily born of pure warm-heartedness, but can be just as much a result of informed self-interest. Solidary societies are good to live in – for everyone. And we’ll come back to this point in the final part of this book.
Thirdly, there is reason to question whether thinkers on the Right have such a realistic and correct image of human nature as they would like to believe. Let’s begin with this:
If each individual acts in their own self-interest, the sum of their actions will result in what is best for the society as a whole, and everyone who lives in it – as if it was managed by an invisible hand.
This is the essence of the theories of Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith, who is often regarded as the founder of what we call social economics. His theories – as they have been presented – have had an enormous impact on how our Western societies are organised. Smith’s theories are not just about how people should be, but also what human nature – in his opinion – actually is, and his theories are therefore also about how we should arrange our societies in accordance with this. However, Adam Smith wrote his major work, The Wealth of Nations (1776) before Charles Darwin was even born, and was therefore completely without access to the insight into our biological nature that has been acquired over the past 200 years.
Yet some politicians believe that society should still be based on this outdated understanding of Adam Smith’s theories. For example, when writing about the birth of the Progress Party, Carl I. Hagen stated the following: ‘I decided to… declare that the Progress Party’s ideological platform was the liberalistic market economy, as Adam Smith had explained it in the book The Wealth of Nations – which, while it’s true I’ve never read it, I have heard a lot about…’ Had Hagen read Smith, he might have discovered that Smith was actually far more nuanced than he is often given credit for.
It should be noted that Carl I. Hagen is hardly the only person to believe in ideas ascribed to Adam Smith while never having read what the man actually wrote. As is the case for many other great thinkers, a fairly complex debate regarding what Smith actually believed is currently underway, and reference is often made to the book A Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which Smith paints a rather different picture of humanity. Nevertheless, Smith is perhaps the single most important source of the assumption that self-interest leads to public benefit. We will attempt to show that these ideas from the 1700s are at odds with what we now know about how humans and related species actually function.
The big questions
In his bestselling book The Age of Empathy (2009), which we have consulted extensively in writing this book, biologist Frans de Waal starts by asking the two biggest questions of all time: Why are we here? and What is the meaning of life?
According to de Waal, the two answers that have had the greatest impact – beyond those that follow from various religions – are the economists’ postulation that we are here to consume and produce, and the biologists’ assertion that we are here to survive and reproduce. De Waal believes that it is no accident that these responses are similar. Nor is it incidental that both the economists’ and biologists’ answers imply that the meaning of life is to compete for resources and create as many offspring as possible. Indeed, they both originate from the spirit of the age of the Industrial Revolution in England. A time that would eventually give us thinkers like Adam Smith.
The phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ was first used by British philosopher Herbert Spencer, five years after Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published. Darwin also used this expression, but generally used the term ‘natural selection’ to describe the mechanism that determines which characteristics will be passed to the next generation. Based on the observation that the most well-adapted survive, Spencer deduced that this theory was a good model on which to base society, and his thoughts on ‘the rights of the strongest’ found favour among the industrial bourgeoisie of the day. Previously, the upper classes had justified their position using religion: to whomever God granted office, he also granted sense. The same applied to the distribution of material wealth. The King was regent through the grace of God, and the was church predicated on individuals remaining at the level at which they were born. The myth of the royal ‘blue blood’ indicates that, to a certain extent, people believed in actual, biological differences.
But the industrial revolution saw the rise of a new upper class – and often the members of its ranks had only recently climbed out of the depths of the working masses. It therefore suited them to adopt a worldview that reinforced the idea that they had taken this step up into a higher social class because they deserved it, and therefore had no obligations towards those who still found themselves further down the social ladder. In the USA, there was also a disproportionately large number of people who were willing to take great personal risks in their search for happiness. The journey from the old world to the new was mortally perilous, and for many involved forever saying goodbye to friends and family in the country they were leaving behind. Since most left in order to create a better life for themselves, through hard work and using their own two hands, this resulted in a society that valued exactly this mentality. It is therefore no surprise that Spencer’s thinking gained a strong foothold in the USA.
