Why Do Good People Do Bad Things

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor and former academic researcher, committed to conveying complex topics in simple language.

The question of human nature, whether fundamentally good or bad, has preoccupied philosophers, theologians, and scientists for centuries. The implications of this question are profound, shaping our understanding of morality, society, and the self. This article embarks on an exploration into the dichotomy of human nature and human behavior, specifically examining the paradoxical question: “If human nature is fundamentally good, why do people do bad things?”

In spite of ample evidence of kindness, empathy, and altruism in human behavior, we are also confronted daily with evidence of cruelty, greed, and malice. It’s a juxtaposition that leads us to ponder: if our essence is indeed good, how do we explain the occurrence of negative, harmful actions?

Drawing from various disciplines including psychology, sociology, and philosophy, we will delve into the possible reasons behind this apparent contradiction in human behavior. We’ll discuss the role of personal struggles such as mental health issues, unmet needs, past trauma, self-perception, and self-esteem. Moreover, we’ll highlight the influence of societal structures, such as inequality, discrimination, and societal neglect, that can precipitate these personal struggles and, by extension, negative behaviors.

Throughout the article, my aim is not to justify or excuse negative actions, but rather to understand the complex tapestry of factors that can lead to them, even in a world where human nature is fundamentally good. The goal is to broaden our understanding, foster empathy, and emphasize the importance of addressing both personal struggles and societal structures in promoting positive behavior and a more compassionate society.

The Goodness of Human Nature

In exploring the question of human goodness, we turn to some of the most influential figures in the field of psychology, including Carl Rogers and Erich Fromm. Their perspectives, while unique, both underscore the idea of an innate goodness at the core of human nature.

Carl Rogers’ Perspective on Innate Human Goodness

Carl Rogers, a prominent figure in humanistic psychology, asserted a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature. In contrast to Freud’s theory that our unconscious minds are filled with aggressive and sexual instincts, Rogers posited that humans possess an innate tendency towards self-actualization, which drives us to grow, develop, and reach our full potential.

This ‘actualizing tendency’ can be viewed as an expression of our inherent goodness as it propels us towards growth, constructive change, and ultimately, a more profound understanding of ourselves and our place in the world. Rogers believed that, in a supportive environment, individuals naturally strive to actualize their positive potential.

The concept of ‘unconditional positive regard,’ which is at the heart of Rogers’ client-centered therapy, is another testimony to his belief in human goodness. By providing an environment of acceptance and understanding, individuals can accept themselves, tap into their inner resources, and strive to realize their inherent goodness.

Erich Fromm’s Perspective on Human Goodness and the Relevance of a Healthy Society

Like Rogers, Erich Fromm, a renowned psychoanalyst and humanistic philosopher, held a positive view of human nature. Fromm believed that humans are oriented towards the world with a productive and loving character orientation. This orientation is in alignment with what he termed “biophilia,” a love for life and all living things, and stands in stark contrast to “necrophilia,” a fascination with death and destruction.

However, Fromm also emphasized the importance of societal factors in shaping human behavior. He argued that while we have the capacity for both good and evil, a healthy society is instrumental in nurturing our natural inclination towards life, love, and productivity.

Fromm saw society not merely as a backdrop to individual struggles but as an active agent shaping our character and behavior. In his view, societal structures that foster love, freedom, and equality encourage our ‘biophilic’ orientation and our capacity for goodness. Conversely, societies characterized by oppression, inequality, and neglect can lead to ‘necrophilic’ tendencies, causing individuals to act in ways that are harmful to themselves and others.

In essence, both Rogers and Fromm espoused a belief in human goodness, but they also highlighted the crucial role of the environment – whether it’s a therapeutic setting or society at large – in either nurturing or stifling our inherent tendency towards growth, love, and constructive action.

How Personal Struggles Contribute to Negative Behavior

In our journey to understand why people who are fundamentally good commit ‘bad’ actions, we must turn our gaze towards the often-overlooked realm of personal struggles. This deep dive into the complexities of human behavior requires us to examine how elements like mental health issues, unmet needs, past trauma, self-perception, and self-esteem intersect and lead to maladaptive behaviors.

Mental Health and Behavior: Mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, among others, can significantly alter an individual’s behavior. For example, untreated depression might lead to self-isolation, substance abuse, or even self-harm. Anxiety might manifest as irritability, obsessive behavior, or avoidance of certain situations. The interplay between mental health and behavior underscores the need for comprehensive mental health care as a part of efforts to promote positive behavior.

Unmet Needs and Survival Behavior: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs proposes that humans are motivated by a series of hierarchical needs, starting with basic needs such as food and safety, and moving up to psychological and self-fulfillment needs. When these needs go unmet, individuals may resort to survival behaviors that may be perceived as negative. Understanding this can shift our perspective from condemnation to empathy and action to address these unmet needs.

Past Trauma and Coping Mechanisms: Unresolved past traumas can significantly impact an individual’s behavior. Victims of abuse or extreme adversity might exhibit negative behavior as a means to cope, escape, or express their unresolved emotional pain. Recognizing this link is a crucial step in providing the necessary support and therapeutic interventions to these individuals.

Cognitive Distortions: Personal struggles often lead to distorted thinking patterns, or cognitive distortions. These inaccurate thoughts reinforce negative thinking and behavior. For instance, an individual suffering from depression might struggle with ‘catastrophic thinking,’ causing them to perceive situations worse than they are and react accordingly.

Self-perception and Behavior: Individuals struggling with negative self-perception might engage in self-destructive behaviors that align with their flawed view of themselves. They might believe they are undeserving of happiness, success, or love, leading to behaviors that sabotage these areas of their lives.

Self-esteem and Behavior: Similarly, self-esteem, or the lack thereof, influences behavior. Low self-esteem might push individuals towards negative behavior in a misguided attempt to boost their self-worth or, paradoxically, to confirm their negative self-beliefs. By understanding and addressing these underlying struggles with self-esteem, we can promote more positive behavior.

Why “Hurt People, Hurt People”

The saying, “hurt people, hurt people,” has become a popular way to explain a cyclical pattern of pain and reaction often seen in interpersonal relationships, families, communities, and even across generations. This concept encapsulates the idea that individuals who have been hurt, or who are carrying emotional wounds, are more likely to hurt others.

Personal Pain as a Source of Negative Behavior

At the heart of this concept is the idea that personal pain, if not addressed, can lead to negative behavior. Individuals carrying unprocessed pain can project their hurt onto others, perpetuating a cycle of pain. It could be seen in people lashing out in anger when they are, in fact, feeling wounded or people who bully others as a way to assert control when they feel powerless themselves.

Unresolved Trauma and the Perpetuation of Hurt

Unresolved trauma is a significant factor in this cycle. When trauma remains unresolved, it continues to influence the individual’s behavior, emotions, and interactions with others. Such individuals may develop maladaptive coping mechanisms, including aggression, withdrawal, or manipulation, which can cause pain to others. Furthermore, trauma can lead to mental health issues like depression and anxiety, which can further exacerbate negative behaviors.

Breaking the Cycle

Breaking the cycle requires acknowledging and addressing personal pain and trauma. This often involves professional help such as therapy or counseling. Therapeutic methods like cognitive-behavioral therapy can help individuals understand their feelings and behaviors better, learn healthier coping mechanisms, and heal from their past traumas.

The Role of Empathy and Compassion

Empathy and compassion are critical in addressing this cycle, both at an individual and societal level. Understanding that someone’s hurtful behavior might be a manifestation of their personal pain can help us respond with compassion rather than retaliation. On a societal level, policies and programs that address trauma, provide mental health support, and foster empathy and compassion in schools and communities can contribute to breaking this cycle.

Towards a Healthier Society

In understanding the adage “hurt people, hurt people,” we gain a profound insight into human behavior. It’s a call to action for individuals and society as a whole to address personal pain and trauma to break the cycle of hurt. By doing so, we not only help individuals heal but also build healthier, more compassionate relationships and societies.

The Role of Social Structures in Shaping Personal Struggles

In the intricate tapestry of human behavior, personal struggles are not woven in isolation. They are closely interlinked with societal structures that greatly influence individual experiences and outcomes. In our pursuit of understanding why fundamentally good humans sometimes resort to ‘bad’ behaviors, we must thus turn our focus to the role of social structures.

Social Structures as Contributors to Personal Struggles

Social structures, in the broadest sense, are the organized set of social relationships in which individuals are embedded. These can include family dynamics, education systems, economic systems, and societal norms.

Family Dynamics: The family is the primary social structure in which an individual grows and develops. Dysfunctional family dynamics, characterized by abuse, neglect, or high conflict, can instigate a range of personal struggles. Conversely, supportive and nurturing family environments can act as buffers against many potential personal challenges.

Education Systems: Educational institutions play a significant role in shaping individuals. However, unequal access to quality education, punitive disciplinary practices, or high-stakes testing pressures can create personal struggles for many students.

Economic Systems: Socioeconomic status significantly influences personal struggles. Poverty, job insecurity, income inequality, and the like can exacerbate stress, depression, anxiety, and other personal struggles, leading to ‘bad’ behaviors.

Societal Norms: Societal norms and expectations can exert enormous pressure on individuals, leading to personal struggles. The pressure to conform, fear of social rejection, and the stress of living up to societal ideals can create significant personal turmoil.

Social Inequality, Discrimination, and Neglect: Fueling Personal Struggles and ‘Bad’ Behavior

At a more macro level, systemic social issues significantly contribute to personal struggles and resultant ‘bad’ behavior.

Social Inequality: Vast disparities in wealth, opportunities, and privileges across different social groups can breed personal struggles. Feelings of injustice, despair, and frustration can drive individuals towards negative behaviors.

Discrimination: Racial, gender, religious, and other forms of discrimination can inflict profound personal struggles on targeted individuals. The stress, anger, and pain resulting from discrimination can manifest in various negative behaviors as individuals grapple with these experiences.

Societal Neglect: Society’s neglect of certain groups like the homeless, elderly, refugees, etc., can compound their personal struggles, often driving them into survival behaviors that might be labeled as ‘bad.’

Systemic Changes as a Tool for Reducing Personal Struggles and ‘Bad’ Behavior

Recognizing the crucial role of social structures in shaping personal struggles leads us to a critical realization: systemic change is key to reducing personal struggles and, by extension, ‘bad’ behavior.

To break the cycle of personal struggles leading to ‘bad’ behavior, systemic changes are required. These might include equitable wealth distribution, universal access to quality education, healthcare reforms, and robust anti-discriminatory laws.

Implementing such changes can significantly reduce the personal struggles experienced by many individuals. For example, equal access to quality education can provide individuals with the tools to better their circumstances, reducing stress and despair and promoting positive behavior.

Erich Fromm’s “The Sane Society” – Proposing Solutions to Social Problems

In addressing the role of social structures in shaping personal struggles, it’s apt to draw upon the insights of Erich Fromm, a renowned psychoanalyst and social psychologist, whose seminal work “The Sane Society” provides a roadmap to creating healthier social systems.

Fromm argues that many societal problems stem from the configuration of society itself, which he views as often being “insane.” In his view, an unhealthy society can trigger various personal struggles and maladaptive behaviors. Therefore, the solutions to these problems lie not just in addressing individual struggles but in fundamentally reshaping societal structures.

Fromm’s Vision of a Healthy Society

Fromm’s idea of a healthy or “sane” society is one that promotes the overall well-being of its citizens, fosters genuine freedom, encourages individuality, and nurtures a sense of community and shared responsibility. In such a society, individual needs are not at odds with societal demands, reducing the potential for personal struggles.

Economic Systems that Foster Well-being

Fromm was critical of both capitalist and socialist economic systems, believing that they often lead to alienation and frustration. He suggested a “humanistic communitarian socialism,” where economic systems serve human needs rather than humans serving economic systems. This includes fair wealth distribution, dignified work, and economic security, reducing the stress and inequality that can lead to personal struggles.

Education that Nurtures Individuality and Social Responsibility

Fromm envisioned an educational system that nurtures individuality, creativity, and critical thinking, while also fostering a sense of social responsibility. Such an education system would be less likely to trigger personal struggles stemming from conformity pressures, academic stress, or feelings of inadequacy.

Fostering Genuine Freedom and Community

Fromm argued for a balance between individual freedom and social responsibility. He warned against the perils of unchecked individualism, which can lead to isolation and alienation. By fostering a sense of community and shared responsibility, societies can reduce feelings of isolation and alienation that often lead to personal struggles.

Mental Health as a Societal, not Just Individual, Concern

Taking a leaf from Fromm’s book, one can’t help but view mental health not as a purely individual concern, but as a societal one that requires collective attention, understanding, and action. Fromm urges us to look beyond the individual symptoms of mental health issues and delve deeper into the societal structures that contribute to these conditions. His perspective provides a much-needed shift from the conventional, often stigmatizing view of mental health disorders as personal failings.

1. Societal Structures and Mental Health

Understanding the societal roots of mental health issues requires recognizing the role of societal structures. These include economic systems, cultural norms, social inequalities, and access to healthcare, among others. A society that engenders high levels of stress, whether through economic hardships, social isolation, or systemic inequalities, inevitably contributes to the prevalence of mental health issues among its citizens.

2. The Socioeconomic Perspective

From a socioeconomic standpoint, the stress of living in poverty, job insecurity, or grappling with income inequality can significantly affect one’s mental health. The daily struggle to meet basic needs, the fear of job loss, or the constant comparison with the wealthier can all lead to anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders. Tackling these socioeconomic factors, through poverty reduction measures, creation of stable jobs, and wealth redistribution, is integral to addressing mental health on a societal level.

3. Cultural Norms, Expectations, and Mental Health

Cultural norms and expectations are other societal elements that profoundly affect mental health. In many societies, the pressure to conform to societal norms, whether related to success, appearance, or gender roles, can lead to stress, low self-esteem, and mental health issues. Cultivating a society that values diversity, encourages authenticity, and reduces pressure to conform is essential for fostering mental well-being.

4. Social Inequalities and Mental Health

Social inequalities, particularly those based on race, gender, and sexual orientation, significantly contribute to mental health disparities. Discrimination, stigma, and marginalization associated with these identities can lead to chronic stress, trauma, and consequently, mental health issues. Societal efforts to promote equality, combat discrimination, and embrace diversity are crucial steps towards alleviating these mental health disparities.

5. Access to Mental Health Care

The availability of and access to mental health care is another societal factor impacting mental health. Despite growing recognition of mental health’s importance, many societies lack adequate mental health services. Those that exist often face issues of affordability, accessibility, and quality. Advocacy for mental health policies that prioritize mental health care’s universal accessibility, affordability, and quality can significantly enhance societal mental health.

6. Towards a Societal Approach to Mental Health

Fromm’s perspective prompts us to envisage a holistic, societal approach to mental health. Such an approach transcends focusing solely on treating individual symptoms, prioritizing instead the transformation of societal structures that contribute to mental health issues. This means prioritizing equitable economic policies, promoting cultural norms that value authenticity over conformity, committing to social equality, and ensuring accessible, affordable, and quality mental health care.

In shifting our view of mental health from being purely an individual concern to a societal one, we are challenged to transform our societies in ways that nurture mental well-being. This does not negate the role of individual resilience or personal coping strategies in managing mental health. However, it underlines that for these individual efforts to thrive, they need to be embedded within supportive, nurturing societal structures.

Embracing such a societal view of mental health can indeed help us create what Fromm envisioned as a “sane society” – one that nurtures the mental well-being of its citizens.

Conclusion

If we accept the premise that human nature is fundamentally good, as argued by humanistic psychologists such as Carl Rogers and Erich Fromm, then we need to reconcile this belief with the existence of ‘bad’ behavior. However, as we’ve discovered, this seeming contradiction can be explained by looking at personal struggles and societal influences.

Personal struggles, whether they stem from mental health issues, unmet needs, or past trauma, can lead individuals to adopt negative behaviors as coping or survival mechanisms. Moreover, societal structures can exacerbate these personal struggles and indirectly promote ‘bad’ behavior. Social inequality, discrimination, and societal neglect can create an environment that pushes individuals towards negative behavior.

However, acknowledging that ‘hurt people hurt people’ doesn’t mean absolving individuals of responsibility for their actions. It simply provides a broader, empathetic, and nuanced perspective that is essential for effective solutions. Erich Fromm’s book “The Sane Society” provides a roadmap to such solutions, including fostering a society that promotes mental health, reevaluating our economic systems, and creating a culture that values human needs and capabilities.

Recognizing that our actions often reflect our internal struggles and societal influences rather than inherent ‘badness’ can be liberating. It allows us to see ourselves and others with more compassion and understanding. And importantly, it paves the way for systemic changes and therapeutic approaches that can help individuals overcome their struggles and societies to become more nurturing and equitable.

In essence, human nature’s fundamental goodness is not invalidated by ‘bad’ behavior. Instead, such behavior should prompt us to look beyond the surface and understand the complex interplay of personal and societal factors that shape our actions. In doing so, we can foster a more compassionate, empathetic, and just world, thus creating a space where the innate goodness in people can truly flourish.

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If you’re struggling with an addiction, it can be difficult to stop. Gaining short-term relief, at a long-term cost, you may start to wonder if it’s even worth it anymore. If you’re looking to make some changes, feel free to reach out. I offer individual addiction counselling to clients in the US and Canada. If you’re interested in learning more, you can send me a message here.

Other Mental Health Resources

If you are struggling with other mental health issues or are looking for a specialist near you, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here to find a practitioner who specializes in your area of concern.

If you require a lower-cost option, you can check out BetterHelp.com. It is one of the most flexible forms of online counseling. Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility through their mobile app, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily, until you find the right fit.

*As an affiliate partner with Better Help, I receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors are not consistent. If you are not feeling supported, it may be helpful to seek out another practitioner. I wrote an article on things to consider here.


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