What Makes us Human? Nature vs. Nurture of Human Morality

“As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world – that is the myth of the atomic age – as in being able to remake ourselves.”  Mahatma Gandhi

Human morality – a set of cultural beliefs, “skills and motives for cooperating with others” (1), our collectively held notions of what is good vs. wrong human behavior – is critical for a group survival (2). Moral values implicitly regulate human interactions and underlie everyday decisions and actions. They serve not only as guidance to an individual’s choices and behavior, but also as standards for evaluation of actions, people, situations, events, and “justifications of self and others” (3).

Many scholars agree that our modern system of values and beliefs is the root cause for our current sustainability crisis. Researchers argue that “our business leaders are hollow and lack appropriate moral and ethical standards” (4) and that the decline in prosocial other-oriented values is “responsible for increases in unethical business practices and activities that destroy the physical environment” (5).  Since our moral compass is broken – we cannot distinguish good from bad behavior and we cannot prevent harmful socially destructive behavior (e.g., discrimination, high inequality, pollution, deforestation, etc). This situation resembles a sick immune system when it is unable to distinguish healthy cells from pathogens, thus compromising the proper functioning of the whole organism.

To achieve sustainability, we need to understand (i) the true nature of human morality – what is good vs. bad human behavior? (ii) how does it emerge – from genes (nature) or culture (nurture) ? and (iii) why do we face a morality crisis – why do our business and political leaders behave selfishly and opportunistically?

Biological basis for human morality: primate vs. human cognition

To understand the true and unique nature of human morality, it is quite useful to look at the recent studies of comparative psychology that reveal the similarities and differences between human and great apes social cognition. These experimental studies compare the behavior of human children (from 1 to 4 years of age) and great apes in diverse social situations and experimental settings. The study of young preschoolers allows researchers to control for cultural influences such as socialization and education and to see how essentially biological forces (nature) had shaped a uniquely human cognition.

A growing body of evidence shows that both humans and great apes engage in a wide range of collaborative activities (e.g., instrumental helping, reciprocation of favors, sharing food with others, coordination of efforts in collective endeavors such as group defense, hunting, or fighting). However, some significant differences can be found in the underlying motives for social interactions and cooperation between human and primates.

Different studies show that chimpanzees have a complex level of understanding of social situations  – “they are capable of employing different means (i.e., waiting, recruiting good over bad collaborators and helping) to coordinate their actions with those of the partner.” However, despite their sophisticated cognitive skills, chimpanzees “prefer working alone unless collaboration is the only way of achieving success or obtaining higher payoffs… Collaboration does not seem to be intrinsically motivating for them (as it is for children); rather, it seems to be a strategy for reaching otherwise inaccessible goals” (6). In other words, chimpanzees coordinate their actions with others to achieve their individual selfish goals but they are not interested in achieving joint, social goals (7).

Because of their individualistic preferences, primate social life is mainly structured around competition and the key pattern of their social interactions is dominance. Competitive disputes are settled by force when “the dominant doing just what he wants to do, and the subordinate must simply defer” (7). They use their language skills primarily to request things rather than for sharing information with others in declarative modes (8). While being able to cooperate in the context of reciprocity (exchange of favors), nonhuman apes generally approach collaboration in a calculative manner and they “use their partner as a kind of social tool–which they know is necessary in the context–in order to get what they want” (7).

By contrast to manipulative self-serving chimpanzees, human children view their partners in a truly collaborative light as “intentional, cooperative agents with whom they must coordinate intentional states” (9). They readily engage in collaborative activities, and show a sense of equality and fairness in dividing up resources in the context of collaboration (10). When faced with a choice to obtain food in experimental settings, young children prefer a collaborative option over a solitary one (11). Moreover, “when a cooperative activity breaks down, 18-month-olds and 2 year olds actively try to re-engage the partner in order to continue the joint activity even in the case when the partner is not needed for the child to complete the activity” (7; 9).

Human children help others in a variety of ways, often spontaneously in novel situations without solicitation and without expectation of rewards (12). By contrast to nonhuman apes who exploit others’ perspectives primarily for their own purposes, human infants use their understanding of others’ mental states and ultimate goals when deciding how to help (13). Unlike chimpanzees, young children share resources altruistically and inform others of things helpfully (14). They are driven by “a genuine desire to improve another person’s situation,” not reputational benefits or material rewards (15).

While both nonhuman apes and humans are capable of cognitive representation of others’ states, human higher-order cognition can be explained by the unique “combination of perspective-taking skills and a cooperative motivation for sharing psychological states with others” (13). From an evolutionary point of view, it is “a mutualistic rather than a purely individualistic approach to cooperative activity” – when humans “became deeply invested in not only their own but also their partners’ welfare, when they began to care about the joint nature of their cooperative activities” – that allowed them to develop a complex cognition and thus make a quantum leap in human evolution (7). Therefore, unlike nonhuman apes, “human cognition seems to be most tailored for cooperative and prosocial rather than Machiavellian purposes”(13).

Cultural influence on human morality

While biological predispositions for human prosociality (other-regarding preferences) are very robust and flexible in young children (15), they are not enough to assure large-scale cooperation that takes place among strangers or non-relatives in large groups and/or societies (16). For this reason, cultural evolution provides additional layers of control to biological mechanisms – social norms and institutions – that “shape instinctual behavior so that it can be adapted flexibly to a complex and rapidly changing environment” and ensure “survival in a particular society” (17).

As cultural evolution is much more rapid than biological or genetic evolution, it normally provides more complex, fine-tuned and fitness-enhancing cultural knowledge or “highly refined adaptations to local environments” that gradually accumulating over generations (16). Cultural evolution is especially valuable in the chaotic, rapidly changing world  allowing to introduce rapid changes to individual and collective behaviors in the face of new challenges (2).

Cultural forces are not only faster, but much more powerful than biological adaptations and might significantly alter the prosocial responding in humans either by enhancing or compromising it (1).  Since human prosociality is critical for large-scale collaboration (16), language development (13), creativity and innovations (8), making society’s members more adaptive and smarter over generations,  healthy societies in general build upon the biological predisposition for human prosociality by transmitting prosocial other-regarding values and norms via education and socialization practices. As Damasio put it, “If we assume that the brain is normal and the culture in which it develops is healthy, the (socio-emotional learning) device has been made rational relative to social conventions and ethics” (17).

Social value orientations: Proselfs vs. Prosocials

While cultural influences are critical for cultivating human prosociality, they are not homogenous within the same cultural groups. As experimental research in social psychology demonstrates, there are primarily two types of individuals that behave and cooperate differently in social interactions or social dilemma games:

  1. Prosocial individuals have strong preferences for long-term collective benefits over short-term selfish gains. They are capable of delaying immediate gratification and engaging in a mutually beneficial social interaction and cooperation with other prosocials (18) thanks to their higher level of empathy and the ability to infer other people’s feelings and expectations from eye gazes (19). Prosocials are more likely to adhere to universal ethical values—protecting the environment, a world of beauty, social justice, equality, a world at peace (20) and to make costly normative choice when conflict arises between economic self-interest and the ethical norm of fairness (21).
  2. By contrast, proselfs are more likely to free ride in social dilemmas as they prefer to “outperform the others and reap the benefits for themselves” (22). Because of their exclusive sensitivity to external material rewards (23), proselfs have no concern for others’ feelings and morality but still are capable of cooperating if strong extrinsic incentives are present; for example, when cooperation leads to a higher individual payoff than defection as in the case of a coordination game (see [22] for more detail)In other words, proselfs behave like chimpanzees in social interactions by manipulating and using others as a means of achieving their selfish materialistic goals.

Education as the major cultural force

These key differences in human motives for social interactions and cooperation can be explained by the fact that proselfs have not internalized the norms of social responsibility (24) during the critical period of human brain development “till the age of 20-23 years” when incoming socio-emotional information become in-built into the neurocognitive architecture responsible for human perception and cognition (25). The failure to internalize prosocial values can be attributed either to neurobiological disorders (unhealthy brain) or to dysfunctional or maladaptive cultural influence (unhealthy culture) which is transmitted during education and socialization processes (17).  Indeed, the data from a national (U.S.) survey shows that education, followed by occupation, is “the most important single variable accounting for differences in patterns of values” (26).

Cognitive scholars argue that learning and training significantly affect humans’ cognition, “their reasoning about everyday life events and even their behavior” (27). In their experimental study, researchers demonstrate how people trained in economics interpret reality and make a choice differently as compared with non-economists. Specifically, economists are more likely to apply cost-benefit analysis over humanistic values even when two types of rules are in conflict while non-economists are less favorable to use analytical reasoning in various every-day situations. Researchers conclude that “although people ordinarily are not perfectly rational by economists’ standards, they are capable of becoming more rational” (28).

These results are in line with other empirical studies that document the potentially alienating effects of neoclassical economics training on human cognition and behavior such as a higher level of selfish and cheating behavior, violation of ethical norms, and free riding behavior among business/MBA students or students taking courses in microeconomics (29 -33).


Evolution has bestowed upon us uniquely human qualities and cognition. While our evolutionarily closest relatives –chimpanzees – possess many of the cognitive prerequisites necessary for human-like collaboration, they lack the motivation to engage in a cooperative activity and “have little regard for the equitable distribution of resources arising from cooperative efforts” (13). In contrast, human biology is predestined us for social connection and caring about each other. The problem is that human morality – our genuine capacity to care about and cooperate with others – unfolds in part naturally and to a great extent as a result of socio-cultural learning and experiences (7). Today our Western culture (propagated via business education) massively produces selfish, chimpanzee-like humans who are more likely to access top management and leadership positions in large companies and the political sphere. This overrepresentation of socially inept (evolutionarily inferior) individuals at higher hierarchical levels creates dysfunctional public institutions and corporate structures that are unable to deal with the growing complexity of our society and address global social, economic and ecological challenges.

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  1. Agustín Sánchez Cobos - 08/02/2017 @ 16:06

    I love your approach to this topic Elena. And maybe it is not fear to say it but… it is interesting to see how we are not fully humans yet. Since cultural needs should match our inner truth as a species before we can truly and really be… what we are.

    Some people have a lot of faith in an imminent change for the better even in this century. Some people not. However… if there is someone that can see what we are… there is a battle between what we are and what we are not. And according to what I see in the universe, if you consider it as a system. It seems to me that coherence always prevails, so…

    Thank you for pointing out the differences and for be in the good side of the battle.
    Best wishes!

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