The Human Nature Top 10

By Razib Khan | October 5, 2010 9:35 am

A few days Kevin Drum proposed a “Human Nature Top 10.” Here are the criteria:

Not personal pet theories, but aspects of human nature that are (a) widely accepted and relatively noncontroversial among professionals, and (b) underappreciated by most of us. They can come from anywhere: economics, psychology, sociology, politics, anthropology, whatever.

He offers two: loss aversion & regression to the mean. These are excellent. I’ll chip in with two. Mine are probably a touch more tendentious, but I’m going to offer them anyway (I don’t even know what the right terms are, but I think they’re real phenomena which I’ve seen alluded to in the literature):

1: Golden Ageism – the idea that it was better in the past. That we have traversed through the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, and we’re now in the Iron Age. That we’re in the Kali Yuga. That things were better when the Sages ruled. In more concrete terms, a reluctance to acknowledge that poverty is far less of a problem today than it was in the past. A confident knowledge that Americans were smarter in the past. That American manufacturers make less than they did in the past.

2: Cheap Futurism – Both The Myth of the Rational Market and Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations allude to the fact that when it comes to the stock market there is decades of research that it is basically impossible for the smaller investor to systematically “beat the market” by anything other than luck (while most individuals and institutions genuinely beating the market are probably big players with insider information). This means that the whole industry of investing advice is premised on a false model of how the world works, and a substantial proportion of those proffering the advice likely are aware that their insights are “for entertainment purposes only.” But it has been impossible to get the public to not pay attention to these services, first the print newsletters, and now the overwrought programs on CNBC. More generally there is a huge market for sloppy ideologically tinged futurism of all stripes. The more hedged and cautious futurism is the less informative and interesting it is. So the most marketable prognostications are bold and almost always glaringly wrong.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Psychology
  • MT-LA

    A desire to experiment? This may not set humans apart from *all* other animals, as there are other species that use tools. But I think it puts us in the top 1 percentile.

    I don’t mean to limit “experimentation” to only devising new tools, either. I think it is human nature to want to try something new, especially once a new possibility is revealed.

    Just a thought.

  • Rhacodactylus

    I would throw out, the ease of self deception. So many people work under the premise that our eyes are video cameras and our memory is an HDD, neither is the case.


  • Linda Seebach

    Confirmation bias — it overlaps some with Rhaco’s nomination, as it is a form of self-deception, but I think it is sufficiently distinct to merit consideration.

  • Roseanne Kane

    1) Fear of Change
    2) The desire to accumulate “stuff” whether material, honors, experiences, etc. Anything that can be quantified to show you are “successful” according to your own values

  • tbell

    my faves:
    -confirmation bias: favoring (and indeed seeking) only information that confirms our beliefs.

    -the fundamental attribution error + actor-observer bias: i.e. we think our own behavior is more a function of circumstance, whereas the behavior of others is attributed to intrinsic personal factors.

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  • Chris T

    Post-facto rationalization: believing or doing something and then coming up with reasons for it.

  • Dante The Canadian

    1. Human Invariation – All individuals and all societies have a similar facial grammar. Everyone smiles the same, and the way we use our eyes to convey cognition or flirtatiousness is the same. Evaluations of facial attractiveness are consistent across races and cultures with a preference for symmetry and proportion which are explained by scientists as markers of health during physical development attributable to good genes or a good environment. Human females find male faces that are rated more masculine and aggressive, less feminine and sensitive, more attractive during ovulation, the stage of their menstrual cycle when women are most fertile.
    No success has ever been scientifically demonstrated in re-assigning an individual’s handedness. Although individuals may change their external behavior (picking up scissors with their right hand instead of the left, for instance), their internal inclination never changes. Even people who lose a limb, who physically do not possess the ability to pick up scissors with their left hand, will try to do so if they are ‘left-handed.’ The percentage of left-handers in all cultures at all times remains constant (because left-handedness is a recessive trait.

    Newborn babies, far too young to have been acculturated to do so, have measurable behaviors such as being more attracted to human faces than other shapes and having a preference for their mother’s voice over any other voice.

    In his book Human Universals Donald E Brown presents his case and identifies approximately 400 specific behaviors that are essentially invariant among all humans.

    2. Fear of the After-Life. People generally fear or question what happens to us when we die. It’s why hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on anti-aging methods and life extension. It’s what fuels the major religions of the world and has perplexed, frightened, and intruiged mankind since pre-history.

  • trajan23

    Dammit, Razib, I was going to name Golden Ageism! Oh, well, here are two rather less resonant entries:

    Special speech for special occasions: funerals, births, political events, etc.

    Rights of passage: Bar Mitzvah, Confirmation, puberty rituals, etc.

  • Åse

    Xenophobia. Ranging from mild disdaine for those that are not quite like us who are the real ones to out and out fear. Whoever the others are changes all the time of course, and varies with who we are.

    Perhaps stereotyping, which really is just a subset of categorization which is needed to comprehend the world anyway.

  • Misha

    Cassandra-ism: certainty that the shit will hit the fan sooner or later…probably sooner.

