Ingeborg van Teeseling

Bregman’s Theory: The Nocebo Effect and the Puppy Within: The Two Conditions That Guide Us

According to a new theory, we humans are dictated by two conditions: the nocebo effect and our default for seeking play.


As you may remember, last week I was explaining a new and cheerful idea about humanity. The reason was the new book by historian Rutger Bregman, that will be published next year in its English translation as Humankind: A Hopeful HistoryI told you that Bregman’s premise, that people are intrinsically good, is too important to leave until the book comes out here, and that I would give you a preview.

Last time, we discussed the central tenant, namely that it was not the survival of the fittest that gave Homo Sapiens its edge, but the survival of the friendliest. Bregman even uses another term for our species: Homo Puppy. What motivates us is not power, but belonging. We like to be part of a group, and the best way to do that has always been, and still is, to be nice.

Nice people have more friends, more lovers, more offspring, and can share in the collective knowledge much better than narcissists. Bregman also speaks about the nocebo effect: we become the wolf we feed, the person we believe we are. His message: in this strange world, it is vitally important to keep feeding the right wolf.

Talking about wolves, one of the fascinating experiments that Bregman reminds us of is the Russian research into silver foxes. In 1958, two Russian researchers, Ljoedmila Troet and Dmitri Beljajev, zoologists and geneticists, got on a train to Siberia with one question in the forefront of their minds: Would it be possible to turn silver foxes, the most aggressive and wild of animals, into pets? It was not that they wanted a different breed of dogs, but they were curious to see what would happen if you would select the next breeders only on friendliness.

For the first few years, very little happened. In fact, it must have been fairly boring work, because the rule was that the researchers would make as little contact with the animals as possible. Troet and Beljajev wanted to keep their trial clean and make sure that they wouldn’t be influencing the animals. So, for years, all they did was select only the slightly less aggressive animals for their breeding programme. And in 1964, they saw the first result when a fox started wagging its tail.

Over the next decade, aggression turned into play.

The animals even started to bark like a dog, respond to their name, and beg for attention. Extra interesting was that their outward features also changed: they became rounder, softer, while their hormonal make-up showed fewer stress hormones and more oxytocin, the feel-good hormone. During a prestigious conference, Beljajev presented the findings by saying that he thought that they showed that “survival of the friendliest” was possible. And that we could do it with people too.

The problem, of course, as Bregman rightly writes, is that oxytocin is also the hormone that makes us differentiate between “us” and “them.”

This way, the love hormone can lead to wars and other horrors. There are two things you can say about that. First of all, we know from more and more archaeology that wars are relatively new in human history. They didn’t really start until we settled down and began owning things.

That is understandable because the Homo Puppy knows that it has more to gain from being nice. It rather avoids others than having to fight them. We also know that because hundreds of studies have shown that most soldiers, during most wars, don’t shoot. After the Battle of Gettysburg, during the American Civil War, for instance, almost 30,000 muskets were found. Roughly 90% were loaded, close to half even doubly loaded, while the minority had as many bullets in the chamber as possible. When researchers started talking to the owners of the muskets, they had to admit that loading their weapon had been an excuse not to have to shoot. And Gettysburg wasn’t an exception.

On the contrary: during most wars, soldiers shoot too high, in the wrong direction, or not at all. That is one of the reasons why Western powers, especially now, fight their conflicts with drones.

The Human Puppy only fights when it doesn’t look like fighting, but like a game.

If we have to stare into our adversary’s eyes or can imagine a person on the other side of the trench, somebody just like us, dying because of us, we don’t like to pull the trigger. We are built for nice, not for nasty.

But the nocebo effect is powerful. We are what we think we are. We become the wolf (or the silver fox) we feed. Experiments have shown that if you tell people that they are important and powerful, they will start to behave like that. And that is not always a good thing.


Bregman also speaks about the nocebo effect: we become the wolf we feed, the person we believe we are. His message: in this strange world, it is vitally important to keep feeding the right wolf.


In one such study, people were given a rickety, small car to drive.

When they came across pedestrians on a crossing, they stopped and gave them the right of way. The problem began when the researchers started doling out Mercedes: the more expensive the car, the worse the driver behaved. People in BMWs turned into right old assholes. Power, the conclusion was, can lead to acquired sociopathy. (Read Trump: give a very average person the reigns and they can become arrogant narcissists.)

