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F. Are we naturally selfish?

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One of the mental models that linger as a byproduct of the early stages of social science is the myth that human beings are selfish, greedy and competitive by nature. This section reviews how this myth has spread, scientific evidence that contradicts it, efforts to force such evidence to conform to the myth of inherent selfishness, and reflections on this type of anti-scientific approach.


A. How the Myth has Spread

According to the myth of inherent selfishness, human beings seek only to satisfy their own needs, motivated solely by personal interest. Although many recognize the undesirability of these traits, they believe them to be inevitable due to human nature, not because of any scientific proof thereof, but based on the broad-based popularity of this assumption. Furthermore, many contemporary social institutions are organized around the myth of human egotism, which has served to strengthen this imaginary.

In economics, this mental model even has a name––homo economicus––that defines man as a being whose production and consumption is motivated entirely by his own material gain. This was the basis for the theory of 'rational choice’, which affirms that ‘rational’ people will always choose what benefits them, even at the expense of others. However, what makes this choice seem natural to some cultures is not its rationality, but rather the fact that the process of acculturation and socialization from early childhood makes this their first reaction. People raised in other cultures will not necessarily have the same inclination.


B. Contradictory Evidence

The myth of selfish man enjoyed such widespread acceptance that it was not until the 1960s that scientists began analyzing its assumptions seriously. They were surprised