How About Some Good News About Humankind?

2020 has presented many challenges in terms of maintaining positive mental health, and I’ve been focused on trying to proactively manage my intake of information in what I’m reading. One of the recent books in The Next Big Idea Club did not disappoint. Humankind – A Hopeful History, the author, Rutger Bregman, provides new perspectives on the past 200,000 years of human history. His radical idea is that “most people, deep down, are pretty decent!”

He states that his intent in writing the book is to change the meaning of the word ‘realism.’ “So often we equate realism with pessimism or cynicism—but what if it’s the other way around? What if the cynics are really naive? It’s time for a new realism. It’s time for a new view of humankind.”

What I found most relevant is his assertion that when a crisis hits, we humans become our best selves.  With COVID-19, massive wildfires, hurricanes, and intense race relations, we’ve seen this play out to prove his point.

This sociological finding, backed by substantial evidence, has been ignored. Why? Because the news that sells is about the exceptional, and the more exceptional an event is – violent uprising, terrorist attack, natural disasters – the more newsworthy it is.

Psychologists call this our negativity bias, being more attuned to the bad than the good.

Also at play is our availability bias. When we can recall examples of a given thing, we assume that thing is relatively common. Since we are bombarded with horrific stories about disasters, violence, and overall negative behavior, it completely skews our view of the world.

It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Just like the placebo effect, where a doctor gives you a fake pill and says it will cure what ails you. You believe it and begin to feel better. The nocebo effect is when you take that same pill but are told it will make you sick with serious side effects, and you begin to feel worse.

The power of a nocebo is evident in our grim view of humanity. If we believe people can’t be trusted, we treat them that way, to everyone’s detriment. YOU GET WHAT YOU EXPECT YOU’LL GET.

So here’s my challenge. Assume positive intent from all those people with whom you interact.

Tips for making this a reality:

  • For those who are “difficult to enjoy”, this can be challenging, but remember not to write off anyone and instead look at them as a potential ally. They may seem difficult because they have a different perspective or perhaps have performance measures in place that are driving their behaviors. ASK YOURSELF:
    • How are they being rewarded?
    • Does this person experience peer pressure from his or her boss or colleagues?
    • Is there an opportunity to demonstrate compassion vs. judgment?
  • Take time to discover what is important to them. This will uncover ways you can help them. Once you demonstrate your willingness to help them, they are more likely to help you out when needed. ASK YOURSELF:
    • Is meaningful work and doing the right thing important to them? They may go out of their way to help if they know in their heart that it’s the right thing to do, or if it contributes in some way to a valued cause. Appeal to their sense of integrity and virtue.
    • Are they focused on getting to the task at hand and to getting the job done? Here, you’ll want to exchange resources such as money, personnel, or supplies. You could offer to help them with their project.
    • Do they value relationships and belonging with their team and colleagues? Make them feel connected on a personal level. Take time to listen carefully and show gratitude for the good work they do or have done for you in the past. Allow them the freedom to make their own decisions if they’re helping you on a team.
  • Fight off biases and closed-minded thinking through contact. We generalize about strangers or groups of people based on race, beliefs, education, etc. because we don’t know them. The remedy is obvious. Spend more time with those different from yourself and have a conversation. Ask questions and listen to their perspectives.

“It is not a question of whether you ‘have what it takes,’ but of whether you take the gifts you have — they are plenteous — and share them with all the world.” – Neale Donald Walsch

Martha Duesterhoft is a Partner with PeopleResults. Follow her on Twitter @mduesterhoft or connect via email and schedule time for a conversation at