Robert Greene’s newly released book, The Laws Of Human Nature, meets the precedent set by his bestselling The 48 Laws Of Power, Mastery, The Art Of Seduction and The 33 Strategies Of War. Greene specializes in unmasking the Machiavellian side to human nature, and in many ways, this latest book represents a culmination of his previous work.
What I love about Greene is that he shatters our moral pretensions, unmasks our secret motivations, and completely removes any illusions about the sanctity of human nature. We are not much holier than chimps and baboons; we’ve learned the art of social artifice, the blinding power of persuasive rhetoric, and, for some of us, the ability to master our swirling, chaotic feelings and emotions rather than to be mastered by them.
Greene’s book spans nearly 600 pages, and lest you think I’m spinning my own deception, I’ll confess that I only just picked up The Laws Of Human Nature last night, and am just shy of 100 pages at the time of writing this. However, I did want to begin a blog series dealing with some of the lessons in the book bit by bit, both in an attempt to persuade you to read the book yourself, and also so that you can begin to put some of the lessons into practice now. There is the added benefit of having the material fresh in my mind.
Greene addresses facets of human nature from a psychological perspective, discussing some of the latest scientific findings concerning the inner workings of the human animal, and then offers practical advice for overcoming some of our weaknesses. As with Greene’s other work, each point is illustrated with historical and biographical accounts, so you get a decent education as a result.
Greene’s writing style is direct but eloquent; he writes as he speaks in interviews. One gets the impression that he looks to Machiavelli and Castiglione, Cicero and Seneca. His books aren’t just literary artifacts; they’re manuals and handbooks for life.
The first chapter, which I’ll be covering in this article, is entitled Master Your Emotional Self, but it could just as well have been called “How To Be Rational.”
Our emotions are derived from our limbic brain, which was an evolutionary development in mammals alongside the older, ‘lizard’ brain of the reptiles. As Greene points out, “Emotions originate as physical arousal designed to capture our attention and cause us to take notice of something around us.” They have survival as a driving force.
The problem for humans is that we have another brain layer, so to speak: the neocortex, which controls “cognition and, for humans, language.” There is a disconnect between these two areas of the brain (as an aside, one positive effect of meditation is that it results in an increased connection between these two brain regions, so we can better understand our emotional selves). We struggle to put into words, to fully and analytically comprehend, our own emotions: “we do not have conscious access to the origins of our emotions and the moods they generate. Once we feel them, all we can do is try to interpret the emotion, translate it into language.” As Greene says, “For us, the split between our emotions and our cognition is a source of constant internal friction, comprising a second Emotional Self within us that operates beyond our will.”
Greene discusses the origins of most of our emotional triggers: our childhood years. It’s a truism by now to say that most of our emotional issues stem from insecurity picked up in childhood, and I’ll skip over Greene’s assessment there.
What I am most interested in is the three-step process Greene recommends for controlling emotion, not getting swept up in it, and allowing our rational sides to prevail. Greene offers this definition of ‘rationality’:
Rationality is the ability to counteract these emotional effects, to think instead of react, to open your mind to what is really happening, as opposed to what you’re feeling. It does not come naturally; it is a power you must cultivate, but in doing so we realize our greatest potential.
Three Steps to Rationality
Greene’s three-step strategy begins with recognizing the biases in our own minds. Our biases, our distortions of reality, are all derived from the desire to seek pleasure and to avoid pain. Facts that make us uncomfortable, that trigger negative emotions, diminish our sense of self, and reveal our illusions–these are painful, and we avoid them.
Greene identifies six categories of biases:
The first is the confirmation bias, probably the best known of the six. The fact is that once we’ve formed an opinion about something, we oftentimes seek out information that confirms us in our beliefs, and we ignore information that could undermine our worldview. While this may protect us from psychological disturbance, it doesn’t lead to a realistic assessment. Greene recommends countering this bias by intentionally seeking out opposing viewpoints and coldly examining your beliefs with dispassion, like a scientist.
Our next bias is the conviction bias. We often become emotionally defensive of beliefs that are “secretly pleasing to us” but which we may doubt, deep down. Consider the religious zealots, the political ideologues, and the moral grandstanders. You can spot this bias in yourself and in others by the beliefs you defend to the point of vehemence; when any challenge to your view illicits a fury of response, it’s time to check yourself for a bias. And when you spot it in others, be wary, take note, and file it away.
