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There likely isn’t a person on earth who wouldn’t want to make better decisions. Well, the key to actually doing this is to better understand the influences involved in decision making, as well as our underlying motivations.
The goal of this book summary is to highlight the aspects of human nature that might often go overlooked, so that readers like you can gain an increased understanding of just how influential these things can be. When it comes down to it, we don’t like to admit that we’re envious, self-centered, and prone to group mentality. But the reality is, we all have these tendencies. When we make the decision to acknowledge each of these aspects of human nature, we’re then able to start making the best of it through limiting these impulses and even sometimes, using them to our advantage.
Humans are complex individuals, but there are parts of the human experience that touch us all. When we have a more thorough understanding of human nature, we’re then able to start living a better life that has more control over these natural impulses.
In this summary of The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene, you’ll find
- why it’s far better if your perspective is farsighted;
- why you should always maintain a “reality group;” and
- why it might actually help you live better if you keep death in mind.
The Laws of Human Nature Key Idea #1: Human beings are all prone to irrational behavior.
People love to believe that modern humans are clever and highly rational, but the truth is we tend to make a lot of our decisions based on our emotions we’re feeling in the moment, which leads us to often make fairly irrational choices.
This struggle between emotions and reason has been a common problem for human beings for ages. One of the early champions of rational behavior was Pericles, a well-respected statesman in Athens who lived around the fifth century BC.
When Athens was under the threat of attack by the Spartans, Pericles was able to convince leaders to show restraint, rather than engaging in all-out war. Unfortunately, when Athens was struck by the plague, leading Pericles to an untimely death, his wisdom also didn’t make it. Instead, emotions took over, which resulted in a costly and drawn-out war that brought Athens to its knees.
Really, Pericles’ wisdom came from his patients, which is something we still have to rely on if we wish to stop making irrational decisions. Whenever there was a problem to find a solution to or an important decision to be made, Pericles would withdraw to his home and calmly think it over, considering all the potential consequences, so that he could make the decision that was in everyone’s best interest, not just that of the leaders or wealthiest people.
So, when you’re able to, try to increase your reaction time when it comes to certain situations so that you’re not making decisions in the heat of an emotional moment. And, in the meantime, make sure you address all of the potential biases that might be influencing that decision.
Human beings hold a number of these biases, including confirmation bias
, which involves us seeking out information which works to support ideas we already hold, and conviction bias
, which is a bias that can lead to a belief that if we have stronger emotions about a subject, our ideas about it must be more true.
Other biases include the appearance bias
, a bias that leads to the belief that a person who looks appealing (meaning attractive or rich) must be a good person. Then, there’s the group bias
, which is a bias that makes us believe the things the group we belong to might suggest. A good example of this is people who are members of either a right or left leaning political party. These people might agree with every standpoint of their party without considering an alternate viewpoint.
It’s easy for these biases to lead to poor decisions, so this means that it’s beneficial to be skeptical, analytical, and curious about differing viewpoints. And of course, it’s always wise to balance your thoughts with your emotions. This doesn’t mean you have to be an emotionless zombie when it comes to making decisions, but you’re bound to make better decisions when you’re feeling calm.
The Laws of Human Nature Key Idea #2: Everyone harbors some narcissism, so it’s important to judge a person’s character by their actions, rather than their appearances.
While human beings tend to be irrational in their decisions, our human nature also holds the need for a certain amount of attention, and sometimes, self-absorption. In fact, we are actually narcissistic by nature, to a certain extent. Because of this characteristic of human nature, we all exist on a spectrum, which spans from a healthy level of narcissism to deep narcissism
People who fall into this deep narcissism category are generally people who have an incorrect sense of self, seeing others as simply an extension of themselves. This quality has been traced back to childhood, specifically the years between two and five years of age, the period of life when a person stops seeing themselves as an extension of their mother and develops a sense of individual personhood.