What has happened is the disturbance of a process that has made Homo Puppy the most successful species: mirroring. What we excel at is understanding and empathizing with others. In the Trumps of this world, this process has been disrupted. It is, Bregman says, as though they have become unplugged from what makes us us. And the worrying thing is that 4 to 8% of CEOs are now built like that, compared to 1% percent of the normal population.

One of the consequences of that is that most workplaces are run with the premise that all human beings are bad at their core. Whether our bosses drive us by using the carrot or the stick, or both, it seems that nobody can believe that human beings can be intrinsically motivated if you give them the chance.

The result, according to a recent study in 142 countries in the world, is that only 13% of workers feel engaged. It is even worse than that: 24% feels actively disengaged, while 63% is simply not interested. We are talking about enormous amounts of people here: 240 million actively disengaged, 900 million not engaged.

Those are sad figures indeed.

Strangely enough, it is not usually a reason to do it differently. Not on a grand scale, at least. But there are bright sparks who have decided to buck the trend. Bregman points to a car company in France called FAVI.

In 1983, they got a new CEO, Jean-Francois Zobrist. In his dreams, he envisaged a business where employees behaved “like they were in their own home.” What he did was interesting: he got rid of the punch clock and every other measure of control. He also got rid of bonuses and punishments. Then, he divided the factory into small teams of 25 to 30, run by the employees themselves. They determined everything: not just the production, but also their own salaries, start and finish times, contractors, you name it. And they were directly responsible to the customers.

When the old guard of managers retired, Zobrist didn’t replace them; and he did away with marketing, planning, and human resource departments.

In the end, a very small group of bosses was left and they only did something when the teams on the ground asked them to. FAVI’s production grew like crazy. Within a few years it had a 50% share in the market for a number of the car parts they produced. The average production time for a part went from eleven days to one. And when the competition had to move to countries where the wages were much lower, FAVI could stay in France. Zobrist wrote a book about it. He called it, The Company That Believes That Humanity Is Good.

Another example of the nocebo effect is, of course, education. If there is any part of society that is ruled by the principle that people are bad, it is education. In schools, and by ourselves. Although the amount of pedophiles is small (the most reliable figures say between 1 and 2% of the population), we behave like they are everywhere and out to get our children.

The result of our fears (for men behind bushes, cars, but also dogs, the internet, falling tree branches, and a myriad of other things) is that children now spend more time indoors than prisoners.

And even more worrying: they hardly play anymore. And they have no privacy. Wherever they are, adults are there to supervise them. Because, obviously, they (and other people) can’t be trusted. Because people are bad.

The problem is that children who don’t play never learn to move, to compromise, to control risk, to work together; everything that the Homo Puppy is built to do.

We teach our children to color within the lines and to become obedient servers of capitalism, but we don’t allow them to be who they really are. But again, there are mavericks. And, thankfully, there have been for decades.

In 1943, Theodor Sorensen, a Danish landscape architect, realized that the playgrounds he had been designing were nice for the bureaucrats, but a nightmare for the children they were intended to serve.


The problem is that children who don’t play never learn to move, to compromise, to control risk, to work together; everything that the Homo Puppy is built to do.


He knew that because there was a war on and everywhere he saw children happily play between the ruins. When given a choice between a bombed house and a seesaw and a slide, they went for disorder every time.  So, that is what he designed in a neighborhood in Copenhagen.

On a disused 7000-meter square block of land, he put broken cars, firewood, old tires, trees, lots of sand, and all the tools available: saws, hammers, screwdrivers. And he gave the children matches, so they could light fires if they wanted.

Within days, hundreds of children came; and because there were so many opportunities for play, there were hardly any fights. Soon, the gospel spread to British cities like London, Liverpool, Coventry, and Leeds. Not everybody was enthusiastic, of course. Parents were afraid of accidents, children falling out of trees, getting killed.

But research showed the opposite. In fact, there were so few problems that the British insurer lowered its premium, making it less than for “normal” playgrounds.

The nocebo effect had worked. As it always does. But this time it had worked for good and because we had allowed to let ourselves be motivated by the idea that people are intrinsically nice and decent. We gave our children the freedom to be who they were, the Homo Puppy with its wagging tail and need for play.

Because, as Bregman quoted British psychologist Brian Sutton-Smith: “the opposite of play is depression.”

Unfortunately, in most of our lives, and in most of the world, fear reigns, and depression is a consequence. But not only that. There are problems with terrorism, racism, violence against women, and issues with the state and democracy. Bregman’s book has interesting insights into those too.

So, I’ll see you next week for the last installment.


Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating to Australia from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She is writing a book and runs Lifebooks, telling people's life stories.

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