Put human nature back in business

By Ralph Gomory

Organizations that take this side of human nature into account may well function better than those whose single goal is profit.

When two bombs exploded this spring near the Boston Marathon finish line, many rushed to help those who were hurt. We read about their actions with approval and admiration, but not with surprise. On some level people understand that it is human nature to try to help, even if doing so involves risk or sacrifice.

This part of human nature is largely absent in business, a world that believes almost entirely in motivation through self-interest and even in the social good of self-interest. This viewpoint was famously summarized by Adam Smith: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

Smith, however, was also conscious of the power of altruism. He could have been describing the scene in Boston when he wrote in 1759: “The plaintive voice of misery, when heard at a distance, will not allow us to be indifferent about the person from whom it comes. As soon as it strikes our ear, it interests us in his fortune, and, if continued, forces us almost involuntarily to fly to his assistance.”

Read the full article as published in The Washington Post.

Ralph Gomory is a Research Professor.