This is a book about a radical idea.

An idea that’s long been known to make rulers nervous. An idea denied by religions and ideologies, ignored by the news media and erased from the annals of world history.

At the same time, it’s an idea that’s legitimised by virtually every branch of science. One that’s corroborated by evolution and confirmed by everyday life. An idea so intrinsic to human nature that it goes unnoticed and gets overlooked.

If only we had the courage to take it more seriously, it’s an idea that might just start a revolution. Turn society on its head. Because once you grasp what it really means, it’s nothing less than a mind-bending drug that ensures you’ll never look at the world the same again

So what is this radical idea?

That most people, deep down, are pretty decent.

I don’t know anyone who explains this idea better than Tom Postmes, professor of social psychology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. For years, he’s been asking students the same question.

Imagine an airplane makes an emergency landing and breaks into three parts. As the cabin fills with smoke, everybody inside realises: We’ve got to get out of here. What happens?

  • On Planet A, the passengers turn to their neighbours to ask if they’re okay. Those needing assistance are helped out of the plane first. People are willing to give their lives, even for perfect strangers.
  • On Planet B, everyone ’s left to fend for themselves. Panic breaks out. There ’s lots of pushing and shoving. Children, the elderly, and people with disabilities get trampled underfoot.

Now the question: Which planet do we live on? “I would estimate about 97 per cent of people think we live on Planet B,” says Professor Postmes. “The truth is, in almost every case, we live on Planet A.” Doesn’t matter who you ask. Left wing or right, rich or poor, uneducated or well read – all make the same error of judgement.

“They don’t know. Not freshman or juniors or grad students, not professionals in most cases, not even emergency responders,” Postmes laments. “And it’s not for a lack of research. We’ve had this information available to us since World War II.” Even history’s most momentous disasters have played out on Planet A.

Take the sinking of the Titanic. If you saw the movie, you probably think everybody was blinded by panic (except the string quartet). In fact, the evacuation was quite orderly. One eyewitness recalled that “there was no indication of panic hysteria, no cries of fear, and no running to and fro”.

Or take the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks. As the Twin Towers burned, thousands of people descended the stairs calmly, even though they knew their lives were in danger. They stepped aside for firefighters and the injured. “And people would actually say: ‘No, no, you first,’” one survivor later reported. “I couldn’t believe it, that at this point people would actually say ‘No, no, please take my place.’ It was uncanny.”

There is a persistent myth that by their very nature humans are selfish, aggressive and quick to panic. It’s what Dutch biologist Frans de Waal likes to call veneer theory: the notion that civilisation is nothing more than a thin veneer that will crack at the merest provocation. In actuality, the opposite is true. It’s when crisis hits – when the bombs fall or the floodwaters rise – that we humans become our best selves.

On 29 August 2005, Hurricane Katrina tore over New Orleans. The levees and flood walls that were supposed to protect the city failed. In the wake of the storm, 80 per cent of area homes flooded and at least 1,836 people lost their lives. It was one of the most devastating natural disasters in US history.

That whole week newspapers were filled with accounts of rapes and shootings across New Orleans. There were terrifying reports of roving gangs, lootings and of a sniper taking aim at rescue helicopters. Inside the Superdome, which served as the city’s largest storm shelter, some 25,000 people were packed in together, with no electricity and no water. Two infants’ throats had been slit, journalists reported, and a seven-year-old had been raped and murdered.

The chief of police said the city was slipping into anarchy, and the governor of Louisiana feared the same. “What angers me the most,” she said, “is that disasters like this often bring out the worst in people.”

This conclusion went viral. In the British newspaper The Guardian, acclaimed historian Timothy Garton Ash articulated what so many were thinking: “Remove the elementary staples of organised, civilised life – food, shelter, drinkable water, minimal personal security – and we go back within hours to a Hobbesian state of nature, a war of all against all. [...] A few become temporary angels, most revert to being apes.”

There it was again, in all its glory: veneer theory. New Orleans, according to Garton Ash, had opened a small hole in “the thin crust we lay across the seething magma of nature, including human nature”.

Rutger Bregman

It wasn’t until months later, when the journalists cleared out, the floodwaters drained away and the columnists moved on to their next opinion, that researchers uncovered what had really happened in New Orleans.

What sounded like gunfire had actually been a popping relief valve on a gas tank. In the Superdome, six people had died: four of natural causes, one from an overdose and one by suicide. The police chief was forced to concede that he couldn’t point to a single officially reported rape or murder. True, there had been looting, but mostly by groups that had teamed up to survive, in some cases even banding with police.

Researchers from the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware concluded that ‘the overwhelming majority of the emergent activity was prosocial in nature’. A veritable armada of boats from as far away as Texas came to save people from the rising waters. Hundreds of civilians formed rescue squads, like the self-styled Robin Hood Looters – a group of eleven friends who went around looking for food, clothing and medicine and then handing it out to those in need.

Katrina, in short, didn’t see New Orleans overrun with self-interest and anarchy. Rather, the city was inundated with charity and courage.

The hurricane confirmed the science on how human beings respond to disasters. Contrary to what we normally see in the movies, the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware has established that in nearly seven hundred field studies since 1963, there’s never total mayhem. It’s never every man for himself.

Crime – murder, burglary, rape – usually drops. People don’t go into shock, they stay calm and spring into action. “Whatever the extent of the looting,” a disaster researcher points out, “it always pales in significance to the widespread altruism that leads to free and massive giving and sharing of goods and services.”

Catastrophes bring out the best in people. I know of no other sociological finding that’s backed by so much solid evidence that’s so blithely ignored. The picture we’re fed by the media is consistently the opposite of what happens when disaster strikes.

Meanwhile, back in New Orleans, all those persistent rumours were costing lives.

Unwilling to venture into the city unprotected, emergency responders were slow to mobilise. The National Guard was called in, and at the height of the operation some 72,000 troops were in place. “These troops know how to shoot and kill,” said the governor, “and I expect they will”.

And so they did. On Danziger Bridge on the city’s east side, police opened fire on six innocent, unarmed black residents, killing a seventeen-year-old boy and a mentally disabled man of forty (five of the officers involved were later sentenced to lengthy prison terms).

True, the disaster in New Orleans was an extreme case. But the dynamic during disasters is almost always the same: adversity strikes and there’s a wave of spontaneous cooperation in response, then the authorities panic and unleash a second disaster.

“My own impression,” writes Rebecca Solnit, whose book A Paradise Built in Hell (2009) gives a masterful account of Katrina’s aftermath, “is that elite panic comes from powerful people who see all humanity in their own image.” Dictators and despots, governors and generals – they all too often resort to brute force to prevent scenarios that exist only in their own heads, on the assumption that the average Joe is ruled by self- interest, just like them.

Excerpted with permission from Humankind: A Hopeful History, Rutger Bregman, translated from the Dutch by Elizabeth Manton and Erica Moore, Bloomsbury.