At this point in a child’s life, this deep narcissism may develop for one of two reasons: either the parent was too involved, which can prevent a child from developing an individual identity, or the parent didn’t give the child enough attention, which can create a sense of abandonment. Both of these things can result in low self-esteem and insecurity in the person, and as a result, deep narcissists try to cope with their broken sense of self through behavior patterns including jealousy, attention-seeking, over-controlling, taking everything personally, and being unable to handle criticism.
Ironically, narcissism is often associated with “self-love.” In reality, this self love is what many deep narcissists lack. Indeed, creating a sense of self that you’re able to love is one of the best ways to curate a healthier level of narcissism, and doing so will reduce your insecurity and raise your self-esteem.
Narcissists also lack empathy, and empathy is one of the best tools you can employ in your life. Empathy is defined as being able to sense what others may be going through, which will allow you to connect on a deeper level to the people in your life. Empathy can also lead to a great recognition of a person’s true character, allowing you to use your insight to transform into a person of superior character.
When it truly comes down to being a good judge of character, it’s essential to understand that everyone wears a mask when they move throughout their everyday life. Everybody is trying to win everybody else over, and we attempt to do so through presenting ourselves in what we believe is our best light, which means doing and saying things we think people want us to. As Shakespeare famously wrote, “All the world’s a stage.”
So, it’s important to remember that we shouldn’t simply accept what we see and hear as a reflection of someone’s true character. Their true character will reveal itself when it comes to how that person reacts to face adversity, work with others, and whether or not they can learn from and adapt to new situations.
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The Laws of Human Nature Key Idea #3: It’s important to strive to be of superior character, using covetous behavior to our advantage.
Every human being on earth has a character which is a mix of both strong and weak qualities. Of course, some qualities are genetically given to us, while others we gain from how we were brought up. Of course, there are also the qualities that we gain later in life. A good example of this difference in the origins of our personal qualities is that researchers have discovered that some newborns display more hostile behavior than others, which suggests that the levels of aggression we display are genetic.
However, it’s important to point out that our innate traits aren’t a prison. We are, in fact, able to gain control over them, and our weak qualities can be used to our advantage. So, it doesn’t matter what fate we’ve been given in our lives, we can still strive to be of superior character.
The first step toward this is being honest and admitting to ourselves that the characteristics we harbor are a part of human nature, and therefore, are nothing to be ashamed of. This honesty can start by taking a step back to take stock of ourselves, our past mistakes, and our weaknesses versus our strengths.
For example, a hyperperfectionist,
a person who feels the need to be in control of everything, leading to them being unable to delegate tasks, shouldn’t deny this trait. That could lead to her putting herself into situations in which she’d be smothering people or fighting for the spotlight. Instead, she should look for a job that allows her to be in charge of a workload that doesn’t require delegation.
Envy is another aspect of human nature that people don’t like to admit that they harbor. Although, it’s simply fact that everyone has the tendency to covet what they don’t have. As the saying goes, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, and there’s always a better place just over the horizon.
However, there are actually some biological reasons behind our envious nature. For starters, we’re simply not wired to be complacent. Rather, human beings are competitive by nature, leading us to feel the same strong desires, whether we encounter them in the real world, or in our imaginations.
We tend to deny our feelings of jealousy for many reasons, one of which being that admitting that we feel covetous also means admitting that we feel inferior to someone else. But really, it doesn’t benefit us to ignore and deny these jealous feelings. Admitting that everyone on earth has these feelings can allow us to then start putting it to work for our benefit.
Because it’s clear that we covet what is elusive, we then tend to try to make ourselves appear more appealing to others, through using these traits of elusiveness. This basically means that people can be mysterious, and the more we prompt people to use their imaginations, the more fascinated they’ll be by us.
The Laws of Human Nature Key Idea #4: Short sightedness and defensive tendencies are qualities everybody holds.
It’s probably crossed you mind why there is so much money and attention being put toward fighting terrorism, while climate change, which affects all of earth’s residents, is trivialized.
Human nature is very much the main explanation for this. A person is much more likely to react to a problem that appears to be sitting in front of you here and now. This short-sightedness has incredibly early origins, dating all the way back to when survival was based on immediate concerns, from finding food and water to avoiding violent predators like the saber-toothed tiger.
