The Laws of Human Natureby Robert Greene
In life, we’ll inevitably come across difficult people who make us feel frustrated, upset, confused, or helpless. How can you understand human behavior and make sense of others as well as your own emotions and actions?
Human nature, or rather, the way we act instinctively, comes from the way our brains are wired after millions of years of evolution. Through an extensive study of literature on psychology and philosophy, Robert Greene explains the “18 laws” of human nature to help us understand why humans behave the way we do. These insights will help you to become a better judge of character, manage your thought patterns, empathize with others, and motivate/influence them more effectively.
“If you come across any special trait of meanness or stupidity… you must be careful not to let it annoy or distress you, but to look upon it merely as an addition to your knowledge”
Humans act instinctively in certain ways because of how our brains are wired after millions of years of evolution. By understanding why people behave the way they do, you can become a better judge of character, manage your thought patterns, stay calm and strategic, and motivate or influence others more effectively.
“Irrationality is a function of the structure of our brains and is wired into our very nature by the way we process emotions”
Law of irrationality - Master Your Emotions
We humans think that we are in control, but what drives us are our emotions. We follow our emotional impulses to seek pleasure and avoid pain. We tend to feel an emotion before we interpret it consciously, as different parts of our brain control these two functions.
Become aware of your irrationality, then practice introspection and reflection to manage your emotions.
The common biases that distort your perception are:
Confirmation bias - You look for evidence that confirms your beliefs
Conviction bias - You convince yourself your beliefs are the right ones
Appearance bias - You think you can see people as they really are
Group bias - You follow the herd
Superiority bias - You think you are more rational than others
Blame bias - You blame others for your mistakes
The inflaming factors that can intensify emotions are:
Childhood memories - Cause strong positive or negative feelings
Sudden wins or losses - Cause extreme optimism or pessimism
Extreme stress - Changes our behavior
Narcissistic individuals - Causes strong feelings in us and others
Large groups - Causes infectious emotions
Law of narcissism - Become empathetic
We can empathize naturally when we are not self-absorbed. We need attention to grow our self-worth, but we can’t rely on it alone, or we become narcissists.
Deep narcissists take everything personally, demand control and attention in their relationships, and are expert manipulators.
Healthy narcissists direct their sensitivity to others through empathy or to their work through creativity.
Law of role-playing - Present yourself better (and learn to read others)
Everyone wears a mask to present themselves to others. We want to look good, but our real feelings show up through (mostly unconscious) body language. Pay attention to non-verbal cues and don’t get lost in your own internal dialogue
Signs of dislike or displeasure include:
- Eyes narrowing, lips pursing, arms folding
- Tension, coldness, or silence
Signs that the other person likes you include:
- A relaxed and open posture
- A smile that touches the eyes
- Pupil dilation
People who are confident tend to be relaxed, move more freely, and make eye contact.
Insecure people are more hesitant, speak in higher pitches, and avoid eye contact.
People who are hiding something tend to become extra-animated, unusually chatty, or forceful.
Law of shortsightedness - Think about the future
We tend to overemphasize what we see and hear in the present, especially what is the most dramatic. In doing so, we lose sight of the bigger picture.
In this complex world, any action can have far-reaching consequences. Learn to step back and consider the bigger picture instead of reacting to what’s in front of you.
Actions to take
“When choosing people to work and associate with, do not be mesmerized by their reputation or taken in by the surface image they try to project. Instead, train yourself to look deep within them and see their character.”
Law of compulsive behavior - see people's character
Our character is deeply ingrained and compels us to act in unconscious ways. Forged by 3 components
Early attachments formed with our caregivers
Habits and experiences
Learn to look beyond appearances. Assess people’s true character based on how they handle adversity, adapt, learn, and interact with others. This involves understanding our own character to address the negative patterns in our lives and becoming skilled at reading others.
Law of conformity - be aware of how we change in groups
We like to believe that we’re independent and progressive, but we can’t help conforming with our groups: we unconsciously imitate others and are influenced by their reactions and opinions.
Here’s how we are individually influenced by groups:
- We change our appearances or adopt the group’s ideas, beliefs and values because of our desire to fit in.
- We perform the roles expected of us as team members.
