The Monkey Trap of Human Nature

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To understand why smart people often do dumb things, visualize a monkey staring at a pile of sweet bananas inside a heavy, glass container. The opening of the container is narrow, but just large enough for the monkey to squeeze its open hand through the opening. After stalking the container for a few minutes, the monkey reaches into the container. The monkey grabs a fist full of bananas and cackles with delight.

Suddenly, the cackles become screams of terror as the monkey realizes its hand is trapped inside the container. An open hand is narrow enough to slip out of the trap, but a fist full of bananas is too wide for the opening of the trap. The monkey has been caught by a monkey hunter because the monkey refuses to open its fist to let go of the sugary fruit. If the monkey had understood that letting go of its immediate desire was the path to long-term freedom, it would not have doomed itself to death by its own impulsive hand.

Monkey-Trap-Image1Like monkeys, humans often refuse to let go of something in the short-term for a greater long-term good. Humans share over 99% of our brain structures and over 95% of our DNA with chimps; so it's not surprising that humans often fall into the same traps as monkeys. In "What is Justice?" and "Conflict Resolution's Enemy: The Amygdala", I described a toxic dispute between two friends. That dispute caused tremendous suffering for everybody involved, including thousands of wasted man-hours and large financial and opportunity costs. Sadly, disputes like this happen all over the world every day and they all have one thing in common: Emotional humans failing to see the world through the eyes of other humans because they cannot let go of their short-term emotional desires in exchange for a long-term good.

Monkeys do not understand the concept of delayed gratification. Although they have certain evolutionary instincts that compel them to care for their offspring and protect their community, they don't consciously grasp and live by the principle of delayed gratification. Only humans have the capacity for consciously delaying immediate gratification in exchange for a longer-term benefit, but they often lose this capacity when they allow their primordial instincts to hijack the more rational decision-making processes of their cerebral cortex.

Humans often fall prey to monkey traps because their behavior is influenced by a veritable zoo of ancient DNA. Assuming the Theory of Evolution is true, every human is carrying around 400 million years of shark aggression; 300 million years of fight-or-flight reptile impulses; 10 million years of monkey/ape tribalism; four million years of Hominin survival instincts; and 200 thousand years of human tool-making, cultural and political conflict. With that zoo of instincts and impulses raging below every human's conscious awareness, it's a miracle that modern human civilization exists at all.

When humans fight, their brains become increasingly controlled by the amygdala (reptile brain), which unconsciously plays many tricks on the human mind. These tricks distort facts and perceptions in ways that are difficult or impossible for the conscious mind to perceive when humans feel threatened. This amplifies our perception of relatively small threats into emotionally powerful existential threats, amplifying the fight-or-flight response. This creates the perceived justification to attack and/or blame others for things that are, in reality, no significant long-term threat at all.

Shared sacrifice is the essence of peaceful co-existence. Escaping the monkey trap in human affairs requires sacrifice and compromise because finite resources and human mortality prevent us from getting 100% of anything 100% of the time. This is why economic and political systems exist. There is no compromise without sacrifice. There is no reconciliation without compromise. There is no relationship without reconciliation. There is no community without relationships. There is no nation without communities. There is no peace between countries without national populations bound together in a community of nations.

When we are in a relationship or family or nation, we cannot make unilateral decisions that negatively impact our relationships without getting buy-in first. If we make unilateral decisions that negatively impact our relationships, the logical, predictable result will be a revolt that often leads to divorce and conflict. The good-faith compromise needed to get buy-in is the sacrifice that being in a relationship demands from us: We cannot act unilaterally if we want harmony in our partnerships, families and nations.

The complexity of the human brain and corresponding human behavior is difficult for many people to perceive, much less understand. This is why it's so critical to read books like Man's Search for Meaning and 12 Rules for Life and The Courage to Be Disliked: How to Free Yourself, Change Your Life, and Achieve Real Happiness and others. Books like these help us understand human nature at a deeper level, teach us how to perceive our lives more objectively, and avoid common perceptual distortions that negatively impact our lives.

Emotions Are Untrustworthy. Simply feeling an emotion and then assuming that emotion is an accurate reflection of truth or objective reality inevitably produces conflict and pain in human relationships, communities and nations. This is because human behavior and emotions are extremely varied and complex due to millions of years of evolutionary adaptation, genetic baggage, perceptual limitations . . . and that's before humans even begin to subjectively discuss and interpret the basic facts of a given dispute. Worse, all these mental processes are invariably distorted by the human brain's tendency toward self-deception.

Many people over-simplify human behavior with shallow comments like "most people are basically good (or bad)" or "you are a jerk!" without acknowledging the vast range of possible behaviors that manifest in each person in response to many different environmental conditions. Unconscious motives, unvalidated assumptions, unconscious self-deceptions, the nearly infinite biological and sociological factors that impact and shape our interactions with our environment and the complex brains and behaviors of other humans . . . the complexity of human nature is truly mind-boggling when you think about it more deeply.

Many people underestimate the consequences of human complexity because, under normal circumstances, they generally feel their lives and relationships are relatively stable and predictable. They believe that predictability is a logical outcome of living according to their subjectively defined (and often vaguely defined) moral and ethical value systems. So they often quickly equate any behavior in others that violates their expectations as immoral, unethical or antisocial. We only need to read Man's Search for Meaning or The Gulag Archipelago or Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland to see how quickly toxic environmental conditions can transform good people into murderous monsters.

Tragedy and extreme stress force us to confront the true complexity of our own human nature. This is why adversity is the crucible of character: What we perceive as "character" is a snapshot in time of each human's cumulative mental evolution in response to all the challenges they've faced up to any given moment. Without consciously confronting ourselves when we suffer setbacks and uncomfortable events, there is no opportunity for character growth. This is because the character remains blind to the lessons that can only be learned within the uncomfortable context of intense confrontations with ourselves.

Technology is never enough. In the Gini book, I said the technology that Gini is building is necessary, but it's not sufficient by itself to achieve our goals. This is why we spend time sharing important lessons and lots of nonpartisan books about human nature and economic and geopolitical history on the Gini website. Without reading, the mind often gets stuck in a rut. A life full of unexamined ruts accumulates into a mind full of deep trenches. These trenches manifest as treacherous monkey traps that we blindly fall into as individuals and societies because we never learn why the traps are there and how to avoid them. Each new crisis creates another monkey trap until one day we look at our relationships and lives and see no escape from a mental landscape that looks like a war zone, full of blast craters and the blood-soaked carnage of dead relationships and lost opportunities.

Trying to understand the causes of any human crisis without taking the time to read and study other human crises in the past is like performing heart surgery without studying human anatomy. It's simply not possible to accurately interpret and understand the complex behavior of other humans only through the myopic lens of our own narrow life experience. That's another reason why we share important lessons and books.

Socializing is insufficient to fully understand human behavior because humans are generally hard-wired to avoid uncomfortable topics, especially in social environments. But it's precisely the uncomfortable topics that contain the most hidden monkey traps and the most opportunities for personal growth and enlightenment. Books make it easy to learn important life lessons without violating social taboos about what topics are appropriate at dinner parties.

The variety and complexity of human behavior produces patterns, but the most profound patterns are only visible when we are able to transcend the minutia of individual experience to observe the patterns in larger populations, which represent larger systems of experience. That means we cannot perceive anything resembling objective truth if we never force ourselves to venture outside our comfort zones and outside the prison of our own mind. Reading substantive books about human behavior, sociology, economic and geopolitical history (or at least getting feedback from people who do read) is the most efficient way to escape this prison.

What specifically did each of us do to contribute to the problem? The other way to avoid monkey traps and the prison of our own mind is to ask ourselves sincere, honest questions. In every problem involving two or more humans, there are always things that could have been done differently to prevent or reduce the impact of the problem. By acknowledging no responsibility whatsoever, we kill any chance for reconciliation.

Do I want to be right or do I want peace? In any relationship or partnership, nobody can be 100% right and have peace 100% of the time. A wise person knows that some battles simply need to be graciously conceded to the other party if we want peace in our lives. Picking our battles wisely in life ensures that we don't waste our energy and resources and then have nothing left when we need to fight more serious battles later that have truly significant consequences on the long-term quality of our lives.

Consciously seeking to understand how each of us contributes to a problem is more important than being right. This is because being right merely creates resentment in the minds of those accused of being wrong, especially if there is no external evidence to support the accuracy of our conclusions. Thus, having a genuine desire to understand all the factors that contribute to a problem, especially our own contribution to the problem, is the only reliable cure for the stubbornness that typically fuels human conflicts.

Living by these principles virtually guarantees that you will have peaceful, harmonious and loving relationships, gratifying partnerships and sustainable communities, which are essential to building sustainable economies and nations. At Gini, these principles are just as important to us as all the economic and technological solutions that we build.


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