Top performance requires you to recognize the tendency we have to neglect the big picture in favor of immediate concerns. But the reality is, it’s much more beneficial to adopt a farsighted perspective
To start, it’s important to remember to approach decision making through taking a step back to really look at the problem you’re dealing with, what your options are, and what the consequences are likely to be. When you’re able to recognize that the problems we face today are likely the results of past actions, you’ll be able to assess a solution to them in a better and more calm manner.
It’s also important to note that sometimes doing nothing is actually the most you can
do! Western culture often considers doing nothing a sign of weakness, but Japanese and Chinese cultures both recognize the strategic wisdom that comes from waiting to see what happens and letting the enemy wear himself out.
Another good way to approach problems is to know how to deal with the natural defensiveness of other people.
Everyone is defensive to a certain degree, which is because everyone puts autonomy and free will on a pedestal. This means that the best technique for managing human nature might just be to get someone to agree with our plans, as though they came up with the idea to do so on their own. This is made possible through displaying an appreciation for the person we’re talking to, validating their individuality and intelligence, and even catering toward their natural human stubbornness.
For example, look at the early career path or former president and US politician, Lyndon B. Johnson. When he was first voted in as senator, he already had a reputation for being a hotheaded Texan, but Johnson knew he wasn’t going to get far if he continued to use the same loud tactics he’d used during his time as a congressman.
Rather, he grew to be friends with veteran democrat and Georgian senator, Richard Russell, through outwardly admiring his experience and expertise. Russel, in turn, was impressed with Johnson’s organizational skills, which lead him to help Johnson get a seat on the Armed Services Committee after only serving a year and a half in the Senate, a position that’s practically unheard of for such a prestigious committee.
The shrewd yet friendly tactics Johnson employed allowed him to become the youngest senate leader of the Democratic Party in history, at the age of 44.
The Laws of Human Nature Key Idea #5: Avoid sabotaging yourself through displaying a positive attitude and avoiding repression.
Have you ever felt like you must be cursed, or maybe like you’re doomed to fail? If so, it may be because of certain unhelpful human traits that must be recognized and therefore controlled. When you truly look at your life and see what might be causing the same negative outcomes over and over, that’s when you can turn things around to avoid similar problems in the future.
As it turns out, one of the main causes of self-sabotage in this way is a negative attitude. Fortunately, this is something that’s quite easy to change.
If you think your negativity might be justified, it might be helpful to look at the life of legendary playwright Anton Chekhov. When he was a young boy, Chekhov had to constantly face a father who beat him on the regular and forced him to work at his shop instead of doing schoolwork. On top of this, because of the bad business tactics of his father, Chekhov’s family had to flee to Moscow. Because of this, they literally abandoned a sixteen year old Chekhov, leaving him to fend for himself while finishing school. He was only able to survive during this hard time by getting a job as a tutor.
If Chekhov had developed a pessimistic attitude, it would’ve made perfect sense. Instead, Chekhov had an amazing sense of empathy, which allowed him to pity his father instead of getting angry with him. When his family left, he was able to view them through a new lens which allowed him to recognize that his father was trying to cope with his own unfortunate upbringing and that truly, he was a lost and helpless old man.
Once Chekhov was able to forgive his father, he was able to feel as if his mind was finally freed. He felt as if he’d been liberated from his anger and was finally able to let go of negative emotions. Holding on to and repressing emotions like anger or worthlessness will lead you into a prison of your own making, where you might feel drawn to things like drugs and alcohol in an effort to numb the pain and suppress your true feelings.
If there is
a dark side to your personality, from simply negative feelings to selfish impulses, acknowledging that dark side is the first step. From there, you’ll be able to spin it into something that can be used in positive ways.
The author calls these dark, and often repressed feelings the “shadow self,” and the more we repress these feelings, the more destructive they’ll be when they eventually surface. Consider former US president Richard Nixon, who repressed emotions of resentment and abandonment until those very feelings led him to the destructive behavior which destroyed his presidency.
