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Selling Human Nature Short

How flawed psychological theories have distorted our view of human nature.

Key points

  • Earlier psychological studies and theories encouraged the view that human beings were callous and selfish.
  • Phillip Zimbardo’s 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, as well as the "bystander effect," have been questioned.
  • Recent research shows that bystanders are likely to intervene in an emergency, even if others are present.
madsmith33/ Pixabay
Source: madsmith33/ Pixabay

There are several classic experiments and theories that every psychology student learns.

One is Phillip Zimbardo’s 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, in which 24 participants were randomly separated into groups of would-be prisoners and guards. Within a short space of time, the guards were mistreating the prisoners, who began to display signs of acute distress. The level of abuse and distress grew so acute that the experiment had to be curtailed after six days.

Another classic theory is the “bystander effect,” which suggests that people are reluctant to help out in emergencies if others are nearby. This theory dates back to 1964 when a woman was raped and murdered in the early morning in New York City. It was reported that 38 people witnessed the attack, without intervening. According to the bystander effect, the more people witness an event, the less likely any individual is to intervene since responsibility becomes more diffused.

Such theories have encouraged the view that human beings are essentially callous and selfish. The “evil” sides of our character are just below our civilized surface, always ready to emerge, while the moral and altruistic side is a thin veneer, which is easily overridden.

Discredited Theories

The only problem is that these experiments have now been largely discredited. Recent research has found that the cruelty of Zimbardo’s prison guards didn’t emerge spontaneously; the guards were given instructions. Similarly. some of the “prisoners” admitted that they were pretending to be distressed.

Similarly, it is now clear that the 1964 incident that inspired the theory of the bystander effect was distorted. Far fewer people witnessed the incident that was reported, and some people could only hear screams, without seeing the location of the incident. At least one person did try to intervene.

Moreover, recent research has suggested that bystanders are much more likely to intervene than the theory suggests. A 2019 study of 219 violent situations from cities around the world caught on closed-circuit television showed that bystanders—not just one, but usually several—intervened to help victims 90 percent of the time.

The study also found that completely contrary to the bystander effect, the more people were present, the more likely passers-by were to intervene. In the words of the lead researcher, Richard Philpot, “It shows that people have a natural inclination to help when they see someone in need.”1

Heroism and Altruism

The burgeoning field of “heroism studies” also questions the bystander effect. In a recent post, I showed how acts of heroic altruism commonly occur in terrorist attacks, when people often risk their own lives to help others. This applies to almost every emergency or crisis.

Consider the following situation. You’re standing on a train platform. The person next to you suddenly faints and falls onto the track, unconscious. In the distance, you can see a train approaching. What would you do? Would you be too shocked to react, and stand frozen as the train approaches? Or would you jump down to try to save the person?

You might doubt whether you would act heroically in this situation. But don’t underestimate yourself. There is a strong possibility that, before you knew it, you would find yourself down on the track, helping the person to safety.

Google “person jumps down on to train track to save life” and you’ll find dozens of cases from around the world, including some moving video footage. There is a recent video from the New York subway when a wheelchair-bound man fell onto the track. A bystander immediately jumps down, pushes the wheelchair to one side, and hauls the man up, with the help of others on the platform. A train arrived just ten seconds later.

Another dramatic video is from an incident in 2015 when a cyclist was trapped under the wheel of a double-decker bus in London. A crowd of around 100 people quickly gathered, and in an amazing act of coordinated altruism, lifted the bus so that the man could be freed. According to a paramedic who treated the man, this was a “miracle,” which may have saved his life.

With so much contrary evidence, it is clear that the bystander effect is invalid. As I point out in my book DisConnected, these acts of impulsive spontaneous altruism suggest a fundamental empathic connection between human beings.

A New View of Human Nature

In my view, early psychologists were—at least unconsciously—tailoring their experiments and results to confirm a prejudicial view of human nature. Perhaps not surprisingly, not long after World War II and the Holocaust, they assumed that human beings were innately cruel and sought evidence to prove this. This bleak view of human nature was seemingly justified by simplistic genetic theories that suggested that human beings are ruthless biological machines, caring for nothing but replication and survival.

Now, however, research from a variety of areas points to a much more positive view of human nature. Along with the study of heroism, the popular field of positive psychology studies human well-being, and positive traits, such as creativity, compassion, and resilience.

The consensus from anthropologists is now that, for the vast majority of the time that time we’ve inhabited this planet, human societies have been egalitarian and peaceful. This overturns the traditional idea that human life has always been a competitive struggle for survival, conditioning us to be selfish and individualistic.

As the early positive psychologist Abraham Maslow complained, human nature has been “sold short” by psychology. Human beings can be brutal and selfish. But we can be incredibly altruistic and selfless too. Let’s teach our psychology students about these positive aspects, rather than highlighting the negative.


1. Philpot, R., Liebst, L. S., Levine, M., Bernasco, W., & Lindegaard, M. R. (2020). Would I be helped? Cross-national CCTV footage shows that intervention is the norm in public conflicts. American Psychologist, 75(1), 66–75.

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