Have you thought about (HYTA) how we are not really the nice people we think are?


To immerse myself further into my Japanese studies, I got around to watching Liar Game. Its premise, though not exactly original, is simple – an elaborately designed arena where contestants compete among themselves for a payout at the end. Losers are left hopelessly in debt so everyone, as the title of the show suggests, employs deception to remove their competitors.

Liar Game’s keynote, if watched to the very end, is simple: Ultimately, people can trust each other, and despite being incentivised to cheat, can work together for mutual gain – being nice and sincere eventually snags a victory. It’s not unfamiliar grounds. Schools have repeatedly drilled this moral precept into their charges – be nice, trust others and you will be rewarded.

But the other half of what’s missing is that it’s a rule that’s only conveniently followed. And that’s exactly how it’s done everywhere.

We cooperate for only as long as we can consciously or unconsciously sense a recurring benefit. It’s why we form groups. A financial company is a group. As is a class. Or friends. It creates a vision, a shared objective, a common belief. And you usually do not extend this courtesy to others who oppose or threaten your inner circle.

People can be as nice as they want to be only when the stakes are low. If you are an old man who needs help getting on the bus, then consciously or unconsciously, helping you is a quick way of getting a mood boost. But draw up the battlefields in a highly competitive class where everyone is benchmarked and compared against a bell curve, there is far more reluctance to share notes or go the extra mile to help a ‘fellow competitor’.

We are about as self-serving as we can be without tarnishing our public reputation of being a nice human being. And those who believe in absolute selflessness are quickly destroyed, and they too will learn to harden themselves. It’s exactly how it worked out in Liar Game too. Its protagonist, the naive Kanzaki Nao, only succeeds in unifying her competitors because she eventually learns to lie. Had she remained as she was, she would have stood no chance at all.

Also, we behave in seemingly nice ways because we very rarely chance upon strategies that would completely destroy a person and simultaneously bring us large gains. Unless we manage to completely obliterate a person, a recoverable injury  means we risk the worst possible outcome: revenge. Most strategies don’t work because we understand how powerful revenge can be.

Are we all then great strategists and descendants of Sun Tzu? Of course not. Most of us probably never really think in this way but we know why we won’t entertain certain options no matter how upset or greedy we are – either the full force of the law descends on us or we risk social alienation. If all restrictions were off, would we behave as nice people? Unlikely. Why do I have to buy from your store every day if I could just kill you with absolutely no repercussions?

Perhaps the most telling example that we are all sufficiently good at pretending to be nice is a simple comparison between who we are now against who we were. We can never survive with our childhood optimism of believing everyone is a friend. Such an approach invites volitional self-destruction. Now, we are still ‘nice’ but we are also more than capable of grievous retaliation, and as long as others agree to be nice and there’s a strong mutual gain, we too shall honour it.

Unless of course, the stakes are high, and an opening (with no chance of recovery) reveals itself.

So have you thought (HYTA) about whether we are the nice people we make ourselves to be?

2 thoughts on “Have you thought about (HYTA) how we are not really the nice people we think are?

    1. You can. Because as an easy-going person, the life you are after has little or no stakes involved.

      Our behaviour and how others react to it will change if we acquire something of value such as power or wealth.

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