Rutger Bregman: Humankind Is Fundamentally Good

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Humankind" by Rutger Bregman. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Are humans fundamentally good or bad? Or are we neither? How do expectations define human behavior?

In his book Humankind, Rutger Bregman argues that our view of humanity creates a feedback loop. In other words, we get what we expect from people. By changing our mindsets, we can create a positive feedback loop that leads to a friendlier and more peaceful world.

In this article, we’ll discuss why Bregman believes having a more positive outlook on humanity can create positive change in our society.

Our View of Humanity Creates a Feedback Loop

In his book Humankind, Rutger Bregman asserts that people are fundamentally good, but their behavior also depends on expectations. If we expect people to be selfish, they’ll act selfishly. However, the opposite holds as well: If we see humans as fundamentally decent creatures, we’ll treat each other with respect, trust, and dignity, which will encourage others to be kinder and more compassionate in turn.

Research suggests that expectations have a significant impact on behavior. For example, if a parent consistently tells their child that the child is unathletic, then the child will start to believe it. She might avoid playing sports with other children. If she does play, she’ll see every failure as proof that she’s unathletic, instead of as an opportunity to improve. She, therefore, enters a negative feedback loop.

The Dangers of Over-Optimism

While, as Bregman notes, positive expectations often lead to positive results, our expectations of those results must also be realistic. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, renowned psychologist Daniel Kahneman suggests that overly optimistic expectations prevent us from considering negative consequences of our actions or choices, which can lead to poor decision-making. This is also known as optimism bias.

The dangers of optimism bias can apply to how we see human nature. As we discuss above, Bregman believes that a more positive view of human nature can create a positive feedback loop. However, seeing all humans as friendly can be dangerous because it can lead us to be too trusting, which can cause us pain.

To avoid over-optimism, Kahneman suggests two general strategies. First, he recommends taking a more objective view: Imagine that you’re observing someone else in your situation, then set your expectations accordingly. Second, he says to plan backwards: Imagine what could go wrong, then address those potential difficulties. This will increase your chances of success because it lets you build a realistic roadmap towards your goal. These strategies can help you avoid over-optimism in your goal-setting as well as your relationships with other people. 

There are also more specific strategies that can help you consciously decide whether to trust someone, rather than blindly seeing all humans positively as Bregman suggests. For example, talking to a close friend or family member about a relationship can help you get a more objective perspective on it, thus helping you to decide whether or not the other person deserves your trust. Furthermore, it can be helpful to define what trustworthiness means to you: For many people, trust requires consistency, respect for you and your time, and compassion and kindness.

Bregman maintains that, while it may sound idealistic, evidence from prisons, corporations, and politics shows that these positive feedback loops create better results in the real world. Let’s take a look at the possibilities of a positive mindset.

The Criminal Justice System

According to Bregman, one of the places where our society creates negative feedback loops is in prisons. He maintains that seeing prisoners from a Hobbesian perspective—as inherently evil criminals who require strong punishment—actually leads to more crime.

For example, in the United States, prisons are often punishment-based. Prisoners live in overcrowded cells with little to no time for exercise, and they receive punishments like solitary confinement when they break the rules. These strict rules make it harder for ex-convicts to adapt to life outside of prison, which isn’t as structured or punishment-based. Bregman suggests that this contributes to high reoffending rates in the United States.

(Shortform note: In addition to the difficult transition from prison to the outside world that Bregman alludes to, there are several important factors that make a person more likely to reoffend that he doesn’t mention. These factors include a lack of employment opportunities, a history of substance abuse, and a person’s age—younger first-time offenders are more likely to reoffend.)

However, Bregman argues that we can create positive feedback loops in the criminal justice system. In Norway, for example, prisons are reform-centered. Guards rarely carry weapons, and they treat prisoners with respect. In one prison, inmates live in a type of commune, plowing the land and growing their own food. Norway’s recidivism rate—the percentage of prisoners who end up in prison a second time—is significantly lower than that of the United States. 

