What We Lose When We Assume People Are Bad In the months since the spread of the coronavirus, stories of selfishness and exploitation have become all too familiar: people ignoring social distancing guidelines, or even selling medical equipment at inflated prices. Most of our public and economic policies take aim at these sorts of people — the wrongdoers and the profiteers. But is there a hidden cost to the rest of us when we put bad actors at the center of our thinking? Do the measures we put in place to curtail the selfish inadvertently hurt our capacity to do right by others?
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Our Better Angels: What We Lose When We Assume People Are Bad

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Our Better Angels: What We Lose When We Assume People Are Bad

Our Better Angels: What We Lose When We Assume People Are Bad

Our Better Angels: What We Lose When We Assume People Are Bad

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/857156637/858198569" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Volunteers for the grassroots network Columbia Community Care organize donated groceries and household items at one of five distribution sites in Howard County, Maryland. Courtesy of Erika Strauss Chavarria hide caption

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Courtesy of Erika Strauss Chavarria

Volunteers for the grassroots network Columbia Community Care organize donated groceries and household items at one of five distribution sites in Howard County, Maryland.

Courtesy of Erika Strauss Chavarria

In her normal life, Erika Strauss Chavarria is a high school Spanish teacher in Columbia, Maryland.

But when schools closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, she moved her classes online, and found another way to help. In March, she founded Columbia Community Care, a grassroots network of neighbors helping neighbors.

What started as a Facebook group with about 40 members has become a network of more than 4,000 people. The group runs five sites where it distributes donated groceries and household items, and two pop-up food pantries where volunteers can safely shop to deliver groceries to families who can't leave their homes.

Every day, people post offers of help — from free books and bicycles to donations of fruits and vegetables. One of the group's taglines is "choose compassion."

All over the world, people like Erika are mobilizing to help each other through the pandemic.

At the same time, though, we also see another kind of response: People placing their own self-interest above everything else, sometimes to the point of putting others in harm's way. There are those who have even tried to profit from the pandemic, like the man in New York accused of stockpiling N95 masks to sell at an inflated price.

Such stories of alleged wrongdoing are often what get our attention. So we take action to curtail the selfish bad actor. Legislators pass laws that take aim at transgressors. Regulators and police departments come up with rules that punish lawbreakers. Parents and teachers discipline truants.

But what about the helpers like Erika — have we forgotten them? What are the costs when we design our public and economic policies to focus on the crooks and wrongdoers?

Sam Bowles, a behavioral economist and author of The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives Are No Substitute for Good Citizens, says it's a mistake to focus on the bad, and to ignore the good in people.

"Self-interest in markets and in relations with government isn't going to be a good way to organize the future," says Bowles. "[COVID-19] tells us that we have to rely on other things — communities, neighborhoods, obligations we have to each other — which are not self-interested. That's what we're seeing is fundamentally getting people through this."

This week on Hidden Brain, we explore how laws written to govern the lawless end up changing the behavior of the lawful — for the worse. And we ask, what would happen if public policy was designed to care less about the man who sold his masks for a profit? What would happen if we put people like Erika at the center of our thinking instead?

Additional Resources:

The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives Are No Substitute for Good Citizens by Sam Bowles, 2016.

A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution by Sam Bowles and Herbert Gintis, 2011.

Columbia Community Cares, Erika Strauss Chavarria's Facebook group and grassroots network of neighbors helping neighbors through the coronavirus pandemic.