By: Robert Greene
41 MINUTE AUDIO / 5,800 WORDS (23 PAGES)
We all know people who make our lives more difficult—colleagues, bosses, or friends who sabotage our work, care only about themselves, or generally bring us down. Often, our own behavior is just as baffling; we react to things in inappropriate or self-defeating ways.
The key to the surprising behavior of ourselves and others is: human nature.
Drawing on the past hundred years of literature in psychology, science, and philosophy this book is the definitive guide to human nature. Using detailed biographical stories of famous people throughout history, The Laws of Human Nature illustrates the 18 fundamental laws that affect why people behave the way they do.
Armed with this knowledge, you can become a calmer and more strategic observer of other people, able to interpret their behavior and judge their character. The book shows you how to out-think toxic people; how to motivate and influence others; and how to alter your own negative behavior patterns.
Ultimately, The Laws of Human Nature shows you how to unleash your own true potential.
The key to understanding our own behavior, and that of others, is to realize that there are 18 laws that make up human nature—forces like irrationality, narcissism, and covetousness; repression, envy, and aimlessness. These forces push and pull at us from deep within, impacting our behavior and the actions of others. Once we learn where these forces come from and how they affect us, we can develop strategies to amend our own behavior and to cope with the actions of others.
Irrational emotions make you see what you want to see and look for evidence of what you want to believe. Your deepest emotions dominate you more than you realize, leading to a disconnect from reality that is the source of your bad decisions.
To counteract these emotional effects, we have to learn to think instead of reacting and to be open to what is really happening, not just what we are feeling. This means nurturing our rationality.
In ancient Athens, elder statesman Pericles urged his fellow Assemblymen to avoid outright war with Sparta, and instead to take the long view and fight a limited and defensive war. He valued the adventurousness of the Athenians but wanted that energy to serve the greater good of the city state. He believed in elevating reason over emotion and saw the goddess Athena as the embodiment of this ideal. After Pericles died in the plague that swept the city in 429BC, the Athenians became increasingly caught up in their own greed and desire to expand, fighting increasingly irrational and hopeless battles that ultimately led to having to accept a harsh peace agreement with Sparta in 405BC.
Everyone is irrational to some extent; but, when our emotions become really inflamed, like the Athenians when they saw Sparta gaining more power, then our actions become dangerously erratic. To curb these irrational impulses, we must first recognize our biases and the triggers that tend to inflame us.
What sets you off
Everyone is susceptible to certain biases. Confirmation bias is when we look for evidence that confirms what we want to believe; and conviction bias is when we go out of our way to convince ourselves that something must be true. We are swayed by the views of a group, blame others for our mistakes, or believe that we are superior in some way.
Early childhood experiences leave us with trigger points—look for childish behavior in yourself and others as examples. A sudden win or loss can trigger irrational behavior, as can being around dramatic individuals or being part of a large group.
The best way to bring out your inner Pericles is to know yourself thoroughly, be willing to look your emotions in the eye, and see people as facts rather than something to be judged. Pause before you react. Recognize that energy combined with rational thought is the ideal balance.
We are all narcissists to some extent, focused on our own selves, and we crave attention and approval from others. But, deep narcissists are those who are so lacking in self-esteem that they take everything personally, cannot accept any criticism, and see others only as extensions of themselves. Some thrive on attention and will try to win it in theatrical ways. Such people are at the least annoying to be around and at the worst downright dangerous.
Joseph Stalin was a complete control narcissist, charming at first meeting but ruthless toward anyone he suspected of disloyalty and increasingly, violently erratic as he built more power. Riddled with insecurities, he tried to control everything and everyone around him.
To curb your own narcissistic tendencies, go out of your way to cultivate empathy for others. Avoid making snap judgements. Listen to others fully; be aware of their emotions and intentions and learn as much as you can about them.
Explorer Ernest Shackleton was a healthy narcissist, a man of strong character who understood that he was responsible for the lives of his men. When his team was trapped for months on an ice flow in Antarctica in late 1915, Shackleton figured out that their attitude would be the difference between life and death. He imbued them with his own self-confidence; paid attention to individuals as well as the group as a whole; and was gentle in his criticisms. Once you see your ability to read others’ moods as a matter of survival, you can curb your own narcissism.
