Provoking thought

No More Bad Intent

I have a core belief. One that even when I mention it to people makes myself think: “Oh, that’s so cute Zef, I hope nobody will ever burst that cutesy little bubble of yours!”


Here goes.

People are decent.

I know, right? So cute!

Now I know, there are people that do terrible things to each other and always have. I don’t want to downplay that fact. I’d gladly dive into specific cases with you, but doing so is out of the scope of this chapter.

The problem with the occasional horrible person is that it makes all the headlines. And as a result, it seems many people now assume the worst in people by default, also in corporate environments. Assuming the worst in people is immensely energy draining and counter productive. And not to be too hyperbolic about it, but it is likely also holding humanity back. Just sayin’.

Therefore, I’m actively trying to push back on the assuming-the-worst assumption, by starting at the complete other end: unless explicitly, unambiguously proven otherwise, I will assume people have good intentions.

And so far I’ve yet to encounter exceptions. I may be lucky, and at some level I’m expecting to be proven wrong any day now. However, it’s been years since I started to operate under this assumption, and so far it has never happened.

“Seriously, Zef, have you never seen anybody do something that was obviously malicious or political?”

Of course, I’ve seen people do things that could be interpreted as malicious or political. However, whenever that happens, I see it as my duty to figure out what “the real story” is. What is this person’s context? Why did that person say that thing? What did this person mean?

I do this detective work using advanced techniques including empathy and talking to them.

“Yowowow, you what now!?”

It’s kinda crazy, I agree.

But, guess what? Every single time I draw the same conclusion: it wasn’t meant the way it sounded. And again, while optics were bad, this turns out to be yet another pretty decent human.

Luckily, I have found I’m not alone in my approach.

There is at least one other Dutch person who agrees with me. He’s called Rutger Bregman, and wrote a whole book about it entitled Humankind: A Hopeful History.

Its introduction is epic:

This is a book about a radical idea. An idea that’s long been known to make rulers nervous. An idea denied by religions and ideologies, ignored by the news media and erased from the annals of world history. At the same time, it’s an idea that’s legitimised by virtually every branch of science. One that’s corroborated by evolution and confirmed by everyday life. An idea so intrinsic to human nature that it goes unnoticed and gets overlooked. If only we had the courage to take it more seriously, it’s an idea that might just start a revolution. Turn society on its head. Because once you grasp what it really means, it’s nothing less than a mind-bending drug that ensures you’ll never look at the world the same again.
So what is this radical idea?
That most people, deep down, are pretty decent.

The book spends most of its pages disproving veneer theory. Veneer theory roughly says that the only reason civilization works is because of the rules we put in place, and our enforcement of them. If we wouldn’t have our laws, anarchy would ensue immediately. Because — veneer theory claims — humans are animals, when the rubber hits the road.

But that, this book argues, is not true at all. And it does so masterfully by deep diving into many of the famous experiments and “proofs” we know about that supposedly show people’s dark side, including:

  1. The famous “The Lord of the Flies” book and movie, where a group of kids strand on an abandoned island that devolves into chaos.
  2. The mystery of Easter Island — where the theory went the inhabitants split into two camps, deforested the entire island to build the famous statues, and ultimately exterminated each other.
  3. The famous Stanford prison experiment: in which a group of students were put into the roles of “prisoners” and “guards” and what happened? The situation devolved quickly into an authoritarian regime including psychological torture.
  4. The Milgram experiment: in which the obedience of people was tested letting participants give increasing strong electrical shocks to the screaming person in the next room. This experiment was immediately embraced as an explanation of the death camps during the Holocaust.

While initially seeming definite proof of the evil in human nature, Bregman convincingly disproves every single one of these and more.

The recurring conclusion is: deep down, most people, are pretty decent.

My theory about why the stories of people’s evilness are so dominant is similar to why I believe conspiracy theories spread so rapidly: they are just so much more interesting than the boring truth.

The boring truth that there is no conspiracy. And the boring truth people are pretty decent.

You may have heard of Hanlon’s razor:

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

It’s a funny aphorism. However, I find it mildly cynical. Just like believing people have good intentions, I also don’t believe they’re stupid. I know, I think a lot of people. You may think somebody’s stupid based on what they say, but if you take the time to dive into their context, intentions, almost every single time you’ll find that actually, this person is not so stupid after all.

Therefore, I feel it is my duty to coin my own variant of Hanlon’s razor, which — self-centered that I am — I shall name Zef’s razor:

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by misunderstanding.”

I know, this one will never catch on. It’s too boring. However, it is much more in line with my values and core beliefs.

One of those core beliefs is that, even though we’re super reliant on it as a species, people suck at communication.

Ever noticed that? It's shocking we haven't gone extinct as a result, frankly speaking.

I have to admit that I sometimes envy people that don’t think the way I do. Judging people is so much easier. If you think much more black and white, your life is much simpler. You’re either in or out; stupid or not; good or bad; with us or with the terrorists. It’s an attractive way to see the world. It’s easy.

But no. I can’t.

I should add that while this all may sound very idealistic and nice, it has caused me trouble in the past.

In cases of conflict between people around me, I effectively never pick sides, even if people expect me to. In such cases I immediately jump into “detective mode” trying to debug the situation: Who said what to whom, what did they mean, where did that come from? Ah! So that’s your side of the story. What about the other side? Ah! That makes sense as well. I get it now, nobody’s fully right or wrong, but all meant well. Check.

Academically, this is a nice exercise. And it helps me reconfirm my people are decent hypothesis, but for the people in question that are hungry for my support — it’s not always very comforting.

Sorry, I still prefer it to the alternative of allowing me to think “yeah, that person is just evil and this is just one of their classic moves.” Nope, ain’t gonna happen.

Therefore, I’d like to propose something. Let’s assume people are decent by default. This is probably the better default for everybody.

Psychologist Maria Konnikova, in Humankind: a hopeful history, agrees:

But what if you still get scammed? Psychologist Maria Konnikova talks about this in her fascinating book on professional con artists. You might expect her main tip would be to always be on guard. But no. Konnikova, the leading expert on frauds and swindles, comes to a very different conclusion. Far better, she says, is to accept and account for the fact that you’ll occasionally be cheated. That’s a small price to pay for the luxury of a lifetime of trusting other people.

However, there’s an even more important reason for you to buy into this idea.

This reason is nicely illustrated by a famous fable called Two Wolves:

An old man says to his grandson: “There’s a fight going on inside me. It’s a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil: angry, greedy, jealous, arrogant, and cowardly. The other is good: peaceful, loving, modest, generous, honest, and trustworthy. These two wolves are also fighting within you, and inside every other person too.”
After a moment, the boy asks: “Which wolf will win?”
The old man smiles. “The one you feed.”

These type of beliefs tend to be become self-fulfilling prophecies. So the outcome actually depends on the side we’re all decide to be on.

If we believe people to be decent, and as a result allow them to be decent — they will be decent. If we believe them to be untrustworthy, and as a result put systems in place that assume they are untrustworthy — guess what, they will be untrustworthy.

If we’d all fully embrace this idea, the implications would be huge.

Rather than complain about how the people in that other department are delivering crap work, we’d spend that energy figuring out how we can help.

Rather than attributing something to malice, we’d assume they have good intent. It just doesn’t get across. Then, we’d have a conversation to understand.