All of our experience of other people and ourselves is undergirded by our assumptions about the fundamental structure of human nature. There are many aspects to our understanding of human nature. For now, let us consider the question of whether fundamental human nature is basically constructive or basically destructive. Even though we may not be aware that we are operating with those assumptions, they still create meanings from our everyday interactions.
We are continually attributing intentions to the people around us and then forming our understanding of the world based on those attributed intentions. We may be quite accurate about our assumptions, or we may be wildly off base. If we are closer to an accurate view, we are more likely to have good relationships and a reasonably smooth interface with the world around us. If we are way off base, we may find either that we are in continual conflict with the world around us or that we are always getting losses from other people.
We need to be as realistic as we can be, but at the same time we need to allow ourselves the pleasure of a healthy optimism. Sort of a balancing act. For example, suppose that you are driving on the highway and another car cuts close in front of you forcing you to slow down suddenly. If you have the view that people are basically destructive, you may assume that the other driver was selfish and intentionally cut you off. On the other hand, if you have the view that people are basically constructive, you may still be irritated, but you will recognize that the other person may have been distracted or in a hurry, or simply have made a human error. You might even recognize that you have made similar faux pas in the past.
All of our social structures and institutions are organized around one or both of these assumptions. Do people need to be controlled and contained or do they need to be nurtured and supported? How can we limit the destructiveness of unregulated human behavior while building on its inner constructiveness? If you stop to think about the ways you interact with other people, you may be able to see when you are making assumptions about what people are truly like inside.
This fundamental assumption is affected by our learned capacity for trust, and it affects how we understand ourselves. If we are basically pessimistic about other people, we are pessimistic about ourselves also. This can lead to depression and despair in addition to self-sabotage. Perhaps the most important reason to understand these distinctions is so that we can see that our assumptions about the world are just that–assumptions. They are not “accurate reflections” or “more realistic.” They are a way of putting a spin on our experience that seems to us to explain it. They are interpretations, and therefore, they can vary.