The ‘Bad Us’ story
Like me, my daughters studied Lord of the Flies at school. It’s a story of a group of school boys stranded on an island, where their savage natures prevail. It has a powerful pull on our collective imagination, and people often refer to it when taking about cruelty or disorder. Yet it is just a work of fiction.
There is, in fact, a real life Lord of the flies story: 6 schoolboys from Tonga were shipwrecked on a remote island for 15 months in 1966. By the time they were rescued they had created communal gardens, set up rotas to tend the gardens and fire, and when one boy broke his leg, they cared for him.
This other story — of collaboration in the face of crises — is the one that manifests most regularly in real life. Contrary to popular belief, when disaster strikes, people do not trample each other down. The Disaster Research Centre at the University of Delaware reviewed nearly 700 field studies and found that people tend to remain calm and take positive action: “looting pales in significance to the widespread alturism that leads to free and massive giving and sharing of goods and services”. And it happens everyday. The pandemic created a spontaneous rise in mutual aid. At Reach we saw the numbers of new volunteers surge during this time and they are still signing up at double the rates we saw in 2019. What’s more, we’ve seen them climb again as the cost of living crisis bites.
What’s driving this generosity? Our values, it seems. Research from The Common Cause Foundation shows that an amazing 74% of us hold ‘compassionate’ values, like care for others, belonging and equality, to be the most important. This is robust research, validated for biases.
And yet, despite the facts that we care deeply, the allure of the story of the Bad Us keeps us in thrall. When I tell people about the real Lord of the Flies story, and they often respond with evidence to the contrary — experiments from the 1960s (Milligram’s shock treatment or The Prison Guard experiment), or the Bystander story, in which a whole neighbourhood ignored a woman’s cries for help as she was murdered. No matter that the experiments have been thoroughly discredited, or that the Bystander story debunked, the stories stick.
Common Cause Foundation research found that, although 74% of us hold compassionate (‘intrinsic’) values as most important, 77% of us believe that everyone else holds selfish (‘extrinsic’) values as most important.
We have got our fellow humans very wrong: