wired for intimacy and sociability
December 1, 2011, 4:15 am
Filed under: brave new world, the sweet life | Tags: , ,

People are naturally competitive.  True statement.  Everyone I know, from my earliest days until now, including parents and siblings, my oldest friends, people I studied and worked with, pretty well everyone, is naturally competitive.  But surely competition can’t be a person’s defining characteristic, they must also have other qualities.

When someone says to me ‘people are naturally competitive,’ I tend to think he doesn’t mean that competition is one of  many valid human qualities.  Rather he means that competitiveness is a dominant characteristic in all people.  Depending on who is saying it, he may even mean that being competitive is a fundamental characteristic, that competition is at the very heart of being human, to the exclusion of other characteristics.

I think the phrase ‘people are naturally competitive,’ is code for:  we all accept – and you had better too – the systems that we have set up, for life, school, work and even love and friendship, that pit people against each other in every way and on every walk throughout their lives.  Even at the funeral.

Here is an alternate view offered by the author Jeremy Rifkin.  In the following paragraphs he sketches a history of the source of our more than slightly adolescent preponderance for competition, rooted in religious fervor, market orthodoxy and political dogma.  But a new view is emerging, he says, that our biology is populated by a far richer mix of motivations.  We desire intimacy and friendship and these drives are as rooted in our genetic DNA as the less attractive impulses to aggress and compete.

Someday, people will walk up to other people and say ‘we are naturally intimate,’ or ‘we are naturally sociable.’  And that will change everything.  If we have ill-advisedly formed our more than a little adolescent scrappy lives around the current reigning belief that people are fundamentally competitive, then it stands to reason that a new sort of life is possible if we begin to believe that people are fundamentally empathic and sociable.  I’m interested in what that new kind of life could look and feel like.

Here is the excerpt from Rifkin:

From the very moment John Winthrop and his flock of Puritans landed on American shores in 1630, we came to believe that we are God’s chosen people and that the Lord has a unique covenant with us that makes us special among the peoples of the world. In our economic life, we have become the fiercest supporters of Adam Smith’s belief that the naked pursuit of individual self-interest in the market is the defining feature of human nature. In our political life, we have come to believe in “American Exceptionalism,” that our political ideology is somehow superior to all others. In our social life, we are the strongest supporters of Social Darwinism, that life is a combative struggle in which only the strongest survive. These highly regarded core beliefs are antithetical to a mature empathic sensibility.


New discoveries in human evolutionary development are challenging our long held shibboleths about human nature. We are learning that human beings are biologically predisposed not for aggression, violence, self-interest and pleasure seeking utilitarian behavior but, rather, for intimacy and sociability, and that empathy is the emotional and cognitive means by which we express these drives.

Will We Heed President Obama’s Call for a More Empathetic Society?, Jeremy Rifkin

2 Comments so far
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Maybe if women run the world.

Comment by Mona

Yes, it could be a gender thing. It could also be a matter of being human or not, the argument being that technocratic solutions are not human.

Thanks for the comment!

Comment by Peter Rudd

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