Human nature is mostly fixed. This means that our likes, dislikes, and the things we show attention to are predictable. These qualities don’t vary from person to person, or group to group. Human nature evolved to be this way. Our psychology, which determines our nature, evolved just like any organ or limb in any animal. It evolved to maximize our ability to survive and reproduce.
It is in our want to survive and replicate on a genetic level that leads us to define what feels good, what doesn’t, and what deserves our attention. Basically, we are awarded, psychologically and chemically (by release of hormones that make us feel good), when we do things that move us towards more security and a better chance of survival, or closer to reproducing. The easiest example is sex. Sex feels good because it is a reward for doing what is in our biological interest – reproducing and passing on our genes.
Another example is our taste buds. We are awarded with a taste of sweetness when we bite into an apple. The sweetness tells us that the apple is an edible source of nutrition. We evolved to find apples attractive and also taste good.
Because human nature is largely fixed, we can modify behaviors by appealing to game theoretic incentives. Game theory is the study of mathematical models related to decision making by rational individuals. Game theoretic incentives are incentives that appeal to the rational decision maker.
The rational decision maker in a theoretical game model will make decisions that maximize his ability to survive and reproduce. By understanding the psychological drivers that determine how a human best secures survival and replication, human behavior can be predicted, since we are likely to act in ways that will maximize the two biological desires. Humans can also be incentivized to act in certain ways by playing off of the knowledge of how people are wont to act.
Going back to taste buds, it is possible to employ incentives that prey on our psychology and the wants we evolved to have. For example, we said apples taste good because they are sweet, which suggests that they are nutritious. Processed food companies prey on this behavior by creating very sweet foods that appeal to our taste buds. Our taste buds evolved to tell us what is safe to eat, and to award us when we choose correctly – such as in the case of an attractive and sweet apple. Our taste buds did not evolve to identify when manufactured food takes advantage of the sweet flavor and gives us good feelings without giving us nutrition. That is why people can be trained to return to a food that is extremely unhealthy for them – the chemicals being released in their body are pleasure chemicals. These pleasurable feelings suggest that what the person is doing is good, and that they should do this again.
Human psychology can be manipulated by employing tactics that appeal to our psychology. Positive feedback works better than criticizing faults because it engages pleasurable sensors.
Even sex can be manipulated. Men and women both evolved to find certain characteristics attractive in the other sex. For men, this means an attractive woman is young (fertile), healthy (not fat), and has hips and a butt (can deliver strong children). Women find a man attractive when he is wealthy (resources suggest survivability) and when he is intelligent and able to communicate that intelligence, which suggests that he is reproductively strong. Women wear makeup to make them look younger, clothes that eliminate the appearance of weight, and push the boobs up and their butts out. Men wear expensive watches and boast about their grades or employer. We seek to deceive not because we are bad people, but because we get rewarded for the behavior, which makes us feel not only like we have done no wrong, but that we are actually doing the right thing.
How do we know whether we are being manipulated by others that are preying on our deeply-ingrained nature? We must be objective about the world. We must not let our passions – whether positive or negative, blind us from what we are doing.
In summary, human nature is mostly fixed, because nature tells us what to like, dislike, and show attention to. Human behavior can be modified via game theoretic incentives because:
- Incentives appeal to our fundamental psychology.
- We can encourage and discourage behaviors that appeal to our psychology.