Do you remember white dog poo? It seemed to be all over the place when I was growing up, but now I can’t remember the last time I saw any. What’s going on?
The answer is that humans have decided to pick up after their dogs. In general, we carry around little black bags for the purpose and deposit them in special bins.
As Jerry Seinfeld said, if an alien ever landed they would undoubtedly conclude that it was the dogs who were in charge. But the real point is that our short term behaviour has changed, making the environment more pleasant for others, even though the immediate consequences for ourselves are unpleasant.
Why does this matter?
Because it tells us something important about human nature. Even behaviour which seems deeply ingrained and resistant to change can be changed.
Yet the thing about humans is that we forget this and give ourselves a hard time. As a species we criticise ourselves constantly, even though evidence suggests our behaviour has never been better or more peaceful. And at an individual level, when we think about behaviour change we often to chide ourselves for not having changed already. And any behaviourist will tell you that’s not a great reinforcer.
Steve Hayes once said the real question is not why are we so controlled by short term impulses, but rather how do we ever fail to be?
This puts me in mind of one of my favourite quotations of all, by Robert Ardrey but used here by Ken Robinson. I think it’s a nice reminder as we start 2012.
Happy New Year, everyone.
“Human beings were born of risen apes, not fallen angels.
And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles?
Or our treaties, our symphonies, our peaceful acres, our dreams?
The miracle of humankind is not how far we have sunk but how magnificently we have risen.
We will be known among the stars not by our corpses, but by our poems.”