People tend to wear masks, disguising their true feelings to portray themselves in the best possible light. However, you can learn to interpret what people are really thinking and feeling, and to present your best self.
Milton Erickson, a pioneer in hypnotherapy, learned how to ‘read’ others when he was stricken with polio in the summer of 1919. Months of total physical paralysis forced him to pay close attention to the smallest physical cues of his family members—hand gestures, voice pitch, minor facial expressions. As he gradually regained his abilities, he continued to focus on people’s physical presence and eventually used this close observation in his practice as a psychiatrist.
Spot the signs
You can emulate Erickson by cultivating your own powers of observation. Start with those closest to you and watch for small physical cues that reveal how they feel; gradually expand your observation to casual acquaintances and then strangers.
Some of the strongest cues are those indicating like/dislike. Physical tenseness, sudden silences, or a brief look of irritation are all signs of hostility—learn to recognize and deflect them. Dominance cues, signs that someone is (or feels themselves to be) powerful include greater freedom of movement, looking around more often, and feeling entitled to touch others. Men who want to be dominant will tend to speak faster and to move forcefully; women tend to exude calm confidence and attack with iciness rather than bluster.
Signs of deception include being extra-animated, smiling a lot or becoming extremely chatty, even vehement. Other deceivers try to act very serious and contemplative—look for inconsistencies between what they are saying and how their voice and body are reacting.
Polish your role
In your own life, manage the impressions you make on other people by mastering your non-verbal cues as much as you can. Train yourself to display the ‘correct’ emotions on demand in any situation, adapting to each audience. Be sure to give a good first impression, and project sincerity and honesty.
Look past a person’s reputation or surface image and try to see their true character. Pay attention to the patterns of their lives, how they handle adversity, and how they adapt and learn. Business magnate Howard Hughes appeared on the surface to be very successful, but the pattern of his life was one of deep anxiety and a need to control everything around him. The only parts of his business empire that were profitable were those he did not directly control. And, far from being the rugged maverick of his public image, he lived the last years of his life addicted to pain pills and living in tightly sealed hotel rooms, terrified of germs.
Our characters are formed from a combination of genetics, our earliest childhood experiences, the habits and experiences of our later life, and finally those traits we try to cultivate ourselves. The most significant indicator of a person’s character is their actions over time—not what they say, but what they do. Sometimes this becomes clearer as the person gains more power.
Avoid the toxic types
Every individual is different but here are some general character types that you are best off avoiding as much as possible. The hyper-perfectionist who will never be satisfied with anything you do. The relentless rebel who may seem exciting at first but really is perpetually locked in sullen adolescence. The personalizer who resents everything and will always make you feel guilty about something.
The drama magnet who will drag you into their battles—avoid at all costs! The big talker who can tell a good story, but the reality is likely very different. The sexualizer who uses sex as a means of self-validation; this is unhealthy and ultimately dangerous. The pampered royal who cannot handle adult life and pouts when they cannot get what they want. The savior is someone who wants to control you, not help you. The moralizer judges constantly and likely has a secret vice.
We always want what we don’t have and think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. The trick is to overcome this weakness in yourself by embracing your circumstances and training yourself to focus on the desires of others.
On the flip side, you can use this inherent human tendency to covetousness to your own advantage: project an air of mystery by knowing when and how to withdraw. Create the impression that others desire you or your work. Be associated with something unconventional, politically advanced, or even slightly illicit.
Ultimately, however, recognize that what you really crave is a deeper connection with reality. Only this can bring you calmness, focus, and the power to alter what can be altered.
The animal part of our nature causes us to be most impressed by what we can see and feel right now, in the present. It makes us fall for quick-rich schemes and makes us overreact to present circumstances. It is better to keep your eyes on long-term goals and avoid people who cannot see the consequences of their actions.
In the present moment we lack perspective. This leads people to be carried away by financial bubbles—like the infamous South Sea Company investment bubble that burst in 1720, ruining many British speculators. Only with the passage of time did people realize the mistakes that were made as the bubble built and then burst.
Short-term thinking can lead to unintended consequences. For example, the Eighteenth Amendment of 1920, which established Prohibition in the United States in a bid to stamp out alcoholism, ended up significantly increasing alcohol consumption. It was a classic case of grabbing for a quick solution without thinking deeply about the issue and its causes.