- We try to minimize our flaws and present our strengths.
- We’re infected by their emotions, especially fear and anxiety.
- We feel hyper-certain about an idea that the group is certain about, even though we’d have doubted it on our own.
There are some common dynamics you may notice in groups:
- A culture or spirit is based on a shared ideal.
- Rules and codes define what is acceptable.
- A hierarchy:
- Alpha and sub-leaders whom people try to get close to
- The Intriguer (seems loyal but is secretly amassing power)
- The Stirrer (hides his envy to spread discord)
- The Gatekeeper (uses his position to monopolize information and isolate the leader)
- At least one group enemy that they resist.
- As a group gets bigger, factions emerge with their own interests
Actions to take
Defend yourself from others
“Learn to deflect envy by drawing attention away from yourself. Develop your sense of self-worth from internal standards and not incessant comparisons.”
Law of envy - draw attention away from yourself
Humans constantly compare themselves with one another.
When we feel envious, we deny our envy as it implies inferiority. Instead, we tell ourselves that we’re just angry or indignant.
Envious people can turn hostile and actively seek to hurt you, whether consciously or unconsciously. This is the most common and painful betrayal among friends.
Signs of envy include:
- Disappointment at your good news, or glee at your misfortune
- Poisonous praise that makes you feel uncomfortable
- Talking maliciously about someone who is not present.
- Push-and-pull, i.e., pulling you in with friendship then criticizing you once they know your weak points
The personality types of enviers are:
- Levelers: They are good at putting others down but can’t take jokes at their own expense.
- Self-entitled slackers: They earn their positions through charm or politics instead of getting things done.
- Status fiends: They reduce everything to rank, position, and material benchmarks.
- Attachers: They affix themselves to the people they envy with malicious intent.
- Insecure masters: They are unsure about their abilities and may fire those they envy.
Situations that often trigger active envy in others include:
- A sudden change in your status
- Having talents that elevate you above others
- Being a woman who rises to success
Law of aggression - recognize dangerous people
On the surface, people seem friendly and civilized. However, beneath the mask, everyone has an aggressive side.
The most chronic aggressors are actually people with the deepest insecurities. They can’t tolerate feelings of helplessness and anxiety, they see others as tools to get what they want, and they may even get addicted to the thrill of aggression.
Sophisticated aggressors can cleverly mask their maneuvers to become successful and powerful.
Be a master observer of aggression so you can identify and manage chronic aggressors. These types of people tend to have lots of enemies, present themselves as a crusader or eccentric genius, or have obsessive habits. Focus on their real goals instead of their false fronts, outwit them instead of using direct confrontation, and temporarily cross the lines yourself if need be.
Examples of passive-aggressive strategies include:
- The subtle-superiority strategy: always turning up late with an excuse and insincere apology
- The sympathy strategy: playing the victim but secretly relishing the pain or drama
- The dependence strategy: offering concern and help, then withdrawing them later
Actions to take
Motivate and influence others
“Learn to create some mystery around you, to use strategic absence to make people desire your return, to want to possess you.”
Law of covetousness - become an object of desire
It’s a human tendency to covet what we don’t have. Once we get what we want, we get distracted by something else that seems even better.
People may say they want truth and honesty, but they actually want to stimulate their fantasy.
Direct your inherent restlessness and discontent into tangible improvements. Instead of chasing after every distraction, know what you truly want so you won’t be distracted by what others are trying to influence you to want.
Law of defensiveness - confirm people's self-opinion
Everyone has perceptions about themselves that they defend fiercely regardless of whether they’re true.
There are three universal self-opinions:
- Independence: “I am autonomous and act of my own free will.” We rebel if we feel coerced or manipulated.
- Intelligence: “I am intelligent in my own way.” No one likes to feel stupid or gullible.
- Goodness: “I am basically good and decent.”
To influence someone, don’t try to show how good you are nor challenge them directly. Instead, soften their defenses by validating their self-opinion and aligning your idea with it.
Law of fickleness - create the appearance of power and get them to identify you as a leader
We want to believe that our emotions are pure and simple when we’re actually ambivalent toward most things. For example, we may admire yet envy someone.
We want our leaders’ protection and direction, but we hate feeling restrained or inferior.
