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Five Lessons in Human Goodness from “The Hunger Games”

The dystopian tale is really about compassion, empathy, and cooperation, argues Jeremy Adam Smith—and there's scientific reason for that.
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Hunger Games still, image by Murray Close

Image by Murray Close

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 classic pieces in Greater Good 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 the clip above, 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 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.


Jeremy Adam Smith is Web Editor of the Greater Good Science Center where this article originally appeared and author or coeditor of four books, including The Daddy Shift, Rad Dad, and The Compassionate Instinct. Before joining the GGSC, he was a 2010-11 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. You can follow him on Twitter.

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