The Cultural Animal: Human Nature, Meaning, and Social Life

The Cultural Animal: Human Nature, Meaning, and Social Life

The Cultural Animal: Human Nature, Meaning, and Social Life

The Cultural Animal: Human Nature, Meaning, and Social Life

Synopsis

What makes us human? Why do people think, feel and act as they do? What is the essence of human nature? What is the basic relationship between the individual and society? These questions have fascinated both great thinkers and ordinary humans for centuries. Now, at last, there is a solidbasis for answering them, in the form of accumulated efforts and studies by thousands of psychology researchers. We no longer have to rely on navel-gazing and speculation to understand why people are the way they are - we can instead turn to solid, objective findings. This book, by an eminentsocial psychologist at the peak of his career, not only summarizes what we know about people - it also offers a coherent, easy-to-understand, though radical, explanation. Turning conventional wisdom on its head, the author argues that culture shaped human evolution. Contrary to theories thatdepict the individual's relation to society as one of victimization, endless malleability, or just a square peg in a round hole, he proposes that the individual human being is designed by nature to be part of society. Moreover, he argues that we need to briefly set aside the endless study ofcultural differences to look at what most cultures have in common - because that holds the key to human nature. Culture is in our genes, although cultural differences may not be. This core theme is further developed by a powerful tour through the main dimension of human psychology. What do peoplewant? How do people think? How do emotions operate? How do people behave? And how do they interact with each other? The answers are often surprising, and along the way the author explains how human desire, thought, feeling, and action are connected.

Excerpt

Sometimes, I hear, one can set out to write a book according to a certain plan and actually keep to the plan, so that the final book closely resembles the original conception. More often, the project changes and evolves during the writing. This particular book changed in sweeping, fundamental ways.

My initial project was to provide a summary and overview of human nature, based on current lab findings in social psychology. There were, I thought, good reasons for trying to produce such a book. Psychology has amassed an impressive stock of research findings—but they are assembled piecemeal, in thousands of journal articles, each trying to make one or two small points. This mass of information is essentially beyond the reach of anyone except experts in the field. As a result, when scholars in other fields want some broad answers about what makes people tick, they often turn to Freud. I don't intend to indulge in the sort of Freud bashing that has been popular among psychologists in recent decades, and I would even list him as one of the greatest geniuses of all time. Still, he's obsolete at best. We should give him credit for his correct ideas, but we must also acknowledge that he was wrong about quite a few other things, and inevitably he simply overlooked quite a bit more.

It is therefore saddening and maddening to psychologists to see scholars in other fields continue to use Freud's model of human nature. I therefore decided to write a new model that would be based on all that we have learned in the decades since Freud died. All I would have to do would be to . . .

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