Another manifestation is becoming embroiled in several battles at once—this is a sign that you have lost sight of your long-term goals. The only solution is to walk away from these battles, at least temporarily, and ultimately to recognize that some are not worth fighting.
Ticker tape fever happens when people get caught up in something that seems to have unstoppable momentum – like the South Sea Company bubble or the stock market fever that preceded the 1929 crash. It is important at such times to take a step back and not make any hasty decisions.
Finally, there’s the lost-in-trivia problem, where you are overwhelmed by all the details and cannot see the forest for the trees. Stop trying to assimilate too much information, focus on what is important for your long-term goals, and delegate where possible.
No-one likes being persuaded to do or believe something—we are all defensive to some extent. The best way to get people to do what you want is to make it seem like they are doing it of their own free will. In order to unleash your own creativity, you should also free yourself from defensive and closed positions and develop an open mind.
The Master of the Senate
Lyndon Johnson was a master of the art of getting people to do what he wanted. Once he was elected to the Senate, he went out of his way to win over allies, do favors for others to make them beholden to him, and learn all he could about other senators. In this way he became known as the Master of the Senate.
To become a master persuader like Johnson, start by becoming a deep listener, then project a mood of relaxed confidence. Try to stimulate people’s self-image of autonomy, intelligence, and goodness, and ally their insecurities. Appeal to people’s emotions and use their language to wear down their resistance.
For yourself, recognize that your own stubbornness can limit your creativity. Treat your opinions as building blocks—some you will keep, but others you should be willing to discard.
Often, we sabotage our career and relationships by unconsciously creating the very conditions we fear the most. If we are fearful, we see the negative in everything and fail to take chances. If we are hostile or suspicious, we end up making other people feel the same way. On the other hand, if we cultivate an open and tolerant approach to others we can learn from adversity and create new opportunities for ourselves.
The writer Anton Chekhov had a difficult, often violent, childhood, but over time he came to realize that he needed to distance himself from the emotions triggered by his abusive father and look at the world a different way. Like Chekhov, become aware of your own attitude and how it slants your perception of the world. Then, recognize that you can change your circumstances by changing your attitude.
Some attitudes are constrictive, binding us up in their negative power. The hostile attitude sees everything as a threat and a challenge. The only way to deal with such people is to not respond with the antagonism they expect. The anxious attitude constantly anticipates difficulties; try not to get infected by their fears. The avoidant attitude manifests in people who see the world through the lens of their own insecurities; they have a tendency to slip away at the wrong moment, always avoiding the hard work or taking the blame. The depressive attitude plagues people who think they are unworthy and anticipate loss at every turn. People with a resentful attitude are always greedy for more attention and continually feel wronged; avoid these people as much as possible, their response when they feel slighted can be vicious.
Develop your own, expansive attitude by seeing yourself as an explorer. View adversity as a challenge and recognize that you have the power to determine your response. View yourself as having a purpose and push yourself to go beyond what you think are your physical limitations. See other people as facts of nature, with their negative actions not directed against you personally. This is how Chekhov learned to view his abusive father and so let go of the constraints of his difficult childhood.
We all have a shadow side full of insecurities, aggression, and selfish impulses, which we try to keep hidden from the world. Sometimes this dark side leaks out, leading to baffling behavior by ourselves or by others. You can learn to recognize signs of the dark side in others, before they become toxic. And, once you become aware of your own dark side, you can learn to control it.
Nixon’s dark side
Richard Nixon was both a caring and generous man, and a person riddled with anxieties and self-doubt that made him angry and vindictive. This dark side was finally revealed to the world in the secret tapes that were made public in 1974. Nixon had immense political talent but failed to recognize the dark side of his character, spending great energy in trying to convince himself and others that he was a nice person while lashing out whenever he felt stressed or anxious.
When someone’s dark side is leaking out, they may indulge in contradictory behavior or emotional outbursts. They may vehemently deny the darkness—Nixon repeatedly stated that he never held grudges, when he clearly did. They may over-idealize a person or a cause and excuse excessive behavior as simply over-zealousness. A common form of release is to project our secret desires onto others; demagogues excel at this, exaggerating threats and stirring up fears.
