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Need to Improve your Relations with Others? Start by Getting Human Nature Right

Most of us periodically struggle to manage our relationships, whether we’re trying to manage a company, a team, a marriage, or a friendship. The problem is that we’re often fighting, rather than riding, the tremendous current of human nature. And when we fight a tide we could be riding, we do ourselves a great disservice.

There are two possible causes of our struggle to act in harmony with the way people really are:

  1. We don’t understand human nature well enough, or
  2. We understand human nature well, but aren’t living in harmony with it.

The first one is addressable. Studying great practical philosophers is one step. AristotleMontaigneMarcus AureliusSeneca, and Munger are just a few of our favorites. Much has been written about human nature. The great classics of literature are really all about human nature. Great biographical works give us tremendous understanding of people if we are willing to read them and understand them. Even Seinfeld wasn’t really a show about nothing, but about how silly our behavior is around one another.

Studying evolutionary biology, a more modern development, is the other place to go. The biologists have done a good job explaining where we come from and what’s sitting there in our DNA. We get a lot of that by studying our evolutionary ancestors and cousins — the members of the animal kingdom. Chimps go to war. Bonobos have non-procreative sex, just like we do. Ants organize towards a common goal. We can derive a lot of knowledge about ourselves by asking how we’re similar and dissimilar to our “family tree.”

The second cause of our lack of congruence with human nature is tougher to solve for most. Are we aware of human nature but not executing on what we know? You might call this an Intention-Execution Gap. We know what to do, we just don’t have the discipline to do it. Success would mean closing that gap, probably through a great deal of self-criticism and working on our emotional discipline.

A wonderful Edge talk with Darwinian philosopher Helena Cronin has a telling excerpt on the topic:

Certainly, human nature is fixed. It’s universal and unchanging — common to every baby that’s born, down through the history of our species. But human behavior — which is generated by that nature — is endlessly variable and diverse. After all, fixed rules can give rise to an inexhaustible range of outcomes. Natural selection equipped us with the fixed rules — the rules that constitute our human nature. And it designed those rules to generate behavior that’s sensitive to the environment. So, the answer to ‘genetic determinism’ is simple. If you want to change behavior, just change the environment. And, of course, to know which changes would be appropriate and effective, you have to know those Darwinian rules. You need only to understand human nature, not to change it.

Munger has echoed this in the past, arguing that the way to have a happy partnership is to be a great partner. Buffett has echoed the same: Marrying with the intention of changing the other person is insane. Better to marry right with the intention to change yourself. Learn to be a better partner and create a better environment for the relationship to succeed. How do you think a manager operating in a business environment as awful as steel production was able to do it? He understood human nature and acted in accordance.

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Who else understood human nature pretty well? Machiavelli. Quite possibly the most talked about, least actually read, practical philosopher of all time. For an example, here he is discussing why hiring mercenary soldiers was such a poor choice for 16th century Italy:

Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous; and if one holds his state based on these arms, he will stand neither firm nor safe; for they are disunited, ambitious, and without discipline, unfaithful, valiant before friends, cowardly before enemies; they have neither the fear of God nor fidelity to men, and destruction is deferred only so long as the attack is; for in peace one is robbed by them, and in war by the enemy. The fact is, they have no other attraction or reason for keeping the field than a trifle of stipend, which is not sufficient to make them willing to die for you. They are ready enough to be your soldiers whilst you do not make war, but if war comes they take themselves off or run from the foe.

Isn’t that a pretty simple idea, in accordance with our nature? Incentives drive behavior. And of course we see, with insights like that, The Prince has held up pretty well.

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The modern book on dealing with others is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. It’s so popular, and so “out of date” that it’s easy to dismiss. But Carnegie, like Robin Dreeke, hit on some deep insights about human nature that, if taken seriously, really work. Like understanding others’ incentives:

Why talk about what we want? That is childish. Absurd. Of course, you are interested in what you want. You are eternally interested in it. But no one else is. The rest of us are just like you: we are interested in what we want. So the only way on earth to influence other people is to talk about what they want and show them how to get it.

Again, Carnegie’s wisdom is simple, but absolutely correct. (Another reminder that greats succeed by exploiting unrecognized simplicity.) We are all the protagonists of our own story, aren’t we? And yet, how often do we forget that as we go about our relations with others?

Ben Franklin phrased it famously by saying “If you wish to persuade, appeal to interest, rather than reason.” All that Carnegie and Franklin are doing is recognizing people for what they are, and living in harmony with that reality. When we do so, we go a long way towards well-deserved success. Failing here costs us greatly.

So resolve this year, and all of the rest of your years, to come to a better understand of the way people really are and to start living in accordance with it.