I’ve noticed that underlying a lot of political discussions is a fundamental belief about human nature. Some people believe people are fundamentally self-interested. They won’t work unless paid, and helping the downtrodden is something one does to impress one’s friends. The other side believes people are fundamentally generous. They help each other and will sacrifice their own good for the sake of others.

My recent theory is that both of these viewpoints are true. Literally, they’re both true. There are psychological mechanisms that make each of these a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Self-interest usually manifests in turning everything into a transaction, monetizing as much as possible, and tracking things closely. It turns out that when you introduce money into a conversation or transaction, literally the brain areas involved in altruism, helping, and asking for help all shut down. So if you expect everyone to treat you as if they only want transactions from you, you’ll mention money or exchanges or act in ways you would act when putting together a transaction. Those actions will then actually trigger the same impulse in others. You mention money and the people you’re dealing with become more self-interested and less likely to be collaborative. So a world view where everyone looks out for themselves and everyone is greedy becomes self-fulfilling to the person who holds it.

Similarly, the social psychology reciprocity principle shows that when you give a gift that someone perceives as freely given, they feel obliged to respond by giving back, often in greater amounts than the original gift. So giving provides a self-fulfilling mechanism such that the person who gives freely and believes others are generous will trigger exactly those impulses in others.

What’s important to note is that this isn’t just psychological blinders, where both people interpret the same events differently. This is literally a self-fulfilling principle that plays out in behavior. If you act as if people are greedy, you’ll do things that prime their greedy impulses. If you act as if people are generous and worthy of help, you’ll actually activate reciprocal behavior on their part.

Be careful the world you wish for. You just might get it.

Are people good or bad? It just might be a self-fu…

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