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Five lessons in human goodness from ‘The Hunger Games’

Jeremy Adam Smith, Editor, Greater Good Magazine | April 25, 2012

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.

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 book, I found the story kept reminding me of pieces we at the Greater Good Science Center have published 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 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 this clip, 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 Stanford professor 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.

Comments to “Five lessons in human goodness from ‘The Hunger Games’

  1. Look, Bruce,I’m going off your first comment here, yes, wealthy people have the basic human obstacles, but poorer people have alot more. This article says that “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.” It’s saying that they haven’t had to deal with as MANY obstacles, as in they have to deal with some obstacles, just not as many as the poorer people.

  2. You’ve touched some nerves, here, and that usually means you’re on the right track, to some degree. Thanks for your thoughts and insight.

    — David Stanton

  3. Upper level human FORCE other poor human to kill each others is ANIMAL Behavior!!! It is against human right!!! One day these Upper level should be treated THE SAME WAY if you keep doing that !!

  4. In Item #2 you offer a quote that “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.”

    Are you kidding me? Wealthy people haven’t had to deal with obstacles… Really? How about the obstacle of admission to Cal, studying, researching, writing, test taking, graduate school, working like dogs to land a job, holding a job or creating a business to employ many people, risk bankruptcy, pay taxes, buy a house, raise children… I am curious, if these are not “obstacles” what are?

    “Progressives”/academics romaticize low income people. The narrative is that low income people are virtous and hard working, while “the rich” are avaricious and corrupt. Please. You know what poor people want? They want to be rich. One’s character is consistent – rich or poor.

    Please don’t diguise your personal, political point of view as empirical research. We have too much class warfare already – promoted by our President and progressives.

    Other than item #2, I like your suggestions that human goodness will prevail.

    • Hi Bruce,

      I enjoyed this article very much.

      The observation made by the author with respect to obstacles also did not pass the “smell” test insofar as I was concerned. However, statement #2 itself does reflect recent research. Prior to reading this article, I read a recently published book, “Thinking–Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. Perhaps you’re familiar with it. The book summarizes decades of findings on how people think and confirms the statement in #2. People who are “primed” by the idea of money do TEND to be more selfish and are more prone to think that they got where they were mostly because of their own talent, skill, and perseverance; they are less compassionate to those less fortunate. The author does not comment on the finding but leaves it to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. Perhaps this finding makes us uncomfortable, but one would think it would cause us to reflect, rather than denigrate or condemn the messenger. The finding in this book also confirms comments made by people I know who have traveled widely–that the most friendly and generous people tend to be those in poorer countries such as Bolivia and Bhutan.

      • Vivian, I apologize if my tone was gruff. Your points are well taken. I do think, however, that one’s degree of empathy is a function of much more than the size of one’s wallet.

        If the category of people insensitive to the suffering of others is defined as those “primed by the idea of money” it seems that this would include both rich and poor. Many poor people are insensitive to the suffering of others and inflict pain on others(e.g., robbery and violence inflicted daily in empoverished parts of the US by poor people – clearly a lack of empathy). On the other hand, many wealthy people donate huge sums of money and volunteer their time to charitable causes. I find it dangerous to generalize and label an entire group of people with the same characteristics – even in the face of “empirical” research. Too often the research reflects one’s personal/political bias. It is socially acceptable to criticize “the wealthy,” but there is great danger in demonizing them. The corollary of canonizing the poor is equally improper, in my opinion.

        Yours in peace,

  5. Thank you so much for this thoughtful and inspiring post. I haven’t seen the movie but I am more motivated than ever to see it now. I really resonate with the tip: “Power flows from social and emotional intelligence, not strength and viciousness.”

  6. My take on “The Hunger Games”: A Glimpse at the New World Order?

    The hit movie “The Hunger Games” takes place in a dystopian future where the poor and wretched masses live under the high tech tyranny of a wealthy elite. Is the movie depicting the kind of society the elite is trying to establish for the New World Order? Let’s look at characteristics of the world presented in “The Hunger Games” and how they relate to plans for a New World Order.

    Pushed by a gigantic marketing campaign, The Hunger Games did not take long to become a world-wide sensation, especially among teenagers and young adults. Sometimes referred to as the new Twilight, The Hunger
    Games has similar components to the previous book-to-movie craze (i.e. a young girl torn between two guys) but takes place in a very different context.

