Book Summary: The Laws Of Human Nature by Robert Greene

Quick Summary: Laws of Human Nature explores the many aspects of the human condition that are overlooked or unacknowledged.  We are all narcissistic, irrational, shortsighted, compulsive, and aggressive, as author Robert Greene explains. However, once we accept and begin to understand these aspects of human nature, we will be able to control and even benefit from them.

You don’t have to read the whole book if you don’t have time. This summary will provide you with an overview of everything you can learn from this book.

Without further ado, let’s get started.

The Laws Of Human Nature Book Summary

Lesson 1: People are fundamentally irrational, making decisions based on their emotions rather than their intellects.

Many people mistakenly believe that their decisions are logical. In fact, the majority of decisions are influenced by emotional responses or pre-existing biases.

To achieve a balance between emotion and logic, people must become aware of both low-level mood swings that occur just below the conscious level and highly inflamed emotional states. They should then try to exercise the part of the brain that is more concerned with logic rather than emotion. It is critical to recognize when personal bias interferes with objectivity.

For many years, even in academic disciplines such as psychology and economics, humans’ inherent rationality was assumed. Around 1980, psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky began publishing papers that turned psychology on its head by claiming that many decision-making processes are irrational. Their work eventually merged to form a new field of study known as behavioral economics.

Dan Ariely, one of Kahneman’s mentees and a professor of psychology whose research focuses on irrational decision making, examines these issues and their societal implications in Predictably Irrational (2010). One of Ariely’s research interests is how people make purchasing decisions. People frequently believe that they make such decisions based on pure logic, but this is rarely the case. Ariely discovered that, rather than using an absolute value, most people determine the value of a given item or service based on its context. For example, depending on the restaurant and the price of other items on the menu, a person may be willing to pay a different price for the same hamburger.

While purchasing a hamburger is a minor decision, the same logic, or lack thereof, may apply to more significant decisions in the insurance market, health care, or finance. Ariely contends that when designing systems, policymakers and legislators must understand how humans make decisions. Such systems are frequently based on the mistaken assumption that people will make purely rational decisions.

Behavioral economists have discovered that people make the same mistakes over and over again, unknowingly repeating the same logical errors or relying on unconscious biases. Governments and other entities can help push people to make better choices by taking the time to understand the thought processes that drive those choices.

Lesson 2: Nonverbal cues reveal vital information that a person may not want to reveal.

People may or may not tell the truth when they speak. As a result, having additional data points is beneficial. Nonverbal cues are especially useful because they frequently reveal a person’s true point of view, which may or may not be consistent with what is said.

Joe Navarro is a former FBI agent who used his ability to read facial expressions and other body languages to track down spies and criminals for 25 years. As an immigrant who arrived in the United States as an eight-year-old, he picked up the skill naturally. Navarro teaches readers how to translate expressions, signals, and gestures in The Dictionary of Body Language (2018).

He mentions the eyes as a particularly expressive feature, for example. When people are alarmed or upset, their pupils dilate. They also start blinking faster than the average rate of 18 blinks per minute. When people are at ease and relaxed, their pupils dilate.

The way people touch their eyes can also be significant; for example, when something distressing occurs, people may put their hands over their eyes, as if trying to block out whatever is upsetting them. Surprisingly, this is a movement that isn’t always associated with sight, as blind people frequently make the same gesture in distressing situations.

Shoulder position is a type of body language that many people can decipher intuitively. When people are unhappy, they hunch their shoulders and slump, whereas when they are proud, they pull their shoulders back. One raised shoulder, on the other hand, can indicate a lack of confidence. For example, an eyewitness on the stand during a criminal trial who raises his or her shoulder may be experiencing doubt or insecurity.

It is critical in a leadership role that the leader’s verbal and nonverbal cues match. Take, for example, a military commander. A rousing speech is unlikely to compel troops to fight if the leader’s shoulders slump, implying fear or defeat.

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Lesson 3: Developing a strong capacity for empathy helps to strengthen and improve relationships.

Empathy is a powerful relationship-building tool, but it can be difficult to access in challenging relationships. Empathy is easier to extend to a friend than to a bothersome neighbor, for example. Because strong feelings of frustration loom large in the relationship, unpleasant people can be difficult to empathize with. Anna McKee discusses two types of empathy to cultivate in How to Be Happy at Work (2017): cognitive and emotional empathy.

