Exploring this year’s Human Nature theme, we ask thought leaders about their vision of the future. What does human nature mean both personally and professionally? In the 7th episode of our Human Nature Forecast series Roos Vonk shares her thoughts on ‘human nature’ in contemporary times.
The nice thing about doing an interview for TedxAmsterdam, is that not only in figural sense it can take you on a journey to beautiful places, but sometimes also quite literally. On a wonderful autumn morning, I find myself in the middle of woods and meadows, where only animals are direct neighbors. Still, the inhabitant of the idyllic cottage in this beautiful environment is Roos Vonk, who as a professor social psychology, trainer and writer of popular books on psychology, spends her time researching human nature.
We are animals
Yet maybe her direct neighbors have influenced her work, because Vonk firmly believes our instinctual part -which we have in common with animals- forms the essence of human nature: “Humans are animals in my opinion. Most of what we do is motivated by typically animal instincts. We want to feel good.” She is fully aware that most people do not see themselves that way: “When I talk about animals I say, other animals. I do that intentionally because I think humans overestimate themselves. They see themselves as a species that is higher, better, superior”.
Another thing that Vonk considers essential for our understanding about human nature is that we’re not only animals, but that we’re social animals. “We all have this innate sense of want to belong to the group, and moreover be a valuable member of the group.” This causes a huge dilemma. On the one hand people want to express themselves as an individual, on the other hand they want to belong in a group. We need and want to have both to be truly happy. But in contemporary society, Vonk states, the balance between being an individual and being a group member has shifted too much towards the individualism of the ego-society: “I agree with the label ego society, because I think the individual has become too important. People want that, they want to express themselves, but they’re forgetting that they want to be connected with other people. This doesn’t do justice to our social nature.” Vonk not only thinks our lack of connectedness is a problem but also the upgrading scale of things. She recounts an example familiar to everyone ‘calling to a service desk’ to illustrate the bad feelings that kind of animosity brings. But not only is it bad for the individual, but also for society. The lacking of social control which is natural for small communities leads to a situation where it’s hard to don’t do the things you want to do, and doing the right things: “Large-scale considerations like it’s bad for the climate, are not part of your instincts and don’t guide your behavior. But if you would feel that you would be rejected by other people if you would eat meat, that would appeal to your instincts and that would make you inhibit that kind of behavior. “
Being your authentic self is emotional incontinence
Not surprisingly, Vonk doesn’t agree either with the popular notion of ‘being your authentic self’ which is often preached in different media as the holy grail of contemporary society: ” The concept of authenticity is misinterpreted very often, because people look at it as ‘I have to be myself, I have to be true to myself’ but what we’re really true to is the underbelly, temporary emotions and urges”. Vonk humorously calls this ’emotional incontinence’. She thinks acting on emotions isn’t authentic at all, because it narrows your perspective so you can’t see your core values anymore: “When you’re saying, I have to write this angry email about something, because I want to be authentic, really you’re not authentic at all. You’re stuck in your own narrowness and you’re really not serving yourself, because when you wait for 2 or 3 days you’re out of the emotion, and look at things from the wider perspective like ‘what does this person mean in my life, do I want to damage the relationship?” Another misunderstanding about authenticity according to Vonk is that you have to be true to yourself regardless the person on the other side: “What does it mean to be authentic if nobody understands you and what you’re doing, and you’re losing everybody. Then you’re not true to your human nature. So authentic is also being true to the nature of you as a social human being and the need to be connected with other people”.
Repress yourself to be free
Although Vonk thinks our instincts play an important part in governing our behavior and people lack self-knowledge in explaining the real motives behind their actions, she still thinks we have a free will: “It’s like a car which drives straight ahead ninety-nine percent of the time, but can make turns. The ability to make turns is a very essential feature of the car. We may have conscious awareness only just one percent of the time, but when we do have it, we can be on the steering wheel and make turns.” This one percent steering capacity lies according to Vonk in being aware of your core-values and repressing temporary urges: “Repressing what you feel like can make you free and make you act to what’s really important to you in the long run.” Vonk thus thinks people can change, but also feels that ‘you can be who you want to be and fix everything you don’t like is an huge overestimation again’. She says people have to accept their failures and imperfections, which she sees as a problem in contemporary society where technological developments stimulate the idea of a makeable society: “The instinctual part wants to fix everything that feels bad and the part that feels I have to be anything that I want to be. That’s foolish and short sided. You have to learn that there’re things in life that you can’t change and if you’re willing to accept it, you can move on, whereas if you don’t you can be stuck in it for years.” So although instincts will always be there, Vonk emphasizes that you can exercise yourself in thinking in the long-term and suppressing the short immediate needs that you have: “If you do it often, you become better at it”. But it’s also something that will never grow automatically. We will always be animals driven by instincts:” If you turn on the automatic pilot, the instincts are going to be in charge. So you have always create moments of awareness and consciousness, getting behind the steering wheel and always maintain the exercise to keep up the free will.” And with that note Vonk’s vision on human nature fits perfectly in the TEDxAmsterdam mentality: doing things = changing things!
* Roos Vonk’s personal website
* Her latest book (in dutch) ‘Menselijke Gebreken voor Gevorderden‘ (2011)
This blogpost is also published on TedxAmsterdam