People can turn on their leaders during a setback or if they seem weak. Never feel entitled to someone else’s respect.
There are two pillars of authority:
- Vision: a global, far-reaching vision that unites the group instead of appearing self-serving
- Empathy: being attuned to the mood shifts in the group and never taking their support for granted
Be an observer of authority and influence: Examine how your parents, teachers, mentors, or other authority figures have impacted you. Closely observe leaders in action and identify their sources of authority (or lack of it).
Authority styles include:
- Deliverer: frees people from evil or injustice
- Founder: creates a new order
- Visionary Artist: challenges the conventions of his time
- Quiet Pragmatist: fixes what’s broken
- Healer: fulfills and unites people
- Teacher: gets people to learn from mistakes
- Truth Seeker: seeks the truth
Seek to cultivate your inner authority. Contribute to others, cultivate your unique spirit and purpose, and pursue your priorities with discipline, excellence, and urgency.
Actions to take
Alter your Negative Patterns
“We sabotage our career and relationships by unconsciously creating the circumstances we fear the most. The human attitude, however, is malleable.”
Law of self-sabotage - change your attitude
Our attitude affects how we interpret and respond to events and people, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. We often sabotage ourselves by unintentionally creating the circumstances we fear the most. For example, if you’re afraid to fail, you won’t try new things or learn from your mistakes, resulting in a greater chance of failure.
To change your circumstances, first, change your attitude.
The five most negative attitudes are:
Hostility: They think the world is against them. They’re quick to accuse others, only to make them defensive or aggressive. It’s best to stay neutral around such people.
Anxiety: They’re often controlling and tend to micromanage others. Be calm and soothing around them.
Avoidance: They evade challenges or responsibility. For example, they may leave a relationship or fall sick during a tough project. Do not partner with such people.
Depression: They feel unworthy, and hurt others to invite criticism. Indirectly improve their mood by drawing them into positive experiences.
Resentfulness: They feel wronged and this bitterness only repels others. Be careful around such people as they often harbor grudges.
Law of repression - know your dark side
We all have a dark side - the selfish, greedy, or aggressive parts of ourselves - that we hide in order to fit in and be liked and respected. The psychologist Carl Jung calls this the Shadow. It can’t be fully hidden and tends to leak out when you’re stressed, hurt, feeling insecure, or as you get older.
Some common signs include:
- Vehement denial
- Emotional outbursts
- Contradictory behavior
- “Accidental” behavior (for example, when you’re drunk)
- Over-idealization, or doing bad things in the name of a good cause
- Projecting hidden desires onto others (for example, accusing someone of greed to hide our own)
There are seven common traits that often hide a darker side.
The Tough Guy: uses an intimidating front to hide deep vulnerabilities.
The Saint: uses purity and goodness as a front but abuses his position once he’s in power.
The Passive-Aggressive Charmer: acts nice initially but lashes out once they know you.
The Fanatic: impresses you with fervor and ambition, then fails to deliver.
The Rigid Rationalist: reveals irrational tendencies despite appearing analytical and logical.
The Snob: exerts superiority to hide a fear of mediocrity.
The Extreme Entrepreneur: insists on independence and high standards, but secretly wants others to take care of him.
When you’re aware of your dark side, it loses its power over you. You can then tap into your full range of creative energies to become more complete, authentic, and attractive.
Actions to take
“We forget the role that luck may have played in the success, or the contributions of others. We imagine we have the golden touch. Losing contact with reality, we make irrational decisions.”
Law of grandiosity - be grounded in reality
Humans want to think highly of ourselves, to the point we tend to imagine our superiority. We amplify our successes, discount the role of luck or others’ contribution, and allow admiration to inflate our ego until we lose touch with reality and eventually come crashing down.
Learn to identify the signs of elevated grandiosity in yourself and in others. These include talking big, taking credit for successes, failing to listen, rejecting criticism, and hanging on to masks even in private.
Grandiose leaders rise to power because they project confidence, boldness, and a larger-than-life presence. The best way to deal with such leaders is to reveal the illusions for what they are—merely a glorious image they conjured.
The six common illusions are:
- They’re destined for greatness
- They’re common people who’ve risen through the ranks,
- They’re your saviors
- They can single-handedly rewrite the rules or intuit the truth
- They have the golden touch
- They’re invulnerable
Law of gender rigidity - be aware of the masculine and feminine in you
Every human has both masculine and feminine qualities, genes, and hormones. We repress some of these qualities to play the roles expected by society, thus losing important aspects of ourselves. Psychologist Carl Jung refers to these as the anima, the unconscious feminine part of a man, and the animus, the unconscious masculine part of a woman.
The relationships we have with our parents create gaps or expectations which we project into our adult relationships. Watch out for these six common types of gender projections:
A woman attracted to the Devilish Romantic (an older, successful man who can shower her with attention like her father used to)
A man seeking the Elusive Woman of Perfection (with the qualities he failed to get from his mother)
A woman attracted to the Lovable Rebel (who mirrors her inner rebel repressed by her strict father)
A man fascinated by the Fallen Woman (who’s the opposite of the good, obedient boy he was)
A woman drawn to the Superior Man (whose power/strength counter her inner insecurities)
A man looking for the Woman to Worship Him (since he’s still unconsciously trying to live up to his mother’s expectations)
Use the best of your feminine and masculine traits to become more flexible, balanced, and effective.
- Thinking: Masculine thinking focuses more on categories, contrast, and linear processes. Feminine thinking focuses more on the whole, people, and interconnections.
- Action: Masculine styles involve attacking obstacles head-on and pushing past them. Feminine styles involve withdrawing first and taking a more indirect approach.
- Learning: When things go wrong, men often blame external factors first and sort things out by themselves, while women often blame themselves first and ask for help more readily.
- Relationships or Leadership: Men tend to focus on hierarchies and punishing those who are out of line. Women tend to maintain group cohesion, show empathy, and are more inclusive.
Law of aimlessness - develop a sense of purpose
We are complex beings with many conflicting moods and desires. If we act on all our instincts, we’ll find ourselves drifting aimlessly. Have a clear sense of purpose, let it guide your decisions, and focus your energy toward one primary mission.
All of us have an inner voice that tells us if we’re on the right path. When you listen closely to that voice, you feel clear, whole, and energized. This is not the same as the voice of your ego which seeks attention or instant gratification. Apply your uniqueness - your unique DNA, life experiences, and purpose - to something bigger than yourself.
Don’t be distracted by false purposes, such as the pursuit of pleasure, causes driven by ego or ugly emotions, money and trappings of symbols, attention, and cynicism. Your real purpose will come from an inner truth that you feel deeply connected to, while a false purpose comes from external sources such as the desire to conform.
Actions to take
Reach a Higher Potential
“Your task is to understand as deeply as possible this powerful influence on who you are and how you see the world”
Law of generational myopia - know your times
We’re strongly defined by the generation that we’re born into. Each generation has a spirit that encompasses its mindset, power dynamics, symbols, myths, beliefs, and so on. You’d be a different person if you were born in the 1920s vs the 1980s.
Each generation inherits values from their parents, yet seeks something new. 14th-century scholar Ibn Khaldun theorized that history moves in cycles across 4 generations:
In the first generation, revolutionaries make a radical break to establish new values.
The second generation seeks to establish some stability or dogma after the revolutionary chaos.
The third generation is more pragmatic and seeks to build a comfortable life.
The fourth generation feels lost and cynical as they see a society that has stagnated. This paves the way for a new generation of revolutionaries to usher in a new order and start a new cycle.
Our values depend on where we fit in this pattern, and each generation tends to move in the opposite direction of the previous one. Generational awareness is about understanding:
- How your generation’s spirit affects you. Consider how parenting styles, heroes, ideals, and decisive events have shaped your values and definitions of success.
- How you fit in the wider generational patterns. Consider the tension between the early adults (22-44 y.o.) vs middle-aged adults (45-66 y.o.), and where your generation fits.
Law of death denial - understand the shortness of life
We tend to avoid thinking about death. We act as if we have all the time in the world when in reality, death can claim us any time. Contemplate our common mortality to realize how short life is so you’ll feel the urgency to fulfill your purpose. We’re all bound by our mortality.
A brush with death actually makes us feel more alive and awake—that’s the paradoxical death effect in action.