The Laws of Human Nature Key Idea #6: While everyone is prone to feelings of grandeur, these things should be brought down to reality.
We all likely know someone who’s experience at least a little success in their life, and often, we sit back and watch in wonder as this success goes to their head and they end up losing touch with reality. This is known as the Law of Grandiosity.
A great example of the Law of Grandiosity is the career of Michael Eisner: In 1976, Eisner made the leap from successful TV executive to head of the Paramount film studio. During his tenure, Paramount produced a long list of hits, even ending up as the leading Hollywood studio for a period of time.
Then, in 1984, Eisner became Disney’s new CEO, where he saw the release of fourteen hit movies, which ended up reviving the struggling Disney brand. Eisner also came up with the idea of strategically using the company’s back catalog in the burgeoning home video market.
The way Eisner saw it, everything he touched turned to gold. However, when he turned his attention toward theme parks instead and building Euro Disney in France, it was far from a success, with attendances around half of what they’d hoped for. Eisner quickly looked to blame someone else for this. In 1994 he shocked the industry by firing his underling Jeffrey Katzenberg, who’d been largely responsible for many recent hits, including The Lion King
Eisner also declined to purchase Yahoo! and instead decided to create a Disney-specific internet portal called Go. It was another calamity that leaked vast amounts of money. Meanwhile, Katzenberg successfully sued Disney for $280 million in unpaid bonuses while Pixar CEO Steve Jobs said he would refuse to work with Disney ever again due to Eisner’s meddling. Finally, in September of 2005, Eisner was voted out by board members after Disney’s stock prices began to dwindle.
When he was working as a TV and film executive, Eisner displayed a vast understanding of what US audiences enjoyed, but after many failed attempts with Euro Disney and Go, he showed that he had very little understanding of the tastes of Europeans or frequent internet users.
Eisner had lost his sense of reality. He refused to accept that there were limits to his expertise, and instead felt insecure and threatened by those beneath him such as Katzenberg, which lead him to orchestrate his own downfall.
It would have been clear to anyone else that someone with the skills Katzenberg had would eventually become a competitor after being fired from Disney, which is exactly what happened when Katzenberg helped found Dreamworks.
Experiencing success often makes it easy to forget that there were mentors, teammates, timing, and luck, that helped you get to the top. This means that it’s incredibly important to be aware of these contributing factors during the best of times, as well as your own strengths, limits, and weaknesses. Remember: be realistic.
The Laws of Human Nature Key Idea #7: It’s important for us all to work to avoid the natural tendency for gender repression and aimlessness.
In 1463, Caterina Sforza was born into a powerful dynasty in Milan, Italy, which allowed her to pursue whatever it was her interests were.
From her youth, Caterina was drawn to both physical combat training, as well as fashion and the arts, leading her to become a student of both. This meant that she was able to indulge in both her feminine and masculine sides, which lead her to become a strong figure who fascinated both Milan’s men and women. Modern artists, such as David Bowie, exhibit this fascination as well, exploring both the masculine and feminine parts of their personalities.
We’re gain our views of masculinity and femininity from both our genes and our upbringings. And because of the influence of society, men tend to repress their feminine sides, and women their masculine sides. However, we’re often better off embracing this duality within us. To start, it might actually improve relationships, as it would make us more empathetic to people of the opposite sex. It can also improve problem solving, creativity, and confidence.
Men and women tend to have different ways of seeing the world, with men looking closely to separate and categorize things and women stepping back to see patterns and connections. People will have the best thinking patterns if they’re able to access both modes of thinking.
Getting closer to a higher sense of purpose is another great way to experience a huge boost in life. Every human being is complex, which means that it’s easy to slip into a sense of aimlessness and begin to feel a general lack of cohesion. However, if we really take the time to take a calm look within ourselves, we’ll be able to find what truly makes our gears turn.
