Are People by Nature Peaceful or Violent? Is This the Right Question?

Zoe Weil is a blogger for Psychology Today (PT), and twice a month we share her blog posts here. Enjoy!

We humans have a penchant for either/or choices. Whether in politics (red vs. blue, capitalist vs. socialist), religion (heaven vs. hell, Christianity vs. Islam, etc.), or framed in the media (jobs vs. the environment, Left vs. Right), we often choose our camp and take a side.

But either/or thinking isn’t usually helpful if our goal is to increase our knowledge, build understanding, collaborate with others, solve problems, and create a more peaceful world. Dichotomous thinking tends to hinder conversation and the exploration of creative possibilities. Side-taking often constrains the search for what is actually true and leads us to dig in our heels and shore up evidence for our side, rather than remain open to a variety of perspectives and find deeper and more nuanced perspectives.

So why did I title this post as an either/or? Because knowing our penchant for side-taking, I thought it would be more likely to generate readers. Yes, my title is clickbait; I actually think the question is silly.

And yet, the reason the title may attract readers is because so many people have a strong opinion on this question. Some argue that humans are inherently aggressive, violent, and competitive, cooperating only for personal gain, while others believe that humans are inherently compassionate, peaceful, and loving, acting aggressively and violently only in unnatural circumstances or when they are afraid.

Isn’t it more reasonable to perceive humans as capable of horrific cruelty and violence as well as astonishing altruism and peaceful collaboration (and everything in between), and to notice that the great majority of the time we get along pretty well, while remaining imperfectly kind, unintentionally inconsiderate, self-serving and helpful in near-equal measure?

psychology today