The appearance bias is our tendency to judge others at face value and draw unwarranted extrapolations concerning their moral character. For example, we tend to trust good looking people over others or to link a negative characteristic like laziness with stupidity or untrustworthiness. We should always be aware that people wear masks and are complex; a surface analysis is likely to be incorrect.
Perhaps the most relevant bias Greene discusses for our current social climate is the group bias. This is the tendency to adopt all of the views that our group holds–say, like a political affiliation–while believing ourselves to be non-conformists. “We experience tremendous relief when we find others who think the same way we do. In fact, we are motivated to take up ideas and opinions because they bring us this relief.” We adopt a range of unrelated opinions because we are tribal, and fitting in satisfies this tribal need.
The next bias is the blame bias. When we make mistakes, fail, or do not meet our own standards, we tend to look for situations or other people to blame. It protects our egos and preserves our self-esteem. We would do much better to honestly look at our mistakes and learn from them, assuming a reasonable level of responsibility, and improve ourselves for the future.
The last bias Greene writes about is the superiority bias. We imagine ourselves to be better than others; “We feel a tremendous pull to imagine ourselves as rational, decent, and ethical. These are qualities highly promoted in the culture.” But this is a deception, and most of us realize this. We all have the same human frailties. We’re all “sick animals” as Nietzsche once wrote.
The second step in overcoming our irrational impulses is to be aware of what Greene calls “inflaming factors.” These are factors that create in us strong emotions, so powerful that we lose ourselves in them and cannot think straight. We all have emotional triggers from childhood, for example. Notice when you become childish, upset, or blow things out of proportion. Chances are you are reliving a childhood experience. Greene recommends that we “detach ourselves and contemplate the possible source–the wound in early childhood–and the patterns it has us locked into.”
Oftentimes these inflaming factors can be other people, individuals who display a kind of charisma that either draws us in or violently repels us. When we notice this tendency within ourselves, we should dispassionately note it, step back, and get a hold of ourselves.
The third step is to implement strategic methods of regaining our rational selves. Greene goes into a bit of depth, but I’ll mention them in brief: you should strive to know yourself, as the Greeks said. “Examine your strengths;” be aware of your weaknesses. Discard the idea that you don’t have emotional weaknesses, that you’re saintly and upright. You’re not. You’re a trembling animal aware of his or her eventual bodily death, starving for meaning in an apparently meaningless world. Your life matters little to a cold, indifferent universe–or, at least, apparently cold and indifferent.
You’re not a fucking snowflake. You’re a little better than an ape. You don’t care about others half as much as you let on, and you most certainly are self-centered. There’s nothing wrong with this; it’s the human condition, after all. But you’ve got to see reality for what it is. You need to coldly analyze your emotions. What’s causing them? What is the root of your irrational outbursts, poor judgment, strange attraction to volatile and toxic people? Greene recommends keeping a journal to record your flare-ups and looking for a pattern so as to ascertain the source. You have to study yourself.
“Increase your reaction time.” That is, take longer to react to emotional situations; take time to calm yourself and take back control of your rationality before you do something unwise or catastrophic. If you need to leave the room, do so. A wise general knows when to retreat. There are several relaxation exercises you can do, and even physical movements the you can implement in public without looking too weird–I’ll eventually cover them in future articles, but a good place to start is with Mark Bowden’s book Winning Body Language.
“Accept people as facts.” This is my favorite piece of advice. Greene advocates that you withhold judgement from people and simply gather information. Experience the discovery of a person as a joy, and make a real effort to get to know them. Not only will you better assess them, but they are likely to develop warm feelings for you, and you for them. Despite Greene’s reputation as a scheming amoralist, many of his recommendations are designed to become a better person through a better understanding of human nature.
Finally, Greene recommends finding a balance between emotion and thinking. Your emotion is a drive that you can use to get things done, push through adversity, and accomplish goals. The Greeks thought of your emotional self as a horse, and your thinking, rational self as a rider. You need to control yourself, but you also need to become one with your emotion, directing it instead of being pulled along for a ride.
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I hope you found this useful, and thanks for reading! You’ll find a link for The Laws of Human Nature Below: