The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene, 2018

Comprehensive guide to various human attitudes, complete with anecdotal examples of real life petty behaviors that we all can learn to detect before any damage can be inflicted.

25 Apr 2020

People are responding to your energy and demeanor even more than to your words. You will get rid of any defensiveness on your part. Instead, feeling relaxed and genuinely interested in the other person will have a positive and hypnotic effect.

In looking for a cause, our minds tend to revolve around the same types of explanations: someone or some group sabotaged me, perhaps out of dislike; large antagonistic forces out there, such as the government or social conventions, hindered me; I received bad advice, or information was kept from me. Finally—if worse comes to worst—it was all bad luck and unfortunate circumstances.

Nobody is exempt from the irresistible effect of emotions on the mind, not even the wisest among us; and to some extent irrationality is a function of the structure of our brains and is wired into our very nature by the way we process emotions.

When it comes to hiring an assistant or partner, rational people will use competence as their barometer—can this person do the job? An irrational person will easily fall under the spell of those who are charming, who know how to feed their insecurities, or who pose little challenge or threat, and will hire them without realizing the reasons. This will lead to mistakes and inefficiencies, for which the irrational person will blame others.

Sudden success or winnings can be very dangerous. Neurologically, chemicals are released in the brain that give a powerful jolt of arousal and energy, leading to the desire to repeat this experience. It can be the start of any kind of addiction and manic behavior. Also, when gains come quickly we tend to lose sight of the basic wisdom that true success, to really last, must come through hard work.

Unexpected losses or a string of losses equally create irrational reactions. We imagine we are cursed with bad luck and that this will go on indefinitely. We become fearful and hesitant, which will often lead to more mistakes or failures.

Being in a group does not stimulate independent reasoning but rather the intense desire to belong. This can happen equally in a work environment, particularly if the leader plays on people’s emotions to spur competitive, aggressive desires, or creates an us-versus-them dynamic. The group effect does not necessarily require the presence of others. It can occur virally, as some opinion spreads over social media and infects us with the desire to share the opinion—generally of a strong variety, such as outrage.

It is often best to avoid the group setting if possible in order to maintain your reasoning powers, or to enter such moments with maximum skepticism.

Rationality is something to be acquired by individuals, not by mass movements or technological progress. Feeling superior and beyond it is a sure sign that the irrational is at work.

The problem is that we are continually judging people, wishing they were something that they are not. We want to change them. We want them to think and act a certain way, most often the way we think and act. And because this is not possible, because everyone is different, we are continually frustrated and upset. Instead, see other people as phenomena, as neutral as comets or plants. They simply exist. They come in all varieties, making life rich and interesting. Work with what they give you, instead of resisting and trying to change them.

The extroverts must constantly attract attention to feel alive and appreciated. They become more dramatic, more exhibitionistic and grandiose. This can become tiresome and even pathetic. They have to change friends and scenes so that they can have a fresh audience. Introverts fall deeper into a fantasy self. Being socially awkward yet radiating superiority, they tend to alienate people, increasing their dangerous isolation. In both cases, drugs or alcohol or any other form of addiction can become a necessary crutch to soothe them in the inevitable moments of doubt and depression.

The three categories of the most important cues to observe and identify are dislike/like, dominance/submission, and deception.

Take notice of people who praise or flatter you without their eyes lighting up. This could be a sign of hidden envy.

Leaders who display tension and hesitation in their nonverbal cues are generally insecure in their power and feel it threatened. Signs of such anxiety and insecurity are generally easy to spot. They will talk in a more halting manner, with long pauses. Their voice will rise in pitch and stay there. They will tend to avert their gaze and control their eye movements, although they will often blink more. They will put on more forced smiles and emit nervous laughs.

It would be immensely beneficial for the future of our species if we were all less gullible, but we cannot change human nature. Instead, the best we can do is to learn to recognize certain telltale signs of an attempt at deception and maintain our skepticism as we examine the evidence further.

Even with the most practiced deceivers, one of the best ways to unmask them is to notice how they give emphasis to their words through nonverbal cues. It is very difficult for humans to fake this. Emphasis comes through raised vocal pitch and assertive tone, forceful hand gestures, the raising of eyebrows and the widening of eyes.

Appearing saintly today is certainly different in content from the sixteenth century, but the essence is the same—you embody what is considered good and above reproach. In the modern world, this means showing yourself as progressive, supremely tolerant, and open-minded. You will want to be seen giving generously to certain causes and supporting them on social media.

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. People’s character is formed in their earliest years and by their daily habits. It is what compels them to repeat certain actions in their lives and fall into negative patterns. Look closely at such patterns and remember that people never do something just once. They will inevitably repeat their behavior.

You must come to understand your own character, examining as best you can the elements in your past that have gone into forming it, and the patterns, mostly negative, that you can see recurring in your life. It is impossible to get rid of this stamp that constitutes your character. It is too deep. But through awareness, you can learn to mitigate or stop certain negative patterns. You can work to transform the negative and weak aspects of your character into actual strengths.

So often we think that power has changed people, when in fact it simply reveals more of who they are.

Extroverts value external things—good clothes, great meals, concrete enjoyment shared with others. They are in search of new and novel sensations and have a nose for trends. They are not only comfortable with noise and bustle but actively search it out. If they are bold, they love physical adventure. If they are not so bold, they love creature comforts. In any event, they crave stimulation and attention from others.

Introverts are more sensitive and easily exhausted by too much outward activity. They like to conserve their energy, to spend time alone or with one or two close friends. As opposed to extroverts, who are fascinated by facts and statistics for their own sake, introverts are interested in their own opinions and feelings. They love to theorize and come up with their own ideas. If they produce something, they do not like to promote it; they find the effort distasteful.

People of high intelligence but weak character may come up with good ideas and even do a job well, but they will crumble under pressure, or they will not take to kindly to criticism, or they will think first and foremost of their own agenda, or their arrogance and annoying qualities will cause others around them to quit, harming the general environment. There are hidden costs to working with them or hiring them. Someone less charming and intelligent but of strong character will prove more reliable and productive over the long run. People of real strength are as rare as gold, and if you find them, you should respond as if you had a discovered a treasure.

Weak character will neutralize all of the other possible good qualities a person might possess. For instance, people of high intelligence but weak character may come up with good ideas and even do a job well, but they will crumble under pressure, or they will not take to kindly to criticism, or they will think first and foremost of their own agenda, or their arrogance and annoying qualities will cause others around them to quit, harming the general environment. There are hidden costs to working with them or hiring them. Someone less charming and intelligent but of strong character will prove more reliable and productive over the long run.

Hyperperfectionists will often have health problems, as they work themselves to the bone. They like to blame others for everything that goes wrong—nobody is working hard enough. They have patterns of initial success followed by burnout and spectacular failures. It is best to recognize the type before getting enmeshed on any level. They cannot be satisfied by anything you do and will chew you up slowly with their anxieties, abusiveness, and desire to control.

Create an air of mystery around you and your work. Associate it with something new, unfamiliar, exotic, progressive, and taboo. Do not define your message but leave it vague. Create an illusion of ubiquity—your object is seen everywhere and desired by others. Then let the covetousness so latent in all humans do the rest, setting off a chain reaction of desire.

In all these cases, if we got closer to the people we envy, to that supposed happy family, to the other man or woman we covet, to the exotic natives in a culture we wish to know, to that better job, to that utopia, we would see through the illusion. And often when we act on these desires, we realize this in our disappointment, but it doesn’t change our behavior. The next object glittering in the distance, the next exotic cult or get-rich-quick scheme will inevitably seduce us.

What this means is that whenever we see or imagine something, our minds cannot help but see or imagine the opposite. If we are forbidden by our culture to think a particular thought or entertain a particular desire, that taboo instantly brings to mind the very thing we are forbidden.

People have become more obvious and forthright not out of some deep moral calling but out of increasing self-absorption and overall laziness. It requires no effort to simply be oneself or to blast one’s message. And the lack of effort simply results in a lack of effect on other people’s psychology.

By the law of induction we can imagine all of these shortcuts and fantasies (just as we can imagine a unicorn), which gives us the desire to reach them, and imagining them is almost like experiencing them.

In any group or team, put at least one person in charge of gaming out all of the possible consequences of a strategy or line of action, preferably someone with a skeptical and prudent frame of mind. You can never go too far in this process, and the time and money spent will be well rewarded as you avoid potential catastrophes and develop more solid plans.

It is normal to want to keep up with the latest news, but to base any kind of decision on these snapshots of the moment is to run the risk of misreading the larger picture.

In your life you are more than likely paying attention to some details that seem immediately important to you, while ignoring the weather reports that will doom your project.

Normally we try to charm people with our own ideas, showing ourselves off in the best light. We hype our past accomplishments. We promise great things about ourselves. We ask for favors, believing that being honest is the best policy. What we do not realize is that we are putting all of the attention on ourselves. In a world where people are increasingly self-absorbed, this only has the effect of making others turn more inward in return and think more of their own interests rather than ours.

People are generally never comfortable with the thought that they could be gullible and less than intelligent. If they have to admit they are not smart in the conventional way, they will at least think they are cleverer than others.

If we ever feel consciously coerced—as in having to obey a boss—we either tell ourselves we have chosen to obey or we deeply resent being forced and manipulated. In the latter case, we might smile and obey, but we will find a way to secretly rebel. In other words, we feel the need to continually express and assert our free will.

We might think we have particular ideas or values that stand on their own, but in fact they are dependent on our self-opinion.

If your targets have a low self-opinion, the same rule applies. If you insist that they can easily better their lives by following your advice, this will clash with their belief that the world is against them and that they really do not deserve such good things. They will discount your ideas and resist you. Instead you must work from within their self-opinion, empathizing with the injustices in their life and the difficulties they have faced. Now, with them feeling validated and mirrored, you have some latitude to make gentle corrections and even apply some reverse psychology

When giving people gifts or rewards as a possible means of winning them over to your side, it is always best to give smaller gifts or rewards than larger ones. Large gifts make it too apparent that you are trying to buy their loyalty, which will offend people’s sense of independence.

If you wish to win a man’s heart, allow him to confute.

Realize as well that you are not as good as the idealized image of your self-opinion. Like everyone else, you can be quite self-absorbed and obsessed with your own agenda. With this awareness, you will not feel the need to be validated by others. Instead you will work at making yourself truly independent and concerned with the welfare of others, as opposed to staying attached to the illusion of your self-opinion.

Never try to lift up depressive people by preaching to them about the wonderfulness of life. Instead, it is best to go along with their gloomy opinion of the world while subtly drawing them into positive experiences that can elevate their moods and energy without any direct appeal.

It might seem that only those who project continual strength and saintliness can become successful, but that is not at all the case. By playing a role to such an extent, by straining to live up to ideals that are not real, you will emit a phoniness that others pick up.

The Shadow lies buried deep within, but it becomes disturbed and active in moments of stress, or when deep wounds and insecurities are triggered. It also tends to emerge more as people get older. When we are young, everything seems exciting to us, including the various social roles we must play. But later in life we tire of the masks we have been wearing, and the leakage is greater.

By overidealizing a cause, person, or object, people can give free rein to the Shadow. That is their unconscious motivation. The bullying, the manipulations, the greed that comes out for the sake of the cause or product should be taken at face value, the overly strong conviction providing simple cover for repressed emotions to play themselves out.

Behind any vehement hatred is often a secret and very unpalatable envy of the hated person or people. It is only through such hate that it can be released from the unconscious in some form.

You want to explore from within your own darkest impulses, even those that might seem criminal, and find a way to express them in your work or externalize them in some fashion, in a journal for instance.
Criticism of you that seems sincere but not directly related to anything you have actually done is usually a strong sign of envy. People want to bully and overwhelm you with something negative, both wounding you and covering any tracks of envy.

Be extra careful in the work environment with those who like to maintain their position through charm and being political, rather than by getting things done. They are very prone to envying and hating those who work hard and get results. They will slander and sabotage you without any warning.

If you experience success, those in your field who have similar aspirations but who are still struggling will naturally feel envious. You should be reasonably tolerant of this because if the tables were reversed, you would probably feel the same. Do not take so personally their faint praise and veiled criticisms. But be aware that among some of these peers envy can turn active and dangerous.

People who are getting older, with their careers on the decline, have delicate egos and are quite prone to experiencing envy.

If you have any natural gifts that elevate you above others, you must be aware of the dangers and avoid flaunting such talents. Instead you want to strategically reveal some flaws to blunt people’s envy and mask your natural superiority. If you are gifted in the sciences, make it clear to others how you wish you had more social skills. Show your intellectual clumsiness at subjects outside your expertise.

John F. Kennedy seemed almost too perfect to the American public. So handsome, intelligent, and charismatic, and with such a beautiful wife—it was hard to identify with or like him. As soon as he made his big mistake in the failed invasion of Cuba (known as the Bay of Pigs) early on in his administration, and took full responsibility for the debacle, his poll numbers skyrocketed. The mistake had humanized him.

A high-achieving woman inflicts greater feelings of inferiority in both other women and men (“I’m inferior to a woman?”), which leads to envy and hostility, not admiration.

People can be unified through their underlying envy, but as with the personal variety, nobody will admit to this, nor will it ever be seen as such. Public envy can be quickly turned against public figures, especially in the form of schadenfreude when they experience some misfortune.

Gratitude is a muscle that requires exercise or it will atrophy.

You are rarely aware of your own grandiosity because by its nature it alters your perception of reality and makes it hard to have an accurate assessment of yourself.

Your low-grade grandiosity will cause you to overestimate your own skills and abilities and to underestimate the obstacles that you face. And so you will take on tasks that are beyond your actual capacity. You will feel certain that people will respond to your idea in a particular way, and when they don’t, you will become upset and blame others.

The need to feel larger and significant, however, does not simply disappear; it is stronger than ever. And absent any other channels, people will tend to direct this energy toward themselves. They will find a way to expand their sense of self, to feel great and superior. Although rarely conscious of this, what they are choosing to idealize and worship is the self. Because of this, we find more and more grandiose individuals among us.

Grandiose leaders often try to give the impression that they were somehow destined for greatness. They tell stories of their childhood and youth that indicate their uniqueness, as if fate had singled them out. They highlight events that showed from early on their unusual toughness or creativity, either making such stories up or reinterpreting the past. They relate tales from earlier in their career in which they overcame impossible odds. The future great leader was already in gestation at a young age, or so they make it seem.

In dealing with the grandiose leader, you want to try to deflate the sacred, glorious image they have forged. They will overreact and their followers will become rabid, but slowly a few followers may have second thoughts. Creating a viral disenchantment is your best hope.

As we get older, however, we have to present to the world a consistent identity. We have to play certain roles and live up to certain expectations. We have to trim and lop off natural qualities. Boys lose their rich range of emotions and, in the struggle to get ahead, repress their natural empathy. Girls have to sacrifice their assertive sides. They are supposed to be nice, smiling, deferential, always considering other people’s feelings before their own. A woman can be a boss, but she must be tender and pliant, never too aggressive.

Power lies in exploring that middle range between the masculine and the feminine, in playing against people’s expectations.

Consider the possibility that it is better to wait and see how things play out, or even to not respond at all. Taking action without proper consideration reveals weakness and a lack of self-control.

The feminine style is more about maintaining the group spirit and keeping the relationships smoothed out, with fewer differences among individuals. It is more empathetic, considering the feelings of each member and trying to involve them more in the decision-making process. Results are important, but the way they are achieved, the process, is equally important.

Focusing more on the work itself and its quality than on what people think of us, we can distinguish between practical and malicious criticism.

Is the freedom to do what they please their primary motivation? Are they mostly after pleasure, money, attention, power for its own sake, or a cause to join? These are what we shall call false purposes, and they lead to obsessive behavior and various dead ends.

When people operate in groups, they do not engage in nuanced thinking and deep analysis. Only individuals with a degree of calmness and detachment can do so. People in groups feel emotional and excited.

Around others, we naturally tend to feel insecure as to what they think of us. We feel pressure to fit in, and to do so, we begin to shape our thoughts and beliefs to the group orthodoxies. We unconsciously imitate others in the group—in appearances, verbal expressions, and ideas.

Your own ideas slowly shape themselves to those of the group. Some people may outwardly rebel against such conformity, but they are usually the types who are eventually fired or marginalized. You may hold on to a few peculiar beliefs or opinions that you largely keep to yourself, but not on issues important to the group. The longer you are in the group, the stronger and more insidious this effect.

If you want to seem natural, as if you are comfortable with yourself, you have to act the part; you have to train yourself to not feel nervous and to shape your appearance so that in your naturalness you don’t offend people or the group values. Those who sulk and refuse to perform end up marginalized, as the group unconsciously expels such types.

Certain emotions are more contagious than others, anxiety and fear being the strongest of all.

Other highly contagious emotions are joy and excitement, tiredness and apathy, and intense anger and hatred. Desire is also highly contagious. If we see that others want to possess something or follow some new trend, we are easily infected with the same impulse.

If as individuals we had some plan that was clearly ridiculous, others would warn us and bring us back down to earth, but in a group the opposite happens—everyone seems to validate the scheme, no matter how delusional (such as invading Iraq and expecting to be greeted as liberators), and there are no outsiders to splash some cold water on us.

Never relinquish your ability to doubt, reflect, and consider other options—your rationality as an individual is your only protection against the madness that can overcome a group.

The larger the group and the more established the culture over time, the more likely it will control you than the other way around.

The best courtiers know how to tailor their flattery to the particular insecurities of the leader and to make it less direct. They focus on flattering qualities in the leader that no one else has bothered to pay attention to but that need extra validation.

Love, friendship, respect do not unite people as much as common hatred for something.

We are all permeable to the influence of the group. What makes us more permeable is our insecurities. The less we are certain about our self-worth as individuals, the more we are unconsciously drawn toward fitting in and blending ourselves into the group spirit.

In a dysfunctional culture, the members are often confused about their roles and the overall direction of the group. Amid such confusion, people start to think more of their own interests and agendas, and they form factions. Worried more about their status than the health of the group, their egos become touchy, and they obsess over who’s getting more.

Instead of instantly focusing on individuals and the drama of the failed action, we must focus on the overall group dynamic. Fix the dynamic, create a productive culture, and not only will we avoid all of the above evils but we will trigger a much different, upward pull within the group.

Showing a lack of fear and an overall openness to new ideas will have the most therapeutic effect of all. The members will become less defensive, which encourages them to think more on their own, and not operate as automatons.

Standing up to and outwitting aggressors can be one of the most satisfying and ennobling experiences we humans can have.

Surrender and docility can become a habit with devastating consequences for your well-being. Use the existence of aggressors as a spur to your own fighting spirit and to build your own confidence. Standing up to and outwitting aggressors can be one of the most satisfying and ennobling experiences we humans can have.

Aggression is a tendency that is latent in every single human individual. It is a tendency wired into our species. We became the preeminent animal on this planet precisely because of our aggressive energy, supplemented by our intelligence and cunning.

If parents are too domineering, if they repress their children’s need for power and independence, such children are often the types who later like to dominate and tyrannize others.

Aggressors have less tolerance for feelings of helplessness and anxiety than the rest of us.

Men are generally more insecure about their status in the work world and elsewhere. They have a greater need to continually assert themselves and gauge their effect on others. Their self-esteem is tied to feelings of power, control, and respect for their opinions. And so it often takes less to trigger the aggressive response in men.

In acting out their desires in an overt and immediate way, in getting the best of people through their maneuvers, aggressors receive a jolt of adrenaline that can become addictive.

Human aggression in individuals and in groups tends to emerge or heat up when we feel helpless and vulnerable, when the impatience for control and effect rises.

The internal saboteur can also have a dampening effect on our mental powers. It discourages us from being bold and adventurous in our thinking. We limit our ideas and settle for the conventional opinions of the group, because that is safer.

Tamping down your youthful ambitions is a sign that you don’t like or respect yourself; you no longer believe you deserve to have the power and recognition you once dreamed about.

When you examine your memories, try to do so with some distance, even when you recall the emotions you felt at the time. Catch yourself in the inevitable process of making judgments of good and bad about your generation or the next one, and let go of them.

With some distance and awareness, you can become much more than a follower of or a rebel against your generation; you can mold your own relationship to the zeitgeist and become a formidable trendsetter.

If the event was a major crisis of some sort, that will tend to make those of your generation band together for comfort and security, valuing the team and feelings of love, and allergic to confrontation.

A period of stability and nonevents will make you gravitate toward others for adventure, for group experimentation, sometimes bordering on the reckless.

Feeling the unconscious impulse to somehow soften the blow of our awareness, our earliest ancestors created a world of spirits, gods, and some concept of the afterlife. The belief in the afterlife helped mitigate the fear of death and even give it some appealing aspects.

By connecting to the reality of death, we connect more profoundly to the reality and fullness of life. By separating death from life and repressing our awareness of it, we do the opposite.

Feeling personally vulnerable and seeing the vulnerability of everyone else, people’s normal sense of difference and privilege is melted away, and an uncommon generalized empathy emerges.

Physically confronted with what dwarfs us, we are forced to reverse our normal perception, in which we are the center and measure of everything.