The Power of Human

I have been waiting for this book since I met Adam Waytz at a conference on neuroscience and peacebuilding a few years ago. He was just starting his career, but it was already clear that he was insightful and funny—traits that are reflected in The Power of Human. At that conference, Waytz presented his first research findings on the ways we dehumanize people we disagree with, much of which finds it way into this book.

But his work has grown a lot in those few years, since the book focuses more on what it means to be human and humanize our relationships in a constructive way. Much of this book covers ground that might not be of much interest to peacebuilders—especially his work on social media and the changing nature of work.

However, it is worth reading because of the research he and others have done that shows that a) we have control over whether or not we dehumanize the people we disagree with and b) when we don’t, we expand the opportunities for finding constructive outcomes to our disputes.

Indeed, Waytz does more than any author I’ve read to synthesize what neuroscientists are learning about human agency. Starting with the way we signal our intentions, we have tremendous control over how we act and how we are perceived by others. Add to that the fact that there is a certain “contagion” effect that often occurs when we treat others with good will—a term Waytz himself does not rely on.

Our conventional (and partially mistaken) conceptions of human nature notwithstanding, we rarely want to harm others. We also treat each other better when we think of each other as individuals rather than as a member of a group—especially as a member of an outgroup. And, the cues we give each other—positive or negative—have more of an impact than we are inclined to think.

In short, this is a fascinating book, much of which should be of interest to peacebuilders, including those whose work takes them into the psychological sides of our field.