Aftermath of Sandy – Disasters Bring Out the Best and the Worse in People

We have just experienced a huge natural disaster on the scale greater than any seen certainly in my lifetime, in the broad reach and physical devastation created in the wake of this mega storm.  As the days go by and the stories of what happened are told there are many tragedies, but also many heroic and wonderful stories.  In times of trouble most people show their best nature, especially when the trauma hits close to home.

But as recovery time drags on as it inevitably will with large disasters on the scale of Sandy, some people turn to their darker nature and take advantage of a bad situation for their own monetary gain.  They start thinking of “what’s in it for me” and how in the large-scale confusion they can find a way to cheat the system. 

This was proven in the aftermath of Katrina as many bad people took advantage of that devastation by scamming the government, looting the unprotected, and price gouging the desperate.  My son lives in New York City and is seeing much of the storm damage firsthand.  He has been helping when he can and has requested that his Christmas gifts this year be a donation to help those in need.  Of course I am moved by the kindness of his request, and will comply but with a caution for those people with dark thoughts who will take advantage of the goodness of others, especially when that goodness is in the form of cash.  It is rather unfortunate that my thoughts go so quickly in that direction, as we are living in a very skeptical society.

We have deemed it unwise to take everything at face value and are called naïve when bad things happen to good people.  So, I have to wonder, what is it about disasters that bring out the best in some people and the worst in others?  This is actually easily explained with the selfish/selfless dichotomy inside each of us (see blog post on 10/09/12).  We are selfish by nature in order to survive, which gives us our competitiveness – as Darwin noted, it’s simply survival of the fittest. 

Cheating actually does pay, unfortunately, but too much cheating unhinges the social balance that keeps the non-cheaters (the majority) happy with maintaining the rules of the system.  So cheaters must be caught and punished in order for society to survive.  The problem with a large disaster is that the catching of the cheaters is temporarily disabled or inefficient due to the magnitude of scale.  When cheaters see that the odds of getting away with it are in their favor, those that are inclined take  full advantage of the golden opportunity.  And so much of stealing is really about opportunity.  Many otherwise non-cheaters will cheat when the opportunity is too easy to pass up.  While they are admittedly at fault, yet there is still a piece in our nature that drives selfishness, which is what cheating is all about; it’s taking more than your fair share.

The goodness that is also brought out during times of disaster is the other side of the selfish/selfless coin.   We love other people in general because we need them; it’s really hard to get by without relying on the help of others.  Some loners do manage to live off the grid, completely isolated, and enjoy their self-sufficiency.  But 99.9% of us need other people and the fruits of their labor to survive.  And so we cooperate, we help others when they are in need, we enjoy their company and feel their pain because we are such social creatures.

So the question becomes: are human beings by nature basically good or basically bad?  Do we only avoid doing bad things because we fear getting caught and being punished?  While that may be true for many regarding committing crimes, it doesn’t speak to our goodness, our going out of our way to help another for no other reason than to gain that good feeling that comes from helping others.  Studies have shown that we are indeed basically good.  Our bodies release feel-good hormones that perpetuates good behavior.  Being altruistic really does make a person physiologically feel good.

Studies have also shown that when you throw money at an altruistic situation, the built-in altruism decreases and the money takes preference.  The research study concerned building a nuclear waste plant nearby which was acceptable until money was offered, which then felt like putting a price tag on health, which then became unacceptable.  This can help to explain why people volunteer freely when there is great need, but to pay someone to do the same job is a wholly different matter.

COMMUNICATION TAKEAWAY: Human beings are by nature good not bad (with the exception of psychopaths).  But humans are also predetermined to be selfish, which doesn’t override their basic goodness, but does make some people bad when the opportunity presents itself.  So we should let our goodness shine through and lend a hand when needed.  But we should also act with caution and be cognizant of those cheaters among us who are looking to take more than they are entitled to have.

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