Selfishness is Not Sustainable: Why It Shouldn’t Be All About You

In today’s social and political climate, we may often find ourselves asking “how can people be so selfish?” Not only are we in the midst of a global pandemic that requires a full-community effort to contain and combat, but we continue to face systemic inequalities and social divides that continuously drive people apart. A number of explanations exist for the source of such egoism, but knowing where they come from is only half the story. In order to strive for improvement, we must not only address the roots of selfishness, but also take action to change our own behavior and encourage the same in others.

Selfish or selfless?

Just about everything we do or say either directly or indirectly affects other people. Therefore, actions that are selfish, generous, or somewhere in between all represent variants of social behavior. When we consider selfishness, we are really thinking about antisocial behaviors, or those that aren’t beneficial to social relationships and/or go against social norms. On the other hand, there are behaviors that are more prosocial—also called altruistic—which improve social relationships and comply with social expectations. Conversely, altruistic behaviors are more generous, selfless, and aim to prevent harm or increase benefit to others. 

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Why are people selfish? 

Evolutionary theories of selfishness 

Why are people so selfish? Selfish behavior often involves displays of greediness, exploitation, and a lack of concern for how others are impacted. Evolutionarily speaking, in order to survive and reproduce, one can see why it could make sense to put individual needs above that of the group. However, cooperation can also improve chances of survival due to things like resource-sharing, co-parenting, and protection from predators (Mazzolini & Celani, 2020; Szocik & Lindberg, 2017). 


Drawing upon these evolutionary theories, a 2020 study revealed three important factors that influence this type of resource-sharing in people; the long-term individual benefits, the similarity between individuals, and the availability of resources (Mazzolin & Celani). In other words, we are more likely to act generously toward people that we find similar to ourselves—an observation that, when applied today, plays a devastating role in furthering social, political, and economic divides throughout the world. Through this lens, working to reduce selfishness and cultivate altruism within ourselves and those around us is a vital step towards changing our world for the better.

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Sociocultural theories of selfishness

If you have ever taken an economics class, you might have heard the term “rational agent,” which usually refers to one who aims to maximize profit and minimize cost (Calvo, 2018). Are selfish individuals simply more rational than altruistic ones? 

Humans are more than simply economy-machines, and therefore take into account things like morality and ethics, social pressures, and emotion or attachment. A study in 2020 found that children are less likely to behave selfishly when another person is present (Yamaguchi & Moriguchi). Further, a specific region of the brain that is implicated in decision making has been shown to only act in a social context, underscoring the importance of social factors in selfish vs. altruistic behavior (Brethel-Haurwitz et al., 2020). Expanding on these ideas, there is additional evidence in favor of the role of learning the social value of such behaviors; when observing a selfish act, age, gender, and group-bias influenced how likely the participants were to punish the act in question—young children were more likely to reject selfishness than fairness with no group bias, while older girls rejected in-group selfish behavior more than out-group selfish behavior and older boys rejected both groups’ selfish behavior equally (Wu & Gao, 2018). Due to the changes seen in age and gender, the socialization processes these children have undergone may underlie these behaviors; with age comes greater socialization, and, often, young girls experience different social norms than young boys. This group bias is also significant from an evolutionary perspective—discussed previously—as valuing the generosity of members of one’s own community increases the chance of survival for the whole group.

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Personality theories of selfishness

In contrast to socialization theories, others propose that selfishness vs. altruism is an element of one’s personality. For example, a study that first measured prosociality in participants and then subjected them to decision-making tasks found that, under pressure, participants who scored higher on prosociality tended to act more altruistically while participants who scored lower were more likely to act selfishly (Chen & Krajbich, 2018). These results suggest that there is something inherent or instinctual about these kinds of social behaviors. Other research has attempted to quantify selfishness as its own individual personality trait—a sixth to add to the Big Five. Emerging work has found support for a “selfishness” trait that consistently classifies prosocial tendencies (Diebels et al., 2018). These studies, along with others, implicate empathy in the determination of trait prosociality, adding another layer to the discussion (Kashirskya, 2020). Empathy represents a characteristic that is both intrinsic and practicable; we are born with some capacity to be empathetic, but our actual empathy can be learned and influenced by life experiences (Riess, 2017). Based on this argument, perhaps there are some intrinsic elements of selfish tendencies while others may be learned or altered throughout our lifetime. 

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What are the consequences of selfishness?

Before considering the consequences of selfish behavior, it is first important to note that selfishness is not always inherently bad. Scientists make the distinction between healthy and pathological selfishness. The former is vital for self-preservation and involves things like setting boundaries and knowing when to prioritize yourself while the latter can be damaging and includes exploitation and lack of regard for others (Kaufman & Jauk, 2020). There will always be situations in which you should prioritize yourself for the sake of your mental and physical health, but when your actions consistently result in detriment to others, chances are you’ll experience negative consequences. Decreased prosciality has been shown to be associated with an increase in “deviant” (socially unacceptable/undesirable) behavior, which in turn can harm social relationships (Pletzer et al, 2018). Having concern for only yourself in relationships and other interactions might make your counterpart feel dismissed, straining the connection between you. Social support impacts physical, mental, and professional health—therefore, consistent stress on relationships will affect both parties in the long run (Uchino et al., 2012). From a leadership perspective as well, it is often the case that perceived selfishness and pride negatively influences the cooperation of employees (Ritzenhöfer et al., 2019). Of course, there are always exceptions to this rule (consider political affiliation or dictatorship), but in general, expressing gratitude and concern for one’s followers or employees is seen as valuable; consequently, selfish behaviors can impede effective leadership. 

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Cultivating altruism

Given the adverse effects of unhealthy selfishness, how can we guard against it? Working on improving empathy and cultivating altruistic values is a great place to start—however, just as not all selfishness is bad, not all altruism is good. Altruism can also be pathological in nature when taken to the extreme, and may involve the over-extension of oneself at personal expense or create fragility in the sense of self by basing one’s self-concept on the gratitude of others. This type of altruism is actually associated with poorer well-being and negative health outcomes (Kaufman & Jauk, 2020). At a healthy level, though, altruistic behaviors help maintain and enhance social relationships as well as cultivate personal benefits (Crocker et al., 2017). A study examining factors relating to altruism found that those who were less altruistic were also much less mindful, so working to improve mindfulness can in turn increase generosity (Raine & Uh, 2019). Additionally, an examination of AA members found that during weeks in which participants felt more grateful, they engaged in more helping behaviors, pointing to gratitude as another useful practice for cultivating altruism. Engaging in helping behaviors was also found to reduce selfishness—therefore, simply effortfully incorporating altruism into your behaviors can improve the skill (LaBelle, 2020). Other studies have shown that individuals will often engage in altruistic behaviors for the sake of their community, so making decisions with the people you care for in mind can motivate more generous behaviors (Guazzini ewt al., 2019). Because of the implication of empathy in selfishness/altruism as well, working on empathy skills (in ways such as practicing the consideration of others when acting or making decisions) can directly increase prosocial behavior. Finally, as many parents tell their children when learning about integrity, act as if someone is watching. Selfish behaviors generally decrease in the presence of others due to the social value of such behaviors, therefore, holding yourself to the same standards which you would if you were in the presence of others can help prompt a generous decision in place of a selfish one.

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Understand yourself with LIFE Intelligence

If you want to better understand yourself and others, try the LIFE Intelligence app. LIFE is a self-development app that teaches 9 core topics, or missions, to help you work towards the best version of yourself. The second Mission is all about self-awareness, cultivating an understanding of how you are perceived by others and becoming aware of how your actions may affect them. In Mission 6, you’ll master social skills through learning about the importance of support in times of stress as well as how to strengthen your existing connections—leading into Mission 7 where you’ll learn all you need to know about how to build lasting relationships and how to change your attachment style. Finally, in Mission 9, you can hone your leadership skills and communication skills.

