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Why Do Pundits Work So Hard To Deny These 3 Things About Human Nature?

2024 June 16
by Greg Satell

Humans have evolved a lot over the past few thousand years. We no longer depend on our own muscle power, use technology to overcome barriers of time and space and have gained significant control over our surroundings. Scientific studies that track shifts in our DNA find a surprising degree of variation from our ancestors.

That’s probably why it’s become fashionable for pundits and gurus to talk about “new eras” that will shift human behavior and reshape organizations. We’re told that we live in a VUCA world, that our organizations need to be flatter and that if we just engineer the right systems, we can let market and technological forces do the rest.

None of these things are true. While it is true that humans and our societies continue to evolve, human nature has mostly stayed the same. Our brains were not designed out of whole cloth, but formed on top of what is already there. We are, much more than we’d like to admit, driven by primordial urges and, to be effective, we need to be more aware of our own natures.

1. We’re Hierarchical

For a while now, management gurus have been advocating for flatter organizations, yet there is little evidence that eliminating leaders is a viable model. In fact, when Wharton Professor Ronnie Lee took a close look at game software developers, he actually found that the number of levels of bureaucracy increased significantly, not decreased, over the last 50 years.

There are several reasons that this is true. The first is that, while having a flatter structure leads to more innovation and creativity, you need good leadership and governance to execute well. As an industry matures and becomes more complex, more levels of management are needed to manage it effectively.

Another important factor to consider is that even without a formal hierarchy, leaders will tend to emerge. Which is why when you take a closer look at often cited examples of “leaderless organizations,” there is much more hierarchy that it would at first seem. Just because there isn’t an organization chart doesn’t mean there isn’t a pecking order.

We need to stop thinking in terms of how many levels of bureaucracy there are and start working to network our organizations. We don’t need to eliminate managers—or anyone else for that matter—but to widen and deepen connections within and beyond our enterprise. We need to lead and to do it more effectively.

2. We’re Rarely Fully Aware Of Our Motivations For Doing Things

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio studied patients who, despite having perfectly normal cognitive ability, had lost the ability to feel emotion. Many would assume that, without emotions to distract them, these people would be great at making perfectly rational decisions. Yet actually, having lost the ability to feel one way or the other, they couldn’t make any decisions at all.

We like to think that we see things how they really are, but that’s not really true. Our senses react to stimuli, such as light refracting off of objects like a computer screen, and our brains augment those perceptions to form full images, based on our past experiences. As we accumulate more experiences, pathways in our brains, called synapses, begin to form and, as we add new experiences, our synaptic pathways strengthen and shape our perceptions.

Those synaptic pathways, in turn, affect both our perceptions and our reactions, which is why certain memories trigger emotions, often without us realizing it. These emotions lead to the release of neurotransmitters like oxytocin and  dopamine as well as hormones like cortisol. All of these things will shape our motivations and our actions.

Finally, we are greatly shaped by other people. Decades of studies indicate that we tend to conform to the opinions and behaviors of those around us and this effect extends out to three degrees of relationships. So not only our friends’ friends, influence us deeply, but their friends too—people that we don’t even know—affect what we think.

The truth is that any decision we make is the product of a tangled web of influences, including past experiences, perceptions, emotions and the influence of other people around us. That’s why it’s so important to engage in metacognition—thinking about thinking—to try to get some sense of why we’re doing things, so that we can make better judgments about whether we should continue to do them or make a change.

3. We’re Status Driven

We like to think of ourselves as rational beings, responding to concrete incentives, but as Will Storr explains in The Status Game, that’s not really true. We are obsessed with status and will do almost anything to attain it, because status is inextricably linked to our identity and dignity. Without status, we’re no one.

Consider the ultimatum game. One player is given a dollar and needs to propose how to split it with another player. If it is accepted, both players get the agreed upon shares. If it is not accepted, neither player gets anything. If the world was completely rational, the second player would accept even a single penny. After all, a penny is better than nothing.

Yet decades of experiments across different cultures show that most people do not accept a penny. In fact, offers of less than 30 cents are routinely rejected as unfair. It offends people’s dignity and sense of self. For many of the same reasons, there is increasing evidence that financial targets don’t motivate employees. No one wants to be a cog in someone else’s wheel.

Status isn’t just about money either. It’s why highly talented people devote thousands of hours contributing to open source software communities. Research into the causes of the 9/11 attack found that “perceived injustice, need for identity and need for belonging are common vulnerabilities” that drive people to terrorism. We’ll do almost anything to attain the status we want.

To master ourselves, we need to think deeply about our own drive for status. What really motivates us and drives our actions? Why do we say we want some things, but act in service of others. If we are to master ourselves—and understand what drives the behavior of those around us—we need to master our drive for status.

Seizing Free Will

In Homo Deus, author Yuval Noah Harari asserted that “organisms are algorithms.” Much like vending machines are programmed to respond to buttons, Harari argues that humans and other animals are programmed by genetics and evolution to respond to “sensations, emotions and thoughts.” When those particular buttons are pushed, we respond, much like a vending machine does.

He gives evidence for this point of view. For example, he describes psychological experiments in which, by monitoring brainwaves, researchers are able to predict actions, such as whether a person will flip a switch, even before he or she is aware of it. He also points out that certain chemicals, such as Ritalin and Prozac, can modify behavior.

Yet the argument only feels persuasive because it is selective, focusing on some facts while ignoring others. Yes, much like software, we come with built-in programming, but we are also built to adapt, forming new pathways in our brains while discarding others as we go through experiences and learn new things. Adults in even primitive societies are expected to overcome basic urges, govern their behavior and invest resources in the future.

That’s why it’s important to understand human nature. Once we know that our motivations are not always clear to us, we can be more thoughtful about our actions. If we accept that humans are naturally hierarchical and status-driven, we can both work within those parameters while at the same time pushing beyond them.

We work to better know ourselves not to surrender to our inherent nature, but to transcend it. We need to know our limitations in order to go past them.

Greg Satell is Co-Founder of ChangeOS, a transformation & change advisory, an international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto and on LinkedIn.

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