The tough guy tries to intimidate others with a rough masculinity; it’s easy to reveal his insecurities if you bait him into an overreaction. The saint, an apparent paragon of virtue, is secretly drawn to whatever they most strongly condemn; keep a distance from this person’s hypocrisy. Be wary, too, of the passive-aggressive charmer, someone who wants power but pretends they don’t. Fanatics can radiate strength and conviction, but they have massive insecurities, often stemming from early in life—don’t become a follower, they will make a fool of you. The snob is a person who constantly tries to prove their superiority—but the truly exceptional don’t need to prove it.
Confront your dark side
See your own shadow; look at your own tendency to project emotions or bad qualities onto people you know. Accept that this side of you exists and work to integrate it into your personality. Pay attention to the dark thoughts that well up and express them in a harmless venue, like a journal or some form of art.
We all compare ourselves to others and this can spur us to greater achievements. Envy is not a socially acceptable emotion; we all hide it from ourselves and others. This passive envy is just a side effect of being a social animal. But, some people develop a deep and active envy for others’ achievements and develop a secret desire to hurt or steal from the envied person.
It is important to recognize the signs of the more active form of envy before it turns dangerous. A person’s micro-expressions can be a giveaway; a brief look of disdain or hostility, or of joy when you tell them of a personal misfortune. Poisonous praise is another sign—offhand comments designed to get under your skin. If a person is a back-biter, becoming animated when they talk about others behind their back, they will likely do the same about you, too. Another sign is the person who is eager to become your friend, then seems to be just as eager to push you away.
Some envious people constantly put others down; if you’re not careful, they will actively sabotage your work. Others are self-entitled slackers who avoid hard work and rely on political maneuvering to get ahead. Status fiends reduce everything to material considerations. And, some people get more insecure as they gain more power—if your boss is one of these insecure masters, they will have a track record of firing people for no clear reason.
Check your envy
It’s almost impossible to get rid of the tendency to compare ourselves with others. The trick is to turn this into something more positive. Recognize the downsides to others’ success; focus on those who have less than you rather than more; and rejoice in the joy of others. Transmute envy into emulation—this requires belief in your capacity to raise yourself up along with some hard work, but it can be done. Finally, practice admiration, the polar opposite of envy.
We all tend to have a high opinion of ourselves, forgetting the role of luck in our achievements. When grandiosity becomes extreme it leads to irrational decisions that are out of touch with reality. Watch for signs of elevated grandiosity in yourself and others: an overbearing certainty that plans will have a positive outcome; excessive touchiness when criticized; and a disdain for any form of authority.
After any success take a step back and acknowledge the role of luck and of other people in what you have achieved. Recognize that we all have a tendency to over-estimate our skills and underestimate the obstacles we may face. Learn to channel your grandiose needs into something positive, not just a hunt for social prestige or the next ‘high.’
The grandiose leader
A grandiose person who also has some talent and energy can become a leader—but we must see through their image and recognize the danger they represent. Grandiose leaders like to give the impression that they were destined for greatness all along, or that they are ‘just one of the people.’ They may promise deliverance from some real or imagined crisis and will likely claim that they can ‘rewrite the rules.’ They will likely portray themselves as having a golden touch and as being invulnerable.
Against such potentially dangerous leaders, we can cultivate the power of practical grandiosity—channeling our energy into problem solving and improving relationships, rather than self-aggrandizement. Recognize that you want to feel important; focus deeply on a single project or problem; and invite feedback from others. Look for challenges that are just above your current skill level to keep you energized.
We all possess both masculine and feminine tendencies, but we tend to suppress some and over-identify others. In fifteenth century Europe the roles that women were allowed to play were severely restricted. Caterina Sforza, born in Milan in 1463, rejected these restrictions and led her family in battles with other Italian houses. She was generally seen as the most fascinating woman of her era, able to talk military strategy and dabble in scientific experiments, but also not afraid to flirt to get what she wanted. Too often we restrict ourselves to what we think is the ‘correct’ gender role.
There are six common gender projections, types that we ascribe to other people as an extension of our own views on gender—recognize these tendencies in yourself and in others. A woman might idealize older, successful men as ‘devilish romantics,’ and expend all her energy in trying to get the attention of such a man. A man might be constantly on the hunt for the ‘perfect woman,’ unable to accept the inevitable flaws of real women. Some women are drawn to the ‘lovable rebel,’ but should recognize that what they really want is permission to be their own, independent, rebellious selves.