Johanna Caskey
April 7, 2021

Brethel-Haurwitz, K. M., Oathes, D., & Kable, J. (2020). Causal role of the right temporoparietal junction in selfishness depends on the social context. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/hksu5 

Calvo P. (2018) Economic Selfishness: The Architecture of Homo Oeconomicus. In: The Cordial Economy - Ethics, Recognition and Reciprocity. Ethical Economy (Studies in Economic Ethics and Philosophy), vol 55. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-90784-0_1

Chen, F., & Krajbich, I. (2018). Biased sequential sampling underlies the effects of time pressure and delay in social decision making. Nat Commun 9, 3557 doi: 0.1038/s41467-018-05994-9 

Crocker, J., Canevello, A., & Brown, A. A. (2017). Social Motivation: Costs and Benefits of Selfishness and Otherishness.  Annual Review of Psychology, 68(1), 299-325 

Diebels, K. J., Leary, M. R., & Chon, D. (2018). Individual Differences in Selfishness as a Major Dimension of Personality: A Reinterpretation of the Sixth Personality Factor. Review of General Psychology, 22(4), 367–376. doi: 10.1037/gpr0000155

Guazzini, A., Imbimbo, E., Stefanelli, F., Bagnoli, F., & Venturino, E. (2019). Quantifying fairness to overcome selfishness: A behavioural model to describe the evolution and stabilization of inter-group bias using the Ultimatum Game. Mathematical Biosciences and Engineering, 16(5), 3718-3733. doi: 10.3934/mbe.2019184

Kashirskya, I. (2020). Ideas about altruism and selfishness in students with different levels of empathy. Innovative Technologies in Science and Education, 210(3S). doi: 10.1051/e3sconf/202021018101

Kaufman, S. B., & Jauk, E. (2020).  Healthy Selfishness and Pathological Altruism: Measuring Two Paradoxical Forms of Selfishness. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 1006. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01006  

LaBelle, O. P. (2020) Daily Associations between Helping Behavior, Gratitude, and Selfishness in Members of Alcoholics Anonymous,.Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, 38(4), 470-483, DOI: 10.1080/07347324.2020.1768992

Mazzolini, A., & Celani, A. (2020). Generosity, selfishness and exploitation as optimal greedy strategies for resource sharing. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 485, 110041. doi: 10.1016/j.jtbi.2019.110041

Pletzer, J. L., Voelpel, S., & Lange, P. (2018). Selfishness Facilitates Deviance: The Link Between Social Value Orientation and Deviant Behavior. Academy of Management Proceedings, 12354. doi: 10.5465/AMBPP.2018.12354abstract. 

Raine, A. & Uh, S. (2019) The Selfishness Questionnaire: Egocentric, Adaptive, and Pathological Forms of Selfishness. Journal of Personality Assessment, 101(5), 503-514. DOI: 10.1080/00223891.2018.1455692

Riess H. (2017). The Science of Empathy. Journal of patient experience, 4(2), 74–77. doi: 10.1177/2374373517699267

Ritzenhöfer, L., Brosi, P., Spörrle, M. et al. (2019). Satisfied with the Job, But Not with the Boss: Leaders’ Expressions of Gratitude and Pride Differentially Signal Leader Selfishness, Resulting in Differing Levels of Followers’ Satisfaction. J Bus Ethics, 158, 1185–1202. doi: 10.1007/s10551-017-3746-5

Szocik, K., & Lindberg, S. (2017). Selfishness and Cooperation: Challenge for Social Life. Studia Humana, 6(3), 15-23. doi: 10.1515/sh-2017-0019Wu, Z., & Gao, X. (2018). Preschoolers’ group bias in punishing selfishness in the Ultimatum Game. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 166, 280-292. doi: 10.1016/j.jecp.2017.08.01

Uchino, B. N., Bowen, K., Carlisle, M., & Birmingham, W. (2012). Psychological pathways linking social support to health outcomes: A visit with the “ghosts” of research past, present, and future. Social Science & Medicine, 74(7), 949-957. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2011.11.023.

Yamaguchi, M., & Moriguchi, Y. (2020). Children Demonstrate Selfishness in the Presence of Their Personified Objects. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 40(1), 52–64. doi: 10.1177/0276236620901345

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