What’s more, Norway’s success isn’t uniquely Norwegian: This type of reform works in the United States as well. According to Bregman, United States prison officials have borrowed some of Norway’s methods. They’ve found that when guards have more conversations with prisoners, conditions begin to improve: There are fewer instances of disobedience and fewer fights, and the guards enjoy their jobs more.

Why Do Norwegian Prisons Work?

Bregman mentions several aspects of Norway’s prison system, including communal living and guards without weapons. In addition to these, there are several other practices that differentiate Norwegian prisons. For example, one prison assigns each inmate a guidance counselor, who monitors their progress and helps them develop a life plan. Prisoners also receive more privileges as they show good behavior, including overnight family visits, access to classes and job training, and limited time outside the prison (accompanied by guards). This creates a gradual progression into the outside world, mitigating the difficult transition that Bregman describes.

Moreover, in addition to reducing recidivism, Norway’s prison system benefits its inmates and the broader society. Prisoners say that the system helped them develop a greater sense of self-worth and achievement by teaching them new skills. When they enter society, the former prisoners use these skills to contribute to the economy. 

As Bregman mentions, several places in the United States have borrowed ideas from Norwegian prisons with positive results, including the state of Oregon. However, despite this, some people doubt whether the United States can fully implement this reform-based system. Critics point out that the United States government doesn’t pay for as many social services as Norway. Norway’s model of high quality, state-funded prisons is therefore unlikely to gain popular political backing in the US

Furthermore, others note that Norway has a better mental health system than the United States, including publicly-funded emergency responders trained in psychology. This is an important factor in rehabilitating prisoners, who often suffer from mental health disorders. According to these critics, simply reforming the prison system wouldn’t be enough to improve recidivism rates—the United States would also have to change the way it views mental health.


According to Bregman, we can also create positive feedback loops in corporations. He suggests that when managers see and treat their workers as lazy and untrustworthy, workers are less intrinsically motivated and creative. For example, bonuses and pay-per-hour systems, which seek to hold “lazy” workers accountable, can make workers so focused on working a certain number of hours or getting paid more money that they no longer care about doing the job well. Instead, Bregman suggests that businesses should minimize bureaucracy and trust their employees to find creative solutions.

The Company Without Hierarchy: AgBiome

One example of a company that aligns with Bregman’s theory is AgBiome, a biotech company in the agriculture industry. The company doesn’t have managerial hierarchies. Instead, it lets its employees set their own schedules, determine the best strategies for solving problems, and create teams to tackle specific projects. Employees also form committees to handle finances and other logistical issues.

However, even though companies like AgBiome have been successful, Bregman’s unstructured management theory doesn’t necessarily work for everyone. James Baron, a business professor at Yale whose work inspired AgBiome’s founders, notes that AgBiome is in the science and technology industry, where quick decision-making and teamwork is especially important. Companies in industries that don’t value or require these attributes may not suit this management style.


Bregman also extends his positive feedback loop theory to civic engagement. Studies show that when city governments give their citizens more power to negotiate and make political decisions, there’s more participation and interest in politics, less polarization, and less corruption. Inequality decreases because citizens of all social classes and groups have a seat at the table.

How to Get Involved in Government

Bregman notes the importance of citizen participation in government, but he doesn’t provide many concrete tips on how to get involved. Here are some ideas:

Participate locally. While local government is much smaller than national or state government, it can make a big difference in peoples’ lives. To get involved, attend local government discussions on issues in your community, get to know your local representatives, and join organizations such as school boards to create change.

Support candidates that you believe in. One of the most basic ways that citizens participate in democracies is by electing candidates. You can help elect a candidate that you believe in by voting, mobilizing others to vote, and volunteering as a campaign official.

Create a community of people who care. One of the ways that citizens create change is through banding together. Consider creating or attending a debate club in your community and talking to others about your beliefs. You can also use social media to raise awareness about issues that are important to you.
Rutger Bregman: Humankind Is Fundamentally Good

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  • Why humans are fundamentally good, not evil
  • How the Stanford Prison Experiment was misleading
  • How recent studies have debunked "Killer Ape Theory"

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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