The act of attempting to imagine another person’s point of view is known as cognitive empathy. McKee suggests replacing animosity with curiosity, pondering what factors influence that person’s behavior. Perhaps a coworker is frequently late for meetings because he is a single father, or perhaps a friend hasn’t called in a while because she is under a lot of stress at work.

Emotional empathy extends this act of imagination by attempting to identify some aspect of the person that elicits feelings. Perhaps the single father who is frequently late for meetings has been dealing with his wife’s death. Putting negative feelings aside for a moment to consider his situation more thoroughly is an empathy-building exercise that can pay long-term dividends—and, for those in a leadership role, such a project may even help generate a positive solution to address the bad behavior.

The goal of developing these empathetic fantasies is to gain access to the other person’s point of view. That is a different project than agreeing with or excusing that viewpoint. Often, simply acknowledging the other person’s point of view is enough to move the relationship forward in a more productive direction. This is why narcissists struggle to maintain genuine relationships.

Lesson 4: Emotions spread like wildfire. They can be passed from one person to the next.

Feelings spread like wildfire. A strongly felt emotion can easily imprint on another person or even spread to multiple people in a large group. Fear, for example, may be especially communicable for evolutionary reasons, harkening back to a time when predators were a constant threat. Emotions are no longer always transmitted in person; they can go viral on social media platforms such as Twitter.

In a joint study conducted in 2012, Facebook and Cornell University tested the theory of viral emotions by manipulating Facebook users’ news feeds and measuring their reactions. Facebook curated a positive news feed full of feel-good content for some users. Other users had specially curated negative news feeds with upsetting or sad content. Researchers discovered that users who had positive feeds were more likely to post positive content. Users with negative feeds were more likely to write negative posts. Finally, whether the content was positive or negative, users whose feeds were manipulated tended to post more than people whose feeds were not manipulated.

Unknowingly, nearly 700,000 Facebook users took part in this experiment. Although the company’s terms and conditions covered its legal liabilities, many observers felt that Facebook should have explicitly requested participants’ consent.

When the public learned about the experiment in 2014, they questioned whether or not the manipulation was ethical, especially because the experiment design was not reviewed and approved by an ethics committee until after the manipulation had already occurred. Previously, Facebook conducted similar tests, but these were done to improve the product’s design rather than to manipulate users’ moods.

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Lesson 5: People suppress negative characteristics in order to appear more socially acceptable to themselves and others.

It can be difficult to look at other people, and even oneself, objectively. People have a tendency to suppress and ignore anything negative, preferring to focus on the positive rather than accept the negative. According to George Newman, a Yale psychologist, and Joshua Knobe, a Yale philosopher, most people around the world believe in the so-called true self, which is the idea that, deep down, everyone is a good person with a set of stable beliefs that persist over time.

In one study, Newman and Knobe discovered that participants were more likely to attribute incidents of dishonesty and racism to external factors such as a person’s environment rather than blaming the person who was dishonest or racist. For example, participants were more likely to believe that a racist was a good person who had a difficult childhood than that a racist was inherently bad or immoral. In general, when people behave well, it is perceived that they are honoring their true selves, whereas when they behave badly, it is simply an aberration.

In reality, people’s beliefs can shift over time, and whether or not their behavior matches their beliefs can change from day to day, or even from minute to minute. The myth of the true self, on the other hand, is appealing because it explains away nagging inconsistencies and the anxiety that comes with change.

It’s reassuring, for example, to believe that one’s spouse is fundamentally a good person. However, when taken to its logical conclusion, such a belief can be harmful and unhealthy, leading to the justification of harmful behaviors such as physical abuse. It is preferable to recognize and accept people for who they are rather than who they should be.

Lesson 6: People’s intellectual and emotional lives are shaped by the generation to which they belong.

To some extent, everyone is a product of the era in which they live. People generally underestimate the extent to which the generation into which they are born shapes their thinking and behavior. Recognizing the characteristics of a particular generation can provide useful personal, professional, and cultural insights.

The Pew Research Center is an important resource for gauging public attitudes in the United States. It frequently looks at demographic trends and differences. Pew identifies age as one of the most important predictors of people’s opinions and behaviors, and acknowledges that, while imperfect, generational analysis is useful in understanding the US political and cultural landscape.

Pew assigns specific date ranges to each generation to make its generational analysis more precise; for example, Millennials are defined as anyone born between 1981 and 1996. These boundaries are mathematically required, but they are also quite porous. According to Pew, a person born in 1980 is technically a member of Generation X, but that person may identify more with Millennial values. Historical events and popular culture frequently shape generational attitudes toward everything from religion to gay marriage.

