3 Human Traits That Haven't Changed for the Last 10,000 Years
Updated: Jan 4
Every December, the internet becomes awash with prophecies, predictions, trends and forecasts that paint a picture of a new year, completely different from the current -- thanks to the rise of AR, VR, AI, ML, voice search and more. The main ingredient in these reports is change and the impact of change on business and society. There’s no doubt, technology is accelerating the pace of change. But what about the things that aren’t changing? By placing too much emphasis on what’s next, companies risk overlooking and undervaluing the things that remain constant.
There’s tremendous value in understanding the basic principles of human nature. Bill Bernbach, one of the fathers of advertising once said “It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to even vary. It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own.”
Here are three human traits that have remained unchanged, since the dawn of civilization.
1. We make irrational decisions.
We humans like to think of ourselves as rational animals, making decisions based on facts, logic and reasoning alone. In reality, our decision-making process is riddled with systematic errors, as proven by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in the 1970s with the discovery of cognitive biases. These biases act as mental shortcuts or rules of thumb -- simplifying the decision-making process when faced with an infinite number of choices.
In truth, most of our choices are pre-determined by the unconscious part of the mind governed by instinct, associated memory and emotion. We often make automatic decisions and post-rationalize them through the prism of logic. By understanding our cognitive biases, we can begin to apply nudges to change individual or group behavior.
A simple nudge can increase the number of registered organ donors, help people save more for retirement and reduce spillage around urinals by 80 percent. Having a good understanding of nudge theory and choice architecture is a valuable asset for individuals who want to progress in their careers, companies that want to win new business and governments that want to improve the lives of citizens.
2. We love a good story.
Storytelling is an integral part of the human experience. In fact, the human brain has been programmed to tell, process and enjoy a good story. We have always used stories to improve collaboration, spread information and create a shared sense of identity. In 335 BC, Aristotle stated “a story that is whole has a beginning, middle and an end.”
Today, if you look at the blockbuster movie Black Panther or best-selling book Becoming by Michelle Obama or the outstanding advertisement, Dream Crazy by Nike, you will see that the recipe for success has pretty much remained the same. Recent developments in neuroscience reveal that a well-told story aligns our brain with the narrators. Stories have the power to shape our attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. Companies like Walt Disney, Apple and Airbnb know stories are 22 times more memorable than facts alone and have mastered the art of storytelling to build salient brands.
One of the most practical templates for crafting a compelling narrative is Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey. Whether you’re an aspiring public speaker, a start-up looking for funding or a global brand planning your next advertisement; the core tenants of storytelling can be applied to improve your chances of success.
3. We give and we take.
The rule of reciprocity is simple -- when someone does something for us, we feel obliged to return the favor. From an evolutionary perspective, reciprocation enhances our species chances of survival. Social groups that cooperated achieved far more than individuals who worked in isolation. In contrast, people who received without giving back suffered social exclusion.
Today, our propensity to reciprocate is as strong as when our ancient ancestors first roamed the African savannah. The deep unconscious need to reciprocate explains why Spotify offers a 30-day free trial, restaurants give away free samples and online businesses share valuable advice and information via blogs. Savvy marketers have long recognized that consumers are more likely to pay for a service when you first gift them something of value.
Reciprocity can be a powerful tool for getting people to agree with your request. A simple act, gesture or gift has the potential turn a default "no" into a sincere "yes." The keys are authenticity, respect and delivering real value to your counterpart.
There have been very few biological changes to the human brain in the last 10,000 years. Of course, the outside world has undergone radical changes with the expansion of civilization and the use of ever more sophisticated tools. But the way we process things and make sense of the world has pretty much remained unchanged, shaped by the evolutionary need to survive.
Tapping into the unconscious mind is one of the most powerful means of influence. Applying a nudge can change behavior in a low-cost way, without reducing the number of choices available. Telling a compelling story can connect you with your audience more effectively than facts alone. And the act of giving is one of the best ways of getting people to agree and say yes.
Now, before you start using these deep human insights for business gains, please remember the eternal words of Spiderman’s Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility.” We have the opportunity to use these techniques for the greater good of humanity.