Some men are drawn to the ‘fallen woman,’ when what they really need is to develop the less conventional sides of their own characters. A woman might be attracted to what she thinks is a ‘superior man,’ someone with confidence and power. She would be better off developing her own assertiveness and self-confidence. Finally, a man might look for a woman ‘worshipper,’ someone who gives him the comfort and praise of a devoted mother. He would be better off nurturing those mothering qualities in himself.
For millennia men have defined the parameters of what is masculine—strong and superior—and what is feminine—soft and weak. The trick is to go beyond these limiting stereotypes and instead embrace both sides of the culturally-enforced male and female ‘styles.’
We are all pulled in multiple directions—by our emotions, by others’ opinions—which can lead to an overall lack of direction in our lives. When it comes to our work lives, some people love the idea of constant change, but others are frightened by the chaos and quickly grasp the first career that is practical. However, constant change means never developing skills in one area; and what seems like a good idea in our 20s can be boring in our 30s. The key to avoiding this is to develop a sense of purpose and to realize that our purpose lies in our individual uniqueness. Tap into what it is that makes you unique and let it flourish.
Discover your calling in life. For some, this comes in a moment of visceral revelation: for Anton Chekhov, it was when he attended his first play; for Marie Curie it was when she first saw her father’s laboratory; for Martin Luther King it was getting involved in the Montgomery bus boycott. Avoid spending too much time around people with no sense of purpose—they will bring you down.
Create a ladder of goals; start with small steps that lead toward the long-term goal. Lose yourself in work that brings you joy. Finally, avoid the short-cuts—the pursuit of pleasure, causes and cults, too much focus on money—that will derail you.
Our social personality makes us want to ‘fit in.’ It can cause us to think and behave differently in order to be a part of the group. To avoid this tendency, develop your self-awareness and understand the changes that occur to you within a group.
One of the most far-reaching attempts to eradicate people’s automatic respect for authority was the Cultural Revolution unleashed in China in the 1960s. Chairman Mao thought he could alter human nature but did not recognize that when people operate in groups they do not engage in deep thinking; their primary goal is to fit in with the group spirit. By deliberately creating chaos, the Cultural Revolution caused groups like the Red Guard and the various schools to fall into more primitive patterns, with the most assertive personalities becoming the elite and very little personal reflection by the group as a whole. The entire country descended into tribal battles divorced from the ideals of the Cultural Revolution; in 1968 Mao installed a police state to try to regain control.
The social force is powerful, it causes us to want to be a part of a group, to feel that we are real and that we belong. The positive side of this comes when we create something together with empathy and unity. Unfortunately, in seeking the group we can also lose contact with what makes us unique.
Take stock of the various groups to which you belong—family, work colleagues, the culture at large. Observe these groups as if you were an anthropologist. You may spot certain types of people within your groups. There’s the intriguer, a person who is constantly trying to amass more power; and the stirrer, someone who deals with their own anxieties by constantly stirring up trouble. The gatekeeper is someone who tries to gain power by monopolizing the flow of information to the group leader. The jester is the group cynic and scoffer, someone who makes a joke out of everything because they have a secret fear of responsibility and failure. You may also spot the favorite, and the punching bag.
A healthy group is one that has a collective sense of purpose and a good team of lieutenants, with a free flow of information and ideas. A good leader will infect the group with productive emotions. Strongest of all is a group that has been through some crises and knows it can cope with new challenges.
People are always ambivalent about those in power; they want to be led but will turn on someone the moment they seem weak. To lead effectively you must cultivate the art of authority—creating the appearance of power, legitimacy, and fairness, and getting people to trust you.
When Elizabeth I ascended the throne of England in 1559, she knew she had zero credibility to drawn upon—the country was deeply divided, some questioned her legitimacy, and she had not been groomed as successor to her father, King Henry VIII. So, Elizabeth forged her own authority: reaching out to ordinary people in her public appearances; making it clear to her male courtiers that she had a firm grasp on the business of the realm while also being warm and approachable; and always being aware of the mood of those around her. She worked hard not to let a sense of entitlement blind her to what was going on in her court and her country.
