Human universals

I’m not usually one for indiscriminate copying, but as I was updating my commons I came across “human universals”. The voice in my head went, “Oooooooo.” In Left of Bang, Patrick Van Horne and Jason Riley explain the art and science of combat profiling. Combat profiling is a discipline developed to help soldiers, law enforcement and the like preempt and protect against hostile actors. It’s used to help these populations identify people planning to kill, maim, steal, disrupt and destroy. Here’s how they introduce “human universals”:

“Combat profiling works because human behaviour is the product of and driven by human nature. The founding principle of combat profiling is that beneath the differences and idiosyncrasies of varying human cultures there remains a universal constant we call human nature. Irises widen due to certain stimuli, adrenaline flows, muscles tense or relax; we smile, we cringe, we bare our fangs. Every person in the world possesses universals that allow us to apply the principles of combat profiling anywhere across the globe. The foundation of combat profiling is the universal similarities in humans, despite cultural differences.”

Van Horn and Riley then go on to list “nine principles of human nature that apply to combat profiling.”

1) Humans are creatures of habit: 
“In short, ‘humans follow simple reproducible patterns.’ Not only do people follow patterns, but also humans are reluctant to change those patterns until behaviours become unproductive. In fact, even if faced with clear failure, people often follow the same behavioural patterns in the hopes they will work again.”

2) Humans are lazy: 
“Humans are generally lazy and will take the path of least resistance. Faced with two or more options, the human will generally take the easiest.”

3) Humans are lousy liars: 
“Humans have significant cognitive limitations. It has been shown that imposing cognitive load can help uncover liars. A liar must create a story and monitor the fabrication to ensure it sounds believable while attempting to maintain a believable appearance.”

4) Humans will run, fight or freeze: 
“…our bodies often exhibit uncontrollable, automatic reactions to our emotions in response to the situations we are in. Because these reactions are automatic and uncontrollable, they are reliable indicators of the emotions and attitudes of a person and can clue us in to how that person is feeling in any given situation.”

5) Humans telegraph their intentions: 
“…we don’t often have control over our emotions, and our cognitive brain is not always in control of our emotions—at least at first. By understanding the behaviours associated with specific emotions, we can identify people’s emotional states and changes in relation to their emotions.”

6) Humans are predictable: 
“Humans are not generally spontaneous or random… Research shows that, even in games that rely on being unpredictable, humans are, in fact, very predictable and not at all random.”

7) Humans are not good at multitasking: 
“…humans only look natural when naturally focused on doing one thing. Furthermore, multitasking is a myth… People can only do one thing at a time well; when they attempt to do more than one thing at a time, focus, ability and productivity suffer.”

8) Humans are generally clueless: 
“Humans in general lack situational awareness. As you go about your day, take a minute and simply watch the people around you. Generally, people walk with their heads down, or they are focused on one particular thing. People rarely look around at their surroundings (with two exceptions: good guys and bad guys. And even these two types of people become focused and lose their general awareness at times).”

9) Humans can’t do very many different things: 
“There are a limited number of dimensions in human behaviour. Human beings are finite creatures. Our bodies react in certain ways to stress and other stimuli. Our communication is limited, basically, to verbal and nonverbal. We rarely act in isolation; rather, we interact with the environment around us.”

All the above are fairly obvious. But most truths are. What’s less obvious is what you can do with them. The first thing to note is that an understanding of human universals equates to a better understanding of yourself and others. It makes words, actions and decisions comprehensible. It allows you to connect with yourself and others on a deeper level. 

The second thing to note is that if you understand human universals you can use them. A designer with a better understanding of human universals can create a better UI and UX for the user of his product. A manager who understands human universals will be better positioned to inspire and encourage those he is responsible for. A parent who understands human universals will be less inclined to go to war with a moody teenager.

The third and final thing to be aware of is that a knowledge of human universals can be exploited. Those who understand human behaviour and human nature are also capable of manipulating it. Of course, knowledge like this is inherently neutral. What people will or won’t and can and can’t do with it is dependent on the possessor. But in the long run, I think you’re better off knowing than not knowing. Which is why I’ve shared the above passages. Because as Publius Syrus says, “He can best avoid a snare who knows how to set one.”