    The Hunger Games paints a grim picture of the world of tomorrow, whether it be from a social, economic or political point of view. In short, it is a big-brotherish nightmare where a rich elite thrives on
    the backs of a starving population. Meanwhile, the perversity and voyeurism of mass media is taken to absurd levels and is used by the government as a glue to keep its unjust social order intact. Is The Hunger Games giving teenagers a glimpse of a not-too-distant future? Is the author Suzanne Collins communicating a strong anti-NWO message to the youth by showing its dangers, or is it getting the youth used to the idea?

    Let’s look at the fictional, yet possible, future world of The Hunger Games.

    The NWO for Teenagers

    The Hunger Games takes place in a context that is strikingly on-par with descriptions of the New World Order. One of the main characteristics of the New World Order is the dissolving of regular nation-states to form a single world government to be ruled by a central power. In The Hunger Games, this concept is fully represented as
    the action takes place in Panem, a totalitarian nation that encompasses the entire North-American territory. The United States and Canada have therefore merged into a single entity, a step that many predict that will happen before the full-on creation of the NWO.

    In Panem, the concepts of democracy and freedom have disappeared from America to be replaced by a high-tech dictatorship based on surveillance, monitoring, mass-media indoctrination, police oppression and a radical division of social classes. The vast majority of the citizens of Panem live in third-world country conditions:
    constantly subjected to poverty, famine and sickness. These difficult living conditions are apparently the result of a devastating event that engendered the complete economic collapse of North America. In District 12, home of the hero Katniss Everdeen, the locals live in conditions similar to the pre-industrial era where families of coal miners
    lived makeshift in shacks and eat rodents as meals.

    While the masses look as if they are living in the 1800s, they are nevertheless subjugated to the high-tech rule of the Capitol, which uses technology to monitor, control and indoctrinate the masses. Surveillance cameras, RFID chips and 3D holograms are abundantly used by the government to manipulate the will of a weak and uneducated
    population (although there are signs of solidarity and rebelliousness among the peasants). To preserve the fragile social order, the Capitol relies on a massive police force that is always ready repress any kind of uprising.

    The workers are often rounded up in civilian camps where they are shown state-sponsored propaganda videos. Panem is a high-tech police state ruled by a powerful elite that seeks to keep the masses in poverty and
    subjugation. These concepts are also thoroughly represented in other media formats as an effort to normalize the idea of a high-tech police state as the natural evolution of the current political system.

    Living in sharp contrast to the working class, the elite in The Hunger Games inhabit the glistening Capitol city and indulge in extravagances and fashion trends. This upper-echelon of society perceives the rest of the population as an inferior race to be ridiculed, tamed and controlled. All valuable resources have been vacuumed from the
    people living in the districts to profit the Capitol, creating a clear and insurmountable divide between Regular People and The Elite. The concept of an opulent elite ruling over the dumbed-down and impoverished masses (thus making them easily manageable) is an important aspect of the New World Order and it is clearly depicted in
    The Hunger Games. The government relies on high-tech surveillance and mass media to keep the population in check. There is another concept important to the occult elite that is at the heart of The Hunger Games, however: Blood sacrifices to strike fear and gain power.

    Blood Sacrifices for the Elite

    The government of Panem created the Hunger Games in order to remind the masses of the “great treason” they committed by rebelling. As punishment for their insubordination, the twelve districts of Panem must offer to the Capitol one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to be part of The Hunger Games. The teenagers must fight to the death in an outdoor arena in a Roman Gladiator-like event that is televised across the nation. The rules of the Games reflect the elite’s contempt and total lack of respect for the masses. The name of the Games
    itself is a reminder of the state of perpetual starvation the lower class is purposely kept in by the rulers in order to better control it.

    The boys and girls that are selected to take part in The Hunger Games are called “tributes”, a term that usually describes a payment rendered by a vassal to his lord, and thus reflects the servitude of the masses to its rulers.

    Since time immemorial, blood sacrifices were considered to be the highest form of “tribute” to gods and, on an occult level, were said to wield the most potent power to be tapped by rulers and sorcerers. The same way ancient Carthaginians sacrificed infants to the god Moloch, inhabitants of Panem sacrifice their children to the Capitol.

    The Hunger Games are therefore a modern version of these ancient rituals that the masses had to participate in to avoid the wrath of their superiors. The entire nation of Panem is forced to watch the sacrificial ritual that takes place in the Capitol, stirring up fear, anger and blood lust within them, amplifying the power of the ritual.

