Building a world fit for humans

Our understanding how human beings think and behave is one of the most important tools we have available to make our world and our lives better. Yet, we are failing to use this knowledge.

A couple of decades ago, psychology was released into the real world in a discipline that has become known as ‘Behavioural Economics’, in which pychological knowledge is used to nudge, prod and cajole people into specifc actions. This is sometimes used to achieve behaviour change on important topics – for example the United Nations produced a report in 2021 showing how behavioural science can be used to help achieve its Sustainable Development Goals. In other cases, it is used for commercial purposes – for example, to help design the layout of supermarkets so that customers will buy more products.

There is a growing industry of consultants and agencies offering their services to help clients harness human behaviour to achieve their aims – whatever they are.

It’s no surprise that psychology is being used for commercial purposes as well as laudable humanitarian ones, as it’s a powerful tool. What is surprising to me however is that we only seem to be using it at a micro level – to gain detailed changes in individual human beings – and only very rarely to explore the bigger picture, of society, politics and our future.

It may simply be because behavioural economics is the most useful tool immediately from a commercial perspective, so this is where the money has gone. But there are significant ways we can rethink and improve the world if we applied our understanding of human beings to the systems, ideas and institutions that govern us.

Our knowledge of how human beings think and behave has dramatically increased in the last 80 years, as advances in knowledge and a desire to understand the horrors of the Second World War accellerated research into how and why we behave as we do.

Despite these advances in understanding, most people, including those who are writing our economic policies, building our instititions and setting our pollitical and social visions, still have an old-fashioned and innacurate view of human beings – one that can be traced back to the Enlightenment, over 200 years ago. It is the picture of human beings as ‘rational calculating machines’ – creatures that make balanced, informed decisions on the information available to them. The reality is far from this however, and a great deal more complex.

We are creatures with a range of mental and behavioural adaptations to help us simplify the world, pass our genes on, live in tribes and function in the environment that our hunter-gather ancestors lived in up to 12,000 years ago. As a result, we are not rational calculating machines – we are much more complex than this. Our particular thinking and behavioural traits have enabled us to build our population to 8 billion people on this planet that live relatively peacefully together.

As creatures evolved for a hunter-gatherer existence and environment however, we can find it difficult to adapt to the challenges and expectations we face in the twenty-first century world we have created – from the need for global co-operation on existential issues such as climate change, through to the need to deal with massive levels of information and lifestyle choices.

We expect ourselves to overcome these challenges, and we tend to label people as stupid or evil if they fail to do so. Yet we are living within systems and institutions (political, economic, social and many others) that have been built based on the incorrect ‘rational calculating machine’ view of human beings. And some have been built on other aims than helping human beings to flourish in a finite world. This means, in some cases, we are using tools sucha as behavioural economics to actually exploit our mental vulnerabilities, rather than helping to protect them to enable human beings to flourish. Why would we set up supermarkets to ‘nudge’ people to buy more unhealthy food otherwise?

Our knowledge about human beings could help us redesign the world and our lives in a way that is suitable for the creatures we really are – and with the aim of helping human beings to flourish within the parameters of our planet. From systems that promote greater international co-operation through to mass communication methods that don’t incentivise hate and division. But our challenges are urgent, so we need to get on to this job now – and encourage those who are applying psychology to the ‘real world’ to think big, and use it to challenge the systems and ideas that govern us.

It’s time to unleash the full power of psychology to create a better future for human beings and the planet.