  • omar

    Trajan, you meant “rites of passage”.
    I like both of Razib’s choices and I also vote for confirmation bias, ease or self-deception and post-facto rationalization.
    How about:
    1. Agentism (I know there is a term for this, but it slips my mind right now): the tendency to look for an agent when you see something compex happening. It seems to take some effort to become comfortable with the notion of “emergent” phenomenon.
    2. Subtle but persistent bias in favor of people who are related to you genetically.

  • trajan23

    omar: ” Trajan, you meant “rites of passage”. Typos, the bane of my existence. By the way, has anyone else noticed that typing seems to foster homophonic typos? E.g., typing “rights” when you mean “rites,” “scene” when you mean “seen,” etc.

  • Peter Frost

    1. Facism (another commenter mentioned this). The human face is a visual object like no other. A lot of our mental wiring involves recognizing and interpreting this object.

    2. Brightism. Brightly colored objects excite interest and attention for reasons that have nothing to do with their intrinsic worth. (Gold would be much less valuable if it weren’t so golden). The most likely reason is that they more effectively stimulate mental algorithms that monitor our field of vision.

  • Nick

    * Blank slateism, believing we have more control over how our kids turn out than we really do.
    * Lack of belief in randomness–e.g. the “hot hand” in basketball, the lucky rabbit’s foot, etc. Though you could probably bundle this and several other ones into a general lack of understanding of higher level mathematics.
    * Overconfidence, thinking we’re above average at most things.

    I really like the Golden Age one–I’ve seen that one at work plenty when attending church.

  • trajan23

    1. melody

    2. males and females seen as being different

  • Jan Kees Mol

    is the tendency of those in power to exagerate the abilities of enemies, dehumanize them, and generally create artificial crises a universal trait?

  • waqas

    fear of death/desire for eternity, need for appreciation, self love, greed, fear of pain/punishment, nostalgia and yes confirmation bias

  • Razib Khan

    not sure all of these aren’t well appreciated by the public. though keep ’em coming, much better to throw out ideas that arguing with each other :-)

  • Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    Golden Ageism. Totally. I even use the same term.

  • Chris T

    Post hoc ergo propter hoc – The tendency to see a preceding event as causative for a later event even if there is no other reason to believe they’re related.

    Related: The gambler’s fallacy – the belief that an unrelated future event’s probability is affected by a prior event.

    Failure to appreciate emergent phenomena is a really good one and one even experts have a hard time with in their fields.

  • Razib Khan

    i don’t think this is that important, but it’s real: the idea that politics are dirtier/nastier/more base than they were in the past. tell that to thomas jefferson or james buchanan. of course, we used to have statesmen such as theodore bilbo in the senate, while senator charles sumner was almost beaten to death on the floor of congress.

    has david broder read history?

  • Steve Sailer

    That it’s easy to predict much about the future, just not the the aspects of the future that people are most interested in arguing over:

  • Åse

    Unable to take in account how crappy past predictions have been, so one still believes in the predictors of the future now (god knows I have this knee-jerk belief in that predictors know what they are talking about which I have to forcibly talk myself out of based on the information base I have now collected after 50+ years and a PhD in cognition). Of course, could be that I’m unusual in this regard, but with the popularity of predictions still going strong… (luckily I am also a non-gambler, so the predictions mainly make me depressed or elated – they don’t make me bet the farm).

  • Gav

    A wonderful abilty to hold conflicting ideas simultaneously, without apparent dissonance.

    As a trivial example, several of my older friends can segue without effort from golden ageism to “young people these days don’t know they’re born.”

  • Ethan

    Risk-compensation: the tendency to increase risky behavior as more safeties are added. For instance, the German traffic engineer and his signless roads, or car-safety devices and more aggressive drivers. Or low-tar cigarettes and deeper inhalation. Etc. Clearly not understood by the public since so many laws are passed on the assumption that safety is proportional to the extent of the safety measures.

  • Caledonian

    Transitive implication: the erroneous belief that if A implies B, B must imply A.

    Some of the previously suggested items boil down to that.

  • albatross

    Confirmation bias and fundamental attribution bias sure seem like basic human nature, but have they been confirmed (*ahem*) in non-WEIRD populations?

    How about interest in status hierarchies? That seems like it’s built into us, as well as many of our relatives. Is there anyplace where the people don’t know who’s up and who’s down in the hierarchy?

  • Åse

    Hierarchies probably (but is that one of those things that one generally does not know?. Very few people are complete hierarchy deniers. Hierarchy haters, yes, but not deniers). I think you can observe confirmation bias in vivo, once you know about it, so I think that would easily extend beyond Weirds. The fundamental attribution error… not sure.

  • Caledonian

    The so-called “laws of magic”, which supposedly pop up across all cultures (and wherever magical thinking is found) probably reduce to more basic errors, but they’re still potentially candidates.

    For example, The Law of Contagion:- once two things are noted to have interacted, they will continue to influence each other.

    There’s a Law of Similarity, in which similar things can influence each other. And so on. (The two examples given are thought to be responsible for folk belief in ‘voodoo dolls’ and other action-at-a-distance instruments.

  • Alex Young

    Excessive fear of low probability catastrophic events – phobia of flying, for example. Generally poor reasoning about very low probability events.

    (A->B) -> ((not A) -> (not B)); often implicit in reasoning.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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