Since the days of Darwin and Spencer, people have often pointed to ‘human nature’, and sought out arguments to prove that their preferred societal model has its origins in the true nature of human beings. This isn’t so strange. As knowledge of the similarities between humans and other animals has grown, it has been regarded as increasingly relevant to look for parallels that might tell us something about how we should organise our society. Proponents of free competition and significant differences have been especially eager to point to the theory of evolution. They use it both to explain why significant differences between people exist, and as a justification for why things should be this way. When former chairman of the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, Leif Østling, argued that Sweden’s richest citizens should be able to purchase themselves a place in a retirement home of a standard that ordinary pensioners could only dream of, he took his arguments from Darwin. Speaking to the Expressen newspaper, his message to poor pensioners was clear: ‘I often say that nature isn’t equal, either. Nature has equipped us with different genetic foundations. So the term ‘equality’ is a theoretical one – it goes against Darwin and Darwin’s theories. It isn’t just a social question. It is inherited through our biology.’
It was no accident, believes de Waal, that this argument was also used in the famous ‘greed is good’ speech, given by super yuppie Gordon Gekko in the film Wall Street (1987):
The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed – for lack of a better word – is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.
But recent research shows that evolution is not just about greed and self-interest – far from it. And so the Right and its economists cannot use a one-sided take on biology and evolution to support their arguments. Both our closest animal ancestors and other species are astonishingly concerned with collaboration and fairness; they care for their weaker fellow beings and show signs of empathy. Most of nature comes in some form of a ‘we’, writes biologist and author Dag O. Hessen. A human being is an animal that lives in closely connected, solidary groups. We might sometimes experience conflict, either internally or in relations with others, but for the most part we live in peaceful coexistence. A societal model that fails to take this into account is not well-suited to our human nature.
Of course, we humans are also driven by status. We defend what we regard as our territory, and we can be extremely selfish. If we feel threatened, we can be both ruthless and – to put it mildly – highly uncooperative. Nor can we ignore these traits. History is full of terrible acts, committed by people either individually or in groups. But in our Western market economies, the notions of egoism, competition and conflict have for far too long formed the lens through which we view society.
Homo economicus – the economic human
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said that ‘economics is the method. The object is to change the soul.’ The calculating, selfish individual held in high esteem by many thinkers on the Right is often called Homo economicus. Author and Professor Karine Nyborg of the Department of Economics at the University of Oslo describes this view of humanity as follows:
Imagine the following: a man calls the children’s ward at the hospital where he – based on forged qualifications – is employed as a doctor. He has gastric flu, he says, and therefore has to stay home from work. He then goes out, hails a taxi, and asks to be taken to Oslo City, where he gets out of the car without paying and disappears into the crowd. He finds a café and orders a fancy lunch, which he enjoys while falsifying the research results he has to present in his next scientific article. Then he leaves, without paying a krone, and taking the cutlery and candle holder from the table with him. On the way home, as he passes his neighbour’s garden, he crosses the lawn and takes the shorts that are hanging there on the line, drying in the sun. Just a normal morning in the life of Homo economicus – our most used economic model of human motivation and behaviour.
If everyone was like this, our society would obviously look very different than what we are used to. No shorts would be hanging out to dry. Taxi drivers, passengers, waiters and café customers would expend significant resources on trying to keep tabs on each other, or simply avoid commercial transactions altogether. And no authority would be foolish enough to offer the public financing of self-reported sickness absences.
Who is Homo economicus?
Homo economicus is Latin for ‘the economic man’. Karine Nyborg explains the term like this:
The simplest textbook example in which the central assumptions are perfect rationality, perfect egoism and perfect self-control. Homo economicus cares only about his own access to private and public benefits. He is fiercely intelligent, and able to perform the most complex calculations without effort. He has exceptional self-control, and the ability to make and follow long-term plans. He is also cynical and calculating, and consistently uses all these abilities to further his own interests.
Of course, Homo economicus is concerned with more than just material matters. He’d like a stable climate, global biodiversity and world peace. But the problem is that he never does anything that is more trouble than it’s worth for him personally. He will never purchase the more expensive plane tickets that include carbon offsetting, because he would rather spend the money on something more entertaining or useful, and will hardly notice a reduction in the global temperature as a result of his contribution, anyway. He’s a freeloader, and leaves it to everyone else to sort things out. Love, hate, friendship, social status and moral duty are all alien terms to him. He’s not antisocial or immoral, but rather asocial and amoral. He quite simply doesn’t care.