    We’ve seen in reality that the deaths of celebrities (Whitney Houston, Heath Ledger, Amy Winehouse) became such a media event that they are, in fact, mega-rituals that entire nations participate in. The Hunger Games reflect this concept of a highly publicized mega-ritual.

    In The Hunger Games, the ritualistic death of young people chosen from the mass is sold as a sporting event, a nation-wide celebration that is packaged as a reality show. Not only do the poor people participate in these demeaning events, they even cheer for their favorites. Why do they accept all of this? One of the reasons is that mass media can get people to accept anything … if it is entertaining.

    Appealing to the Basest Instincts

    The games are broadcast to the nation in the form of a reality-show, complete with TV hosts who analyze the action, interview the tributes and judge their performance. The tributes are so indoctrinated in this culture that they readily accept the rules of the game and are fully willing to start killing to win the Games. The masses also actively
    participate in the event, cheering for their district’s representatives, even though the entire event celebrates the sacrifice of their own.

    This reflects a sad but true fact concerning mass media: Any kind of message can reach people if it manages to capture their attention. There are two things that automatically, almost irresistibly, grab our attention: Blood and sex, the remnants of our primal instincts. The sheer violence of the event grabs the attention of the masses, who forget that the Games serve as a reminder of the people’s servitude to its elite. This concept is already well-known and fully exploited in today’s mass media, as elite-sponsored messages are constantly
    sold to consumers as being “entertainment”. The Hunger Games therefore aptly portray the role of media in the manipulation of public opinion.

    At one point in The Hunger Games, the death of a little girl shock the people into a brief moment of lucidity and solidarity, as the kill highlight the atrocity of the Games. The live broadcast of the death lead to a violent uprising in her district once the locals realize that they were willing participants in something terrible. The uprising is quickly put down by the omnipresent police force of the state. Furthermore, in order to prevent further social trouble, the
    producers of the show introduce a new element to the show: Love between Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, the girl and the boy from District 12. By introducing love (and, by extension, sex) into the show, the producers manage to quell the masses and bring them back to their usual state of silent stupor.

    This part of the movie reflects how mass media is used by the powers that be today. The worldwide reach of The Hunger Games series itself proves that stories that cleverly feature the ingredients of sex and violence are bound to get people hooked. So even though The Hunger Games seems to be denouncing the perversity of violence in mass media, it is bringing more of it into our movie theatres.

    Desensitizing to a New Type of Violence

    The Hunger Games brings to the forefront a new form of violence that was previously deemed too disturbing to portray in movies. While there is no shortage of violence in Hollywood, The Hunger Games movie crosses a boundary that is rarely seen in movies: Violence by minors and towards minors. In this PG-13 movie we see kids aged between 12 and 18 violently stabbing, slashing, strangling, shooting and breaking the necks of other children – scenes that are seldom seen in Hollywood movies. This is a sure way for the movie to grab the attention of the
    movie’s target audience – teenagers aged 12 to 18. And in the kill-or-be-killed scenario of The Hunger Games, the viewer can easily go beyond this psychological barrier and find himself yelling “Come on, Katniss, take your bow and shoot that vicious little f**cker in the head!”.

    In Conclusion

    The Hunger Games is set in world that resembles what is described to be the New World Order: A rich and powerful elite, an exploited and dumbed-down mass of people, the dissolving of democracies into a police state, high-tech surveillance, mass media used for propaganda and a lot of blood rituals. There is nothing optimistic in the dystopian future described in The Hunger Games. Even human dignity is revoked as the masses are forced to watch their own children killing each other as if they are caged animals.

    There is no difference between movie goers who watch the movie The Hunger Games and the masses in the movie that witness the cruelty of the Games. Both are willing participants in an event that portray the sacrifice of their own under the amused eye of a bloodthirsty elite. Furthermore, one can argue that the movie accomplishes the same functions as the Games in the movie: Distracting the masses with blood and sex while reminding it of the elite’s power.

    Is The Hunger Games attempting to warn an apathetic youth of the danger of allowing the current system to devolve into a totalitarian nightmare? Or is it simply programming young people to perceive the coming of a New World Order as an inevitability? That question is up for debate.

    Note: My comments are about the movie and not the book series. The movie has been formatted in a different way and conveys a slightly different message.

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