The task of any leader is to have a far-reaching vision while also recognizing that there is a dynamic relationship with those being led. Empathy combined with toughness is the key to effective leadership. Pay attention to all the people in your life who have authority—parents, teachers, mentors, bosses, political leaders. Determine the source of their authority (or, the lack of it).
Develop the habits and strategies that will help you to project authority. It is important to be authentic in this, recognizing your own character: are you a deliverer, a founder, a visionary artist, or a truth seeker? Or, are you a quiet pragmatist, a healer, or a teacher? Next, focus outward. Hone your listening skills and work to earn respect. Cultivate a vision for the group and lead from the front by establishing the tone. Seem always to give, not take. And, when necessary, be willing to adapt.
We all seem polite on the surface, but we are also all dealing with stress and frustration in our daily lives. Sometimes this can spill over into aggression, particularly with people who are intent on gaining power at all costs. You must learn the signs that indicate dangerously aggressive types. Primitive aggressors have very short fuses; you can spot them quickly. Sophisticated aggressors—people like business tycoon John D. Rockefeller—do whatever is necessary to secure their position and crush any competition or challenge. Such people want to control you, so deny them this power by seeing through them and focusing on their actions, not on your own emotional response.
Human aggression stems from underlying insecurity. Chronic aggressors have little tolerance for helplessness or anxiety and see the people around them as objects. The more power they get, the more they worry about challenges; so, the more aggressive they become in trying to gain more power. You can spot a sophisticated aggressor by the number of enemies they accumulate. Don’t try to challenge a sophisticated aggressor directly—you will lose. If you must fight them, do it indirectly and recognize that they are willing to go outside the lines.
Countering passive aggression
This indirect form of aggression can be harder to spot but here are some common types. Some people use the subtle-superiority strategy, e.g., always being late for meetings as if to show that they have more important things to do. Don’t let them get a rise out of you; instead, mirror their behavior. Turn up impossibly late with a sincere apology laced with irony. The sympathy strategy is employed by people who are always the victim—no-one suffers as much as they do. Such people will drain all your energy so create some emotional distance and don’t give them your attention.
The dependency person starts out by paying you a lot of attention and making lots of promises, but soon you find yourself constantly trying to please them. Be wary of other people’s promises. The person who insinuates doubt may damn you with faint praise or say something harsh and follow up with, “Can’t you take a joke?” They want to undermine you—see through their strategy and don’t let them get a rise out of you. The blame shifter is someone who never takes responsibility for their actions and instead tries to make you feel bad. Trust your own feelings and don’t bother trying to get them to change.
Finally, beware the passive-aggressive tyrant, the boss (or partner) who praises you occasionally but more often rails at you for letting them down. You’ll end up spending all your energy trying to figure out what they want and how to make them happy—you’re best off quitting and going somewhere else. Nothing is worth this level of emotional abuse.
Every generation wants to separate itself from the previous one and try to change the world; it forms certain tastes and values that the individual members internalize, values that tend to close you off from other points of view as you age. New symbols and myths are constantly being created and old ones fade away. This makes some people uncomfortable; they try to cling even harder to the past. Each generation’s collective spirit shifts as the generation ages. The baby boomers who were intensely idealistic in the 1960s still like to moralize, but the things they focus on have shifted as they age.
Be aware of the spirit of your own generation and how it contributes to the times you live in. Try to discern the common traits that make up this spirit; look for defining events and icons. Be aware of the spirit’s shadow side. Study how your generation interacts with the ones that came before and after. Try looking at the world from the perspective of your parents or your children.
We try not to think about death—but we should. Awareness of our own mortality can give us a sense of purpose to fulfill our goals. One of the greatest American writers, Flannery O’Connor, died at the age of just 39; she spent the last 13 years of her life battling lupus. She knew her time was short, so used her closeness with death as a spur to her creativity, focusing on what really mattered and deepening her empathy for other people.
We are all of us facing death, but by ignoring that fact we lose our ability to handle mortality and also set the pattern for avoiding all the other unpleasant things in our lives. By connecting to the reality of death, we can actually make ourselves more fully, viscerally alive. Awaken to the shortness of life and let that awareness clarify your daily actions. See the mortality in everyone and let your empathy blossom.
Embrace the negative parts of your life and see them as opportunities to learn and to strengthen yourself. Open yourself to new experiences. Become aware of your own mortality to taste a true sense of freedom.