If Homo economicus were to wander into a psychiatrist’s office, we can imagine that he might receive quite a serious diagnosis – antisocial personality disorder certainly seems like it might come close.
The model – or perhaps more accurately the caricature – of Homo economicus has helped shape many aspects of society. Everything from the education system to bonus schemes in the business sector, to social benefits schemes based on the fundamental view that people are innately lazy and selfish. If we think of human beings as Homo economicus, we might quickly jump to the conclusion that simple incentives will fix most things. We need carrots like bonus schemes or grades to make employees and students perform; we need a stick with which to force the ill and the jobless up off the sofa.
But many researchers and intellectuals have now started to challenge this view, and Dutch historian and author Rutger Bregman is one of them. In his book Utopia for Realists, Bregman points out that when we think about what drives us to perform and achieve in our daily lives, most of us feel that the image of Homo economicus doesn’t fit. We know that we are motivated by far more diverse motives than personal gain alone, he writes.
Still, many of us remain convinced that society’s systems need to be based on this ‘carrot and stick’ model, because we believe that without these incentives, other people will fail to put in the necessary effort. Professor Chip Heath at Stanford University calls this ‘extrinsic incentives bias’. According to Heath, this misconception is a result of the fact that we attribute the actions of other people to motives that are different to our own. We think that people do what they do for reward, such as financial gain. Heath studied the attitudes of law students – 64 per cent of them stated that they had chosen to study law because the subject interested them or because they had a strong desire to become a lawyer. But only 12 per cent believed that the other students had the same motivations. An overwhelming majority believed that ‘the others’ were, for the most part, motivated only by money and prestige.
This view of what motivates people has strongly influenced the modern capitalistic system. Many readers may have heard of Taylorism, or scientific management, named after Frederick Taylor and introduced in his book The Principles of Scientific Management (1911). His view was that what employees want from their employers, above all else, is high wages. According to Taylor, workers are inherently lazy, and seek to put in as little effort as possible. They must therefore be kept under control. Taylor advised all employers to measure and monitor their production processes closely, to ensure they were as efficient as possible and utilised the workforce to the greatest possible extent.
Taylorism is still alive and kicking today. We can see it in the stopwatch approach to home care services, where employees have a given number of minutes in which to complete each task – whether this is preparing food or helping someone to put on their support stockings. We can see it at work in the customer service centres in which all employees are monitored, and in which everything that is said on the premises is recorded. Taylor’s view of humanity is rather disheartening. When describing his ideal worker, he used a domestic animal as an example: a worker should be ‘so stupid and phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental makeup the ox than any other type…’
Even in the so-called creative professions, measurement of the individual’s efforts, efficiency and productivity is widespread. As is the conviction that humans are calculating creatures, who need either a carrot or a stick to motivate them. Publication points for researchers and patient treatment quotas for doctors trigger more resources, which in turn are intended to motivate further efforts. This type of reward is a central part of what has been termed ‘new public management’.
Against its purpose
Behaviourism is a theory of human behaviour, a kind of cousin to the theories behind Taylorism, and was for a long time the prevailing theory among psychologists. The behaviourists believed that humans beings are passive in nature; that they must be driven to act through the desire for reward – or the fear of being punished. It’s now fifty years since young psychologist Edward Deci realised that something was fundamentally wrong with these assumptions. Because all around him, people were doing the most astonishing things for no reward at all. They climbed to the peaks of high mountains, they set out on expeditions into space – many even had children, which is an exhausting affair. Deci demonstrated that we do a huge range of things of our own free will, for which we don’t earn a dime, but which cost us significant effort. Egoism didn’t hold up as an explanatory model.
In the summer of 1969, Deci also made another discovery, which seemed to go against all prevailing views at the time. It turned out that under certain circumstances, the carrot and stick model actually makes people perform more poorly. When Deci paid his students a dollar to solve a task, they lost interest in the task itself. ‘Money seems to reduce the intrinsic, moral motivation people have for an activity’, he later wrote.
