“Humankind a hopeful history” book review by Helena Wardle

Some of the best books are the ones you find when you are not looking, and I accidentally stumbled across “Humankind a hopeful history” by Rutger Bregman. It was a brilliant read. This book challenges the view that in a time of crisis, people act in their self-interest in a thought-provoking manner. From the first pages Bregman hooks you with examples of the resilience of the British people and the quirky humour during the Blitz in the Second World War. It continues with other inspiring and interesting stories throughout, as the author sets out to display people as kind, courageous, friendly, and caring by nature. “Humankind a hopeful history” is uplifting and worthwhile way to lose a weekend.

I once heard that cynics are just failed idealist, and this book reminded me so much of that. Which experiences carry more weight in the assumptions we make? Can we notice our preconceptions? Do we question what we read and see in the news and media enough? We probably need to improve our objectivity and this point is challenged well in how the stories are presented. Bregman is not saying that people don’t make mistakes- only that most people are quite decent and doing the best they can.

A brilliant example of this is the following extract from the book:

“So what is this radical idea? That most people, deep down, are pretty decent. I don’t know anyone who explains this idea better than Tom Postmes, professor of social psychology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

For years, he’s been asking students the same question. Imagine an airplane makes an emergency landing and breaks into three parts. As the cabin fills with smoke, everybody inside realises: We’ve got to get out of here. What happens?

  • On Planet A, the passengers turn to their neighbours to ask if they’re okay. Those needing assistance are helped out of the plane first. People are willing to give their lives, even for perfect strangers.
  • On Planet B, everyone’s left to fend for themselves. Panic breaks out. There’s lots of pushing and shoving. Children, the elderly, and people with disabilities get trampled underfoot. Now the question:

Which planet do we live on?”

The cynics portrayal of history taints the way we look at the world. We have to ask ourselves if we are challenging the storytellers’ objectivity enough? How does it fit in with our own daily experiences or what’s more, when times get tough? At the time of reading Bregman’s book, I fittingly came across a story of a swimmer getting into trouble in Dorset. In this case, beachgoers spontaneously created a human chain to help the swimmer. This, for me, illustrates how it is not unusual to see selfless acts of kindness where people are willing to risk their own lives for strangers. Furthermore, it shows just how natural our instinct to help is.

People just acted. Why? When we see someone in distress, will we all stand by and do nothing? I don’t believe we think we will be that apathetic, but we seem to think others will.  If we are only out for ourselves, why do we put ourselves in danger to help someone we have never met. Stories of kindness don’t get the same airtime as stories of cruelty and acts of selfishness. Our own beliefs drive us, and if we believe that most people are only out for themselves, it is more likely that we will see it that way and go looking for confirmation of this.

We can apply this to our view of our peers in general. We think that we mostly act in our client’s best interest, but we scarcely believe this of other advisers. Particularly ones we don’t know. I have been guilty of this myself, and I think the lack of trust we show our peers can contribute to how we are viewed. Can we expect the public to trust financial advisers when we barely do?

This book reminds us that history is typically told as stories, experiences from someone else’s perspective and that we are capable of twisting what happened to suit us. How prepared are we to accept that our initial view may have been wrong? Bregman debates this brilliantly throughout this book by putting a different perspective on stories that are well researched. The belief that people are out for themselves are challenged and makes you think about the context of the situation. What I really loved is the way that Bregman was so willing and open to change his mind when the evidence presented itself. Could the determination to be right make us unwilling to reflect appropriately on what is happening?

I have noticed the care and consideration people have shown loved ones and strangers through the surreal and, let’s face it, quite a grim year that 2020 has been. Whether you have come off lightly and not been affected too much or had heartbreak and struggle, this year has been a weight on us all. Seeing the compassion of others has been inspiring and to have the ability to help others has definitely lifted my spirits. This book is based on the view that we are wired for kindness and the belief that we are only out for ourselves are confronted throughout.

So, what do you want, Planet A or Planet B?