Often, we’re able to trace this sense of a higher purpose back to a moment from our childhoods. For Steve Jobs, it was seeing his first electronics store as a young boy. For Marie Curie, it was being immediately fascinated when seeing chemistry tools for the first time.
For legendary film director Akira Kurosawa, it happened later in life when he worked as an assistant for another director, Kajiro Yamamoto. Before this, he hadn’t quite recognized the full potential of films. But standing behind Yamamoto, he was able to experience a moment of transcendence where everything became suddenly clear. It’s these moments we should be searching for, as they’re the ones that point to a higher purpose in life.
The Laws of Human Nature Key Idea #8: Humans have a tendency to conform to a group mentality and feel a false sense of entitlement.
As human beings, we like to think that we’re unique, civilized, and sophisticated creatures who can think independently. But, when we actually look closely at human nature, it becomes clear that we tend to spend lots of time worrying about what others think and the ways we fit into certain groups.
We have come quite a long way from our tribal roots, however, it’s still natural for us to return to that primitive and reactionary thinking, especially when we’re in a large group. While this isn’t a pleasant thing to think about, it’s important to recognize that we all have this natural tendency.
One of the best examples of group mentality gone wrong is the Chinese Cultural Revolution under Chairman Mao Zedong. While the revolution was meant to be a rebellion against the elitists and the hierarchies that many people saw as unfair, a group mentality meant that any nuanced thinking was thrown away. Soon, anyone wearing clothing that resembled Western fashion was attacked in the streets as being part of the elite. This lead to the formation of a police state, which tried to control this chaos, meaning that the revolution ended up achieving exactly the opposite of its original goal.
In order to avoid calamities like this, we should all be part of what the author calls a Reality Group
. It might be helpful to think of this group as the gold standard of teamwork: everyone is focused on the original goal, and works to make sure that the rest of the group doesn’t get caught up in power plays and pointless disputes. The goal is to focus on the beneficial aspects of teamwork, and emphasize the fact that people can accomplish great things when they cooperate.
Entitlement is another one of those unpleasant natural aspects of human nature. Of course, everyone will feel entitled from time to time, but there’s no group of people that represents this unfortunate trait more that royalty. For centuries, it’s been an expectation that people will honor, and even worship royal individuals simply because of the family they’ve been born into. While many royals tend to demand respect and authority without question, there is one monarch in history who can teach us how to truly earn that respect.
Queen Elizabeth I stands out in history as one of the few who truly wanted to earn the respect and loyalty of her subjects. To do this, she declined her income, and rather used that money to help her subjects, only making decisions that she believed were in their best interest.
Elizabeth understood that the entitlement that earlier monarchs had tended to lead to nothing but resentment. This means that it’s important to prove that we’re worthy of admiration by working hard, owning up to our mistakes, and making sacrifices when it’s in the best interest of others.
The Laws of Human Nature Key Idea #9: Human beings are naturally aggressive, but if you have control over that aggression, it can be put to good use.
In the mid-nineteenth century, businessman Maurice Clark met someone whose story amused him, although he came from a troubled background. This person was John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller’s father had been a notorious con man who would often take off suddenly, leaving his family with barely enough money to keep from starving.
Clark wasn’t aware of it when he met Rockefeller, but his difficult childhood left him with an obsession for accumulating money and having control over an orderly and predictable environment – the things he’d grown up without. Instead, Clark saw someone who was not only deeply religious, but had a knack for being incredibly irritating.
The two men had gone into business together, however, Rockefeller tended to irritate Clark through pressuring him to expand the business, so much so that Clark agreed to sell his shares of the business at an auction, thereby playing right into Rockefeller’s hands. Rockefeller bought those shares and turned their small initial business into the Standard Oil Company, one of the most powerful companies ever created.
Rockefeller was an aggressive businessman, but he was a sophisticated aggressor. He was able to read what motivated people, recognizing what people would accept so that they could get what they wanted.
