science of us

Why People Are So Good at Being Kind and Being Cruel

Photo: Camerique/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Once in middle school, a girl who wanted to join my friend group asked me if a hairstyle she’d clearly worked hard on looked good. It did, but instead I said something to the effect of, “It’s all right, but it’s not my favorite,” and I think she pulled the hairstyle out right then, murmuring an agreement.

In a conversation between Vox’s Sean Illing and psychology professor William Von Hippel (whose new book The Social Leap addresses how we came to rely so intensely on one another), Hippel provides an almost throwaway explanation for our seemingly “weird” ability to be “both really kind and also really, really mean to each other”: it actually makes perfect sense, he says “if you think about the fact that we evolved our cooperative nature in order to become more effective killers.”

In other words, we’re nice because we’ve needed to work together to find animals to eat, but we’re mean because the thing we’ve most often worked together on is inflicting that violence.

They also discuss why we lie to ourselves and to one another (the post is titled “Why We’re So Good at Bullshitting”), and why objective truth seems to matter less than other people’s opinions. It’s not surprising that we prefer what’s convenient to what’s true, Hippel says, since survival-wise it’s generally been more important to be liked than to be right. He goes on:

…we tend to think that the smarter we are, the more capable we are of seeing through people’s lies and the more capable we are of finding the truth. But that’s absolutely not the case. Humans are social animals, and so most of our smarts are going be dedicated to jockeying and manipulating our position among others. And if that’s the case, then the truth is only semi-important. Ultimately, [intelligence is] about manipulating other people’s emotions.

So, we don’t want truth so much as we want to be liked, to feel secure, and to exert power. Which itself seems … true.

Why People Are So Good at Being Kind and Being Cruel