This was a sensational statement at the time, and it had far-reaching consequences. Most economists were far too attached to the image of Homo economicus to let go of it voluntarily. The winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics stipulated that financial incentives could and should be used to supplement people’s internal motivation. If a student enjoys trying to solve a difficult task, the economists reasoned, offering money as a reward will only make him or her even more enthusiastic.
Nor were the psychologists convinced at first. For proponents of the dominating theory of behaviourism, it was unthinkable that a reward could make people less motivated to complete a task. But Deci and others continued to research this strange phenomenon, and soon, many other results appeared that seemed to point to the same conclusion.
Gaute Torsvik is a professor at the Department of Economics at the University of Oslo. In an interview with website forskning.no, he described a kindergarten study conducted in Israel in the late 90s, which analysed the effects of giving parents a fine if they were late to pick up their children in the afternoon. Of course, the purpose of the fine was to encourage everyone to pick up their children on time, but the study showed surprising results.
Instead of more children being collected on time, the problem of parents arriving late actually increased. Parents who were fined were late to collect their children twice as often as those in the control group, who did not receive a fine. The fine was of course low, the equivalent of thirty Norwegian kroner today, and imposed if the parent arrived ten minutes or more after closing time. Torsvik believes that the explanation is not that the fine wasn’t high enough, but that it overshadowed and suppressed other types of motivation:
Before the introduction of the fines, the parents probably felt that they had a moral duty to collect their children on time, which they occasionally didn’t manage to live up to. But the fines transferred the idea of collecting their children on time from the moral sphere to the market, and so perhaps the parents then felt that they could buy themselves a little extra time.
Other examples abound. In a Swedish study from 2008, researchers investigated the effect of giving blood donors fifty Swedish kronor every time they gave blood. This resulted not in more people giving blood, but fewer.
Several studies also indicate that it isn’t especially useful to offer performance-related pay within charitable organisations. In another experiment, researchers investigated the effect of offering a reward to people who would go out on the street with buckets to collect money for a charitable organisation similar to the Norwegian Cancer Society. One group was promised payment equivalent to one per cent of the money they collected, a second group was promised ten per cent, while a third group received no payment at all. In this study, the amount of money collected was lowest in the group that received the lowest commission, and slightly higher in the group that received the higher rate. But the group that managed to collect the most money was the group that received no reward at all.
Deadened internal motivation
Researchers at the University of Massachusetts reviewed fifty-one different studies from around the world, and found what they term ‘overwhelming evidence’ that bonuses and rewards have a deadening effect on people’s internal motivation. Furthermore, the researchers claim that this management style provides poor conditions for creativity and the development of new solutions. Carrots and sticks only result in more of the same. If a worker is paid per hour, there is no incentive to create solutions to get the same job done in fewer hours or using fewer resources.
It is not only modern, Western capitalism that has struggled with this. In the old communist regimes, plans and goal-oriented management were central tools. Factories, hospitals, banks and universities had to stick to the quotas and objectives set out in five-year plans. This was manifested in the strangest ways, with the production of furniture measured in tonnes, and the number of nails manufactured being carefully counted. It was certainly no guarantee of quality or innovation.
In fact, such systems can often contribute to the entrenchment of rather irrational ways of working. Incentives are effective, but not always in the intended way. When doctors are paid more for performing operations than for treating patients using other means, the number of operations skyrockets. People in Norway might recall how not too long ago, a huge number of people suddenly seemed to be suffering from complex sleep apnoea – a diagnosis that quite by chance provided additional reimbursements for hospitals. Regardless of whether we’re talking about a system controlled by the state or the market, counting and numbers have the unfortunate tendency to snuff out the internal motivation and joy people take in doing their job.
This doesn’t mean that rewards and bonuses are always wrong, and of course people should be paid for the work that they do. Economist Dan Ariely has showed that used in the right way, bonuses can be extremely effective. But this mainly only applies to tasks that are simple and routine – like the ones Frederick Taylor studied on the factory production lines of his day. In today’s reality, these tasks are to an ever-increasing extent being performed by robots, and as we all know, robots have no need of motivation, either external or internal.