How we Think About Human Nature: Cognitive Errors and Concrete Remedies

Us and them is perhaps the simplest explanation of human nature. —Wayne Bennett (2014).

Abstract

Appeals to human nature are ubiquitous, yet historically many have proven ill-founded. Why? How might frequent errors be remedied towards building a more robust and reliable scientific study of human nature? Our aim is neither to advance specific scientific or philosophical claims about human nature, nor to proscribe or eliminate such claims. Rather, we articulate through examples the types of errors that frequently arise in this field, towards improving the rigor of the scientific and social studies. We seek to analyze such claims rhetorically, cognitively, and epistemically. Namely, how do we think about human nature? Claims about human nature, we show, are susceptible to widely exhibited deficits in cognitive tendencies such as framing, confirmation bias, satisficing, and teleological perspectives, as well as motivated reasoning. Such missteps foster methodological, empirical, and psychological mistakes and biases. Specifically, they promote the naturalizing error, whereby cultural ideology and values are projected onto an apparently objective description of nature. Concrete remedies are offered to aid scientists in conducting and reporting their research goals and findings more responsibly and effectively (relevant also to educators and other communicators who convey these findings publicly). Recommendations include acknowledging that human nature claims are often context-dependent, seeking multiple critical perspectives, and explicitly labeling uncertainties.

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Werth, A.J., Allchin, D. How we Think About Human Nature: Cognitive Errors and Concrete Remedies. Found Sci (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10699-020-09726-5

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Keywords

  • Cognitive heuristics
  • Error types
  • Misconceptions
  • Teleology
  • Essentialism
  • Universalism
  • Public understanding of science