Everyone has a certain level of aggression in us – our aggressive nature helped make us the dominant species on the planet – and it’s important not to repress this part of our human nature, as doing so will lead to passive aggression. Repressed anger can also show up as an internal voice that projects the aggression inward, toward yourself. That being said, it’s far better to accept those healthy levels of aggression, putting it to good use when you can.
A good place to start is to recognize where that aggression comes from. It might be due to insecurities, domineering parents, trauma from childhood, or wanting to control your environment.
Once we understand our aggression, we can direct it toward productive ends and use it to fuel ambitions and realize goals. We can use it as energy to be tenacious and fearless in pursuing a higher purpose.
That way, once we better understand this aggression, we’ll be able to recognize it in others so that we can better understand how people use their own to hide their vulnerabilities. This can help us defeat an aggressor, and there are few things in life more rewarding than outwitting a bully.
The Laws of Human Nature Key Idea #10: Everyone is influenced by generational values, and we can all benefit from accepting the inevitability of death.
Back in the fourteenth century, the Egyptian historian Ibn Khaldun suggested that generations run in cycles of four different types.
The first is a revolutionary generation that brings about great change, which is followed by a generation of order and stability. The third generation in this cycle is one that focuses on pragmatism and comfort, while the fourth one is often cynical and inquisitive. The trends in this pattern aren’t set in stone, but it allows us to see how each generation is influenced and responds to the one that came before it.
For example, in the first half of the twentieth century, the US had the Silent Generation
, who grew up in the shadow of the Great Depression and fought in World War II. Overall, this generation was one of conservative values. They were followed by the Baby Boomers
who rebelled against their conservative parents and blossomed in the counterculture movement of the 1960s and ‘70s. Then came Generation X
, who chafed against the perceived hypocrisy of their parents and championed pragmatism and self-reliance. Then came the Millennials
, who in turn, champion teamwork rather than individualism, and generally oppose conflict and confrontation.
Understanding how generational values influence decision-making is more important than ever. In modern times, the world is incredibly connected, so it’s incredibly likely that we’ll be able to see these trends that span the globe throughout the development of future generations. So, through understanding the historical context of today, we’ll be able to understand what drives the generations of tomorrow.
Lastly, one of the main influences on how we make decisions has always been the way we approach the idea of death and mortality. It’s easy to understand why a person would prefer not to think about death. However, as it has such a bold influence over us, we should actually pursue to think about it more.
We can’t deny death’s inevitability, so, when we embrace it, it will be able to serve as a great motivation for leading us to a productive and more vibrant life. On top of that, death is the great equalizer that unites us all, making it a great source of empathy.
When twentieth-century American writer Flannery O’Connor discovered she had the fatal disease of lupus, she didn’t despair. In fact, she became more empathetic, open-minded, and enthusiastic about life. The Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky had a similar reaction after a near-death experience – he felt reborn, with a renewed sense of wonder.
This shows that it can be beneficial to stop moving through life simply on autopilot with an inward and distracted demeanor. Instead, it’s important to recognize how amazing it is that we exist at all on this planet, and commit to doing something beautiful to honor our lives.
In Review: The Laws of Human Nature Book Summary
The key message in this book summary:
Human nature is full of laws that greatly influence our day-to-day lives. These include the laws of irrationality, narcissism, envy, shortsightedness, aggression, and the denial of death. Some of these tendencies aren’t easy to accept, even though they’re aspects of the human condition. Once you do accept their existence, though, you can begin to improve your life. With a better understanding of human nature, you can recognize when emotions are leading to irrational decisions, or when your opinions are too influenced by groups and organizations. Being able to better understand human nature is also an amazing way to understand the commonalities between all human beings, allowing for a huge boost in your empathy levels.
Be motivated by the sublime.
Take a step back and consider everything that’s occurred so that life could exist on this planet in the first place. Against great odds, the right conditions fell into place, one thing led to another and billions of years later, here you are reading this sentence. To grasp the amazing chain of events that led to your conscious life, as well as all the mountains, oceans, plants, and wildlife, is to grasp what’s known as the sublime
. The fact that you’re alive at all is a wondrous thing, and it’s important to never lose sight of this.
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