The Laws of Human Nature

When someone jumps into a swimming pool, you expect to see a splash. When you see lightning flash nearby, you expect to hear thunder soon after. These are physical laws at work. In the social sciences, we deal with laws of human nature. Why do people act the way they do? Actions don’t happen without a reason, and if you can find out the reasons why things happen, you will accumulate secrets that help you navigate social dynamics in your environment.

If you want to improve your own life or the lives of others, you must understand the laws of human nature.

3 Laws of Human Nature

In your life, there are some things you desire more than others. Certain activities are more enjoyable. Certain people have more attractive qualities. Certain careers are more appealing. Certain cities are more fitting. You have preferences based on your subjective desires, and no one else can control what you desire. Your environment influences you, but you ultimately determine what it is that you want.

You determine your desires based on what you believe will provide you satisfaction. You want what you want and like what you like because you believe it will improve your happiness or ease your unhappiness. All human action is for the improvement of one’s condition. You may be wrong in believing a particular thing will make you happier, or you may act in ways that do not get you the outcome you want. But that doesn’t change the truth that you are always seeking  your own happiness. Even when you put up with short-term dissatisfaction with the expectation of a long-term reward, you are still pursuing your own happiness.

This is true for addicts and altruists alike. One person may pursue happiness by working at a high-paying job in order to live luxuriously. Another may find satisfaction from “nobler” humanitarian causes where she helps others; in serving others, it is her own happiness she is seeking. When we do things for others, it’s because it gives us a good feeling or it eases whatever guilty qualms we might have for not helping out. Even suicide is an action to improve one’s condition: the end of suffering.

This is an important law of human nature that is often forgotten.

1st Law: Every one acts in self-interest.

The environmentalists, the corporate CEO, the social justice warrior, the bureaucrat, the teacher, the monk. They are all acting in ways that they believe will give them what they want. You can’t persuade them to do something that isn’t in their self-interest even if you tried.

Sometimes your self-interest aligns with others’ and you can collaborate – forming relationships, companies, interest groups – to act together for a shared vision. Regardless, every individual is different and no two people want the exact same things or derive the same amount of happiness from the same experience. What gives one person a feeling of deep satisfaction can have no effect whatsoever on another, and even extreme discomfort for yet another.

Even people who are clearly caught in negative behavior patterns are acting in self-interest – they are seeking something satisfying. People stick to bad habits because the effort it takes to change behavior is too high and there’s satisfaction from the comfort in doing what’s familiar. The couple stuck in an unhealthy relationship is seeking to not have to be “alone”. The guy at the party who won’t stop boasting about his accomplishments is seeking external validation. The mom who’s awfully hard on herself every time her child is dissatisfied is seeking an identity of being a “perfect” mother. People may have wrong thinking, so they must learn from their own experience and adjust their desires or action plans accordingly. Nevertheless, they are always acting in self-interest.

When someone pursues something confusing to you, you might think she is irrational. But that’s because she acted in accordance with what she wants – not what you want. She applies her values, not yours. There isn’t one thing that will make every one equally satisfied because happiness is a subjective truth that must be determined by each individual separately. Just because they want something we don’t understand and make choices we don’t agree with does not mean we are in a superior position to dictate what they should want and how they should act. Value intolerance leads to judgmental behaviors that others will pick up, so we do best by being aware of our own tendency to project our beliefs on others.

There are those who like to give advice to every one else along the lines of “If I were in your shoes, I would…” and presume to share their enlightened opinion. Actually, if they were in another’s shoes – having that person’s circumstances, beliefs, fears, and values – they would do exactly as the other person did.

That brings us to the second law of human nature.

2nd Law: Everyone has different interests.

We are bound to have conflicting interests with every one else. If you’re reading this text right now while someone else wants your full attention, then the two of you have different interests at the moment. If you’ve experienced rejection from a job application or a romantic relationship, then you know what it feels like when someone else had different interests. “Conflicts of interest” is a natural result of people having heterogeneous values and desires.

Yet we can also find specific interests that align with others to get our mutual needs met. We choose our friends and spouses because of mutual desires to spend time with our preferred communities. We do our best when we work in an organization whose vision aligns with our own. We purchase things because we desire having a product more than the money we give up, and the seller desires the money more than holding onto the product.

And this brings up another reality – if we are each pursuing different things from each other, then we can’t give every one what they want. You live in a world of limited resources, which economists call “scarcity”.  You do not have unlimited amounts of time, energy, knowledge, or assets.

3rd Law: Resources are limited, so we must choose.

You can only do your best to identify what will make you happy and try different strategies by creatively leveraging the resources you have at your disposal – your time, energy, knowledge, and assets. You can create more assets for yourself by applying your time, energy, and knowledge. Or you can provide your time and energy to others in exchange for assets that you want, including money.

While our resources are limited, the list of things that we want is not. This includes things for yourself like gadgets and traveling, but also includes the societal concern that most everyone wants – the evasive world peace. Obviously you can’t have everything you want because the environment and other people are not under your control, but you do best by adapting and adjusting to roadblocks. We determine values for everything we see to help us determine our preferences. This means we are constantly making trade-offs between many alternative routes of action every moment.

Now you know 3 Laws of Human Nature that will help you better navigate the dynamics of social systems. In review, these are:

  1. Everyone acts in self-interest.
  2. Everyone has different interests.
  3. Resources are limited, so we must choose.

Social Systems of Unpredictable Humans

People are unpredictable because we have different values, beliefs, desires, fears, and resources. People sometimes think one thing, say another, and do yet another. If you pay attention, people do this all the time. Our acting on self-interest leads to a complex process of interactions where we cooperate with others to exchange what we have for what we want so that both sides get their interests met. Each person acts based on information about his particular circumstance at a particular time and place, and no other authority can possibly possess nor comprehend this infinite amount of seen and unseen information occurring all the time in every interaction. Even if we could collect information about every person’s interests, that information would become outdated the second after it’s processed.

Many compassionate and socially concerned individuals and policymakers wonder how they can design a more utilitarian society such that we can bring the greatest good for the greatest number of people. The challenge, however, is the question: who gets to decide what’s the greatest good and for whom? There is no standard for greater good other than from personal judgments of value, which are different for different people and even for the same person at different times. How can we even begin to measure the subjective happiness experienced by two different people in response to the same experience?  Now imagine trying to understand the satisfaction of every experience for every person and we get a massive calculation problem.  Attempts to design for greater good for a society of incredibly diverse people falls trap to The Knowledge Delusion and The Fixed Shmoo Theory.

We do best by acknowledging the Laws of Human Nature and learning to work with them, rather than against them. In summary, we each act in our self-interest to get what we want with the least amount of suffering to ourselves. This truth lies within each systems archetype:

  • Addiction: pursuing self-interest by receiving more immediate gratification from an external source rather than having to suffer through a more difficult independent path toward goals
  • Eroding Goals: pursuing self-interest of avoiding uncomfortable feelings such as fear of failure, by lowering goals to make the challenge easier
  • Escalation: pursuing self-interest of being better than the competition
  • Exponential Success: pursuing self-interest toward a particular vision and succeeding
  • Limits to Growth: pursuing self-interest and succeeding until reaching a resource limit
  • Policy Resistance: pursuing self-interest despite policy barriers that attempt to block that interest
  • Seeking the Wrong Goal: pursuing self-interest toward a goal that conflicts with another potentially more important interest
  • Tragedy of the Commons: collective pursuing of self-interest that depletes a fixed resource

Further Reading: