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Five Lessons in Human Goodness from “The Hunger Games”

By Jeremy Adam Smith | April 18, 2012 | 8 comments

The plot of the new film sounds cynical. But it reveals a surprising amount about the science of human goodness.

In the dystopian future world of The Hunger Games, 24 teenagers are forced to fight to the death, their battle turned into televised entertainment.

This war-of-all-against-all scenario sounds as though it might reveal the worst in humanity—and to a degree, that’s true.

Katniss and Peeta of <i>The Hunger Games</i>. Katniss and Peeta of The Hunger Games.

But what raises The Hunger Games above similar stories, like the cynical Japanese film Battle Royale, is that it is mainly preoccupied with how human goodness can flourish even in the most dehumanizing circumstances.

As I watched the film and read the books, I found the story kept reminding me of classic pieces in Greater Good about the psychological and biological roots of compassion, empathy, and cooperation. The vision of human beings as fundamentally caring and connected is not merely wishful thinking on the part of Suzanne Collins, the author of the novels on which the movie is based. In fact, it’s been tested by a great deal of scientific research. Here are five examples.

1. Killing is against human nature.
Katniss, a skilled hunter and the hero of The Hunger Games, is indeed horrified by the prospect of dying—but her worst fears revolve around needing to kill other people. “You know how to kill,” says her friend Gale in the first book. “Not people,” she replies, filled with horror at the idea. When she actually does kill a girl named Glimmer, she’s wracked with guilt and throws herself over the body “as if to protect it.”

Research says that Katniss is the rule, not the exception. “The study of killing by military scientists, historians, and psychologists gives us good reason to feel optimistic about human nature, for it reveals that almost all of us are overwhelmingly reluctant to kill a member of our own species, under just about any circumstance,” writes Lt. Col. Dave Grossman in his Greater Good essay, “Hope on the Battlefield.”

Sociologist Randall Collins comes to a similar conclusion in his massive study Violence. “The Hobbesian image of humans, judging from the most common evidence, is empirically wrong,” he writes. “Humans are hardwired for interactional entrainment and solidarity; and this is what makes violence so difficult.”


2. Wealth makes us less compassionate.
The citizens of the Capitol brutally exploit the 12 districts of the country of Panem, giving themselves a very high standard of living while deliberately keeping the rest in a state of abject poverty. The movie and the book take pains to reveal how much this limits their ability to empathize with the less fortunate—a situation confirmed by research, some of which has been generated by the Greater Good Science Center here at UC Berkeley.

“In seven separate studies,” writes Yasmin Anwar, “UC Berkeley researchers consistently found that upper-class participants were more likely to lie and cheat when gambling or negotiating, cut people off when driving, and endorse unethical behavior in the workplace.” 

This doesn’t mean affluence makes you evil. According to the author of a related study, Greater Good Science Center Hornaday Graduate Fellow Jennifer Stellar, “It’s not that the upper classes are coldhearted. They may just not be as adept at recognizing the cues and signals of suffering because they haven’t had to deal with as many obstacles in their lives.”

3. People are motivated to help others by empathy, not reason or numbers.
“If you really want to stay alive, you get people to like you,” says their drunken, traumatized mentor, Haymitch. It’s the first advice he gives to the heroes, Katniss and Peeta, and a surprising amount of the film’s action revolves around their efforts to win people’s sympathy, which results in “sponsorships” that help them in their most desperate moments.

Haymitch’s advice is supported by new research that suggests if you want to encourage people to take humanitarian action, logic and big numbers don’t help—as every ad copywriter knows, people are most moved to help individuals with compelling personal stories.

When a team of psychologists ran a study of two fundraising appeals—one emphasizing a girl’s story, the other the number of people affected by the problem—they found “that people have more sympathy for identifiable victims because they invoke a powerful, heartfelt emotional response, whereas impersonal numbers trigger the mind’s calculator,” as former GGSC fellow Naazneen Barma writes. “In a fascinating cognitive twist, this appeal to reason actually stunts our altruistic impulses.”


4. Power flows from social and emotional intelligence, not strength and viciousness.
Peeta proves particularly adept at manipulating the emotions of the “Hunger Games” audience. He seldom actually lies to anyone, but he does artfully reveal and conceal his emotions to maximize their impact and win support for their survival (a trait illustrated in the clip above, when he uses his crush on Katniss as the raw material for a compelling, sympathetic story). In contrast, the characters who rely on brute force and violent prowess find themselves isolated and defeated in the end. It’s the most compassionate characters who ultimately triumph.

This is exactly what research in social and emotional intelligence predicts will happen. “A new science of power has revealed that power is wielded most effectively when it’s used responsibly by people who are attuned to, and engaged with, the needs and interests of others,” writes GGSC Faculty Director Dacher Keltner in his essay “The Power Paradox.” “Years of research suggests that empathy and social intelligence are vastly more important to acquiring and exercising power than are force, deception, or terror.”

5. Social connection trumps power and independence.
“The upshot of 50 years of happiness research is that the quantity and quality of a person’s social connections—friendships, relationships with family members, closeness to neighbors, etc.—is so closely related to well-being and personal happiness the two can practically be equated,” writes Christine Carter in her Raising Happiness blog.

It’s a point reinforced by Robert Sapolsky in his essay, “How to Relieve Stress”:

There’s another lesson we can learn from dogs and other hierarchical mammals, like baboons: Social rank can cause stress, especially where rankings are unstable and people are jockeying for position. But social rank is not as important as social context. What patterns of social affiliation do you have? How often do you groom, how often does somebody groom you? How often do you sit in contact and play with kids?

What’s clear by now is if you have a choice between being a high-ranking baboon or a socially affiliated one, the latter is definitely the one that is going to lead to a healthier, longer life. That’s the baboon we want to be—not the one with power, but the one with friends, neighbors, and family.

Katniss would very much like to be totally self-reliant. But she simply isn’t, and from a certain perspective, The Hunger Games is the story of how she comes to realize the importance of social connection and her interdependence with other people.

In the book, when one character tells her she’s a survivor, her reply is telling: “But only because someone helped me.” Katniss is tough and resourceful, but, in the end, it’s her ability to connect with others that saves her.

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About The Author

Jeremy Adam Smith is producer and editor of the Greater Good Science Center ‘s website. He is also the author or coeditor of four books, including The Daddy Shift, Rad Dad, and The Compassionate Instinct. Before joining the GGSC, Jeremy was a 2010-11 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. You can follow him on Twitter!

  

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Hunger Games’s story is awesome. It show us two extreme side of life: the life in capitol where humanity life so prosper (they even thrown up their food to eat more) and the life in District 12 where a slice of bread is so difficult to get.

asfarian | 12:32 am, April 19, 2012 | Link

 

I don’t know why, but the environmental blogs were all over this movie. Maybe because it’s a modern day apocolyptic scenario?

“people are most moved to help individuals with compelling personal stories.”

People are struggling to find out why there is such a disconnect between environmental reality and our sense of urgency. A new study showed that people who were shown dead plants were more likely to be concerned about climate change than those who were shown suffering polar bears…...maybe because dead plants reminds people of droughts.

Maybe direct violence is more compelling than indirect suffering from storms caused by climate change?

Amelie | 10:38 am, April 19, 2012 | Link

 
Jeremy Adam Smith's avatar

Hi Amelie. Greater Good has actually published an
article about exactly that topic, how to motivate
people to tackle climate change:
http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/hot_s
pot

I actually consider it to be one of our richest, most
though-provoking pieces.

Jeremy Adam Smith | 12:33 pm, April 19, 2012 | Link

 

I work in the entertainment industry and find it amazing that we think it’s okay to force children to wade through the sewage of films like “The Hunger Games” in order to find a few examples of human goodness.  What’s the point?  It is utterly shocking to me that even though this medium can take the viewer anywhere… let me say that again… ANYWHERE… it prefers to show us post-apocolyptic, violent and degrading doom and gloom.  Really?  And here’s the worst part of all:  I recently asked a group of 14-20 year olds how they felt about the future, and ALL of them said they think things will get worse - not better, and the general attitude was that they don’t really care or have any hope left.  I literally wept after hearing their responses.  What a tragic outlook to be burdened with.  And where do they get this outlook from?  The “entertainment” industry.  So I ask, for the sake of our children and their future, who among us in this extraordinarily influential industry will show them a bright and beautiful future?  Because if they cannot see it or have a frame of reference to it in some capacity, how will they ever be inspired to create it?  Can we do a study on THAT?

Marlowe Brown | 10:13 am, April 20, 2012 | Link

 

@Jermey Adam Smith thanks for sharing that article. Yes thought provoking, and chilling. What is going to happen to us if we can’t get everyone on board? This is a human issue and it’s not like some other tragedy where life will go on with a certain group suffering in silence…..if this spirals out of control before we get motivated, that will be it for everyone. Climate scientists will have the biggest I Told You So of all time and then it will all be over.

Amelie | 6:58 pm, April 23, 2012 | Link

 

Marlowe Brown said it beautifully.  When we grew up with Father Knows Best at least we had an image of what life could offer. Even if it was somewhat idealized it was a model to aspire to.  I agree that the low feeling expressed by our younger adults - generally, not 100%, is mirrored to them daily. Music, TV, Movies, news. There has got to be a balanced view of this world we share. The producers, the studios, the “powers that be” could use their gifted skills and dare to go against the accepted “that’s just the way it is” or let’s make it bigger, meaner, sexier, nastier, attitude.  They could actually change some of the trends by risking to be different. Some film makers do try and seem to have higher standards and hopefully will continue.  We need a more positive, optimistic future to present. A true connection of people to people not an electronic one.

Anita Arnold | 8:12 am, April 24, 2012 | Link

 
Jeremy Adam Smith's avatar

Marlowe and Anita, I largely agree that the
entertainment industry is guilty of all those things,
and more. But I have a different take on dystopian
fictions, which I think have a definite place in the
constellation of human story-types.

They serve as warnings against current trends and
as ways of illuminating what’s best in people by
putting them in the worst circumstances. For those
reasons, dystopian stories can also be highly
dramatic.

What if we had nothing but utopias, or only
idealized, aspirational visions of the ways we live?
The result would be propagandistic and perhaps
more than a little dull. Focusing on idealized
futures also obscures the historical processes that
stand behind them—the political conflicts that
brought them into being. I actually think the
message of The Hunger Games is a very positive
one: that we all have a responsibility to resist the
worst aspects of our society.

Jeremy Adam Smith | 12:32 pm, May 1, 2012 | Link

 

I agree that the entertainment industry is to blame
for forking every cent they can from sad and
uninspiring apocalyptic futures, but let’s face it,
entertainment unfortunately flourishes as the
needs of those who watch it: every attempt to
create some good and inspirational story usually
ends up not selling to the general people, and
because of that, because it does not “profit”, they
seldom invest too much on that. Aren’t we, the
viewers, the readers, also to blame for the lack of
good future stories?

Also, on this subject, The Hunger Games shows us
that it doesn’t matter what the media or the
industry shows: if the base society is suffering, if
what they see is fake (either they realize or not),
we are bound to eventually try, and hope, for a
better future. I mean, look at what the book
shows: The Capitol and their media is desperate in
showing a stable, good and kind country (even to
the extent of exploring the human arena of
tributes to a largely emotionally stunt audience),
but it does not prevent a revolution.

What I mean to say is: what we see in the movies
or media, what our mind believes is the future,
and what we actually fight for, are different. Do
most people agree the future is going to get
worse? I embrace that as an acknowledgement that
we MUST CHANGE, we must take better care of
the environment, of civil differences, of hunger in
the world, if we want to change that. Look at how
people perceived the world a century ago: they
expected it would be awesome, high tech, better
morals, all good - and it didn’t turn out to be that
way - not entirely.

Also, I would like to point out that it’s not entirely
true that the entertainment industry only shows
dystopian and apocalyptic futures, but it’s largely a
western view. Take a look at some high-selling
series in Japan (they love animation), like a 3-
season series called “ARIA”, where you mostly just
smile at the screen every episode with the nearly
utopic future they portray, or a visual novel named
“Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou” with a plot where
humanity is becoming PEACEFULLY and happily
EXTINCT. I don’t see anything like that in the west,
a “happy ending” for humanity, why is that? Why
we love so much to see the end of the world as
something sad (and bad?).

The answer is simple: we still see death as
something inherently bad, while some cultures
already took note that it’s not. Once we evolve to
embrace death as something that is part of live,
and makes life better, we might start realizing
that the end of the world might - also - be
something that comes quietly and peacefully.

Caio Vianna de Lima Netto | 1:03 pm, June 11, 2012 | Link

 
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