Lesson 7: Emotional intensity can overpower one’s logical faculties. When strong emotions arise, it can be beneficial to impose emotional distance.

Emotions can impair one’s ability to reason clearly. It’s helpful to be aware of strong emotions and, when possible, to break their grip on the intellect. For example, parents who discipline their children are more likely to succeed if they can deal with the child’s behavioral issues calmly. Punishments should be imposed objectively and without emotion, which can be difficult in the heat of the moment.

Susan David, a psychologist and business consultant, discusses finding space between emotion and behavior in her book Emotional Agility (2016). David describes a personal experience in which she became enraged while speaking on the phone with a customer service representative. Her rage was counterproductive; in fact, it exacerbated the situation. David was eventually able to disengage from her angry emotions.

David compares emotional distancing to having an out-of-body experience or seeing things from a bird’s-eye perspective. The key is to look for context rather than focusing on personal emotions, which are only a small part of the picture.

During her call, she tried to see the situation from the customer service representative’s point of view: it was unpleasant to endure verbal abuse for a situation that the rep had not caused. David realized that her own anger didn’t have to be expressed through yelling and complaining; she could instead choose to remain calm. People frequently allow their emotions to guide their behavior, but emotions are not always reliable guides. She suggests viewing emotion as a piece of data that contributes to a much larger picture.

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Lesson 8: A strong sense of purpose should drive every person’s life.

It is all too easy to drift through life without a clear sense of purpose. People frequently take jobs out of necessity or convenience, rather than having a personal mission that drives their professional work. A sense of purpose is required for life to be rich and meaningful.

Simon Sinek and his team discuss the distinction between fulfillment and happiness in Find Your Why (2017). Happiness is a fleeting and volatile emotion; a person may be happy one day at work and unhappy the next. Fulfillment, on the other hand, is a more profound emotion that develops over time.

People who are fulfilled can tolerate an afternoon of unhappiness because they know the work they are doing is important. According to Sinek, the key to discovering one’s sense of purpose is to consider what one does in relation to how it serves other people. A selfish person who disregards the greater good will never be truly satisfied.

Recent management theory trends address purpose-driven work not only in terms of the individual, but also in terms of organizational health. A good leader must look for ways to make their employees happy. Gerry Anderson, president of DTE Energy, tried a variety of motivational strategies, including material incentives.

But none of these attempts were successful until he created a video that demonstrated how the employees’ work impacted their larger community. Suddenly, everyone in the company, from truck drivers to corporate executives, felt united in their mission to serve the public.

When union members saw the video for the first time, they cried because they had never thought of their work in such altruistic terms. DTE Energy employees who were newly motivated helped the company improve its bottom line, demonstrating that fulfillment is not just a lofty ideal, but also a strategic advantage.

The Laws Of Human Nature Review

The book clocks in at over 600 pages, by no means a short one. For me, it was a real treat to see an author go into extensive reasoning, showing how things were done, etc, though there is some repetition. 

Robert Greene’s latest book is different from previous ones. It’s clear that he made a concerted effort to explain each point fully. I found many insights I wouldn’t have thought of myself (as in previous Greene books) presented by way of immersive stories and a careful explanation of how each law of human nature plays out, as well as why.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough if you want a detailed look at why people behave as they do, and how you can respond to that behavior.


About The Author

Robert Greene is a best-selling author whose books often explore what it is that makes great minds tick. 

The insights he provides into the lives and strategies of influential historical figures are admired by historians and business executives alike. 

Among his previous works are The 48 Laws of Power, The 33 Strategies of War, and Mastery. 

The Laws Of Human Nature Quotes

“Man will only become better when you make him see what he is like. —Anton Chekhov”


“Learn to question yourself: Why this anger or resentment? Where does this incessant need for attention come from? Under such scrutiny, your emotions will lose their hold on you. You will begin to think for yourself instead of reacting to what others give you.”


“We want to learn the lesson and not repeat the experience. But in truth, we do not like to look too closely at what we did; our introspection is limited. Our natural response is to blame others, circumstances, or a momentary lapse of judgment.”


“we tend to think of our behavior as largely conscious and willed. To imagine that we are not always in control of what we do is a frightening thought, but in fact it is the reality.”

View our larger collection of the best The Laws of Human Nature quotes

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