Fred Rogers has been held up as a secular saint, a creative genius, and someone who'd likely be utterly appalled at how the world has changed since in his death in 2003. I suspect, though, that Rogers would be pleased but not surprised that science has since proven a truth he always held as self-evident: that people are basically good, when they're allowed to be so.

Rogers's philosophy runs counter to two strong cultural currents: Christian theology, which considers human beings to be sinners from birth, and evolutionary biology, which emphasizes cutthroat competition. Scientific research, however, throws both those perspectives into serious doubt.

According to a recent article in Scientific American, a group of researchers at Harvard and Yale did a series of tests that attempted to determine whether human response to an ethical dilemma was to act cooperatively or selfishly, both when initially confronted with the scenario and afterwards, once they'd had a chance to reflect.

"The results were striking: in every single study, faster--that is, more intuitive--decisions were associated with higher levels of cooperation, whereas slower--that is, more reflective--decisions were associated with higher levels of selfishness. These results suggest that our first impulse is to cooperate... that we are fundamentally 'good' creatures after all."

Another large-scale international study reported in Science magazine found that people were more likely to return a lost wallet when they thought it likely that the loss would be harmful to the person who lost it:

"In these experiments, we turned in more than 17,000 lost wallets containing varying amounts of money at public and private institutions and measured whether recipients contacted the owners to return the wallets. In virtually all countries, citizens were more likely to return wallets that contained more money. Neither non-experts nor professional economists were able to predict this result."

These results square perfectly with what Fred Rogers said about how human nature manifests itself in daily behavior:

"Some days, doing 'the best we can' may still fall short of what we would like to be able to do, but life isn't perfect on any front--and doing what we can with what we have is the most we should expect of ourselves or anyone else."

In other words, people try to do their best because, at their core, they want to be good people and, indeed, have the innate capability to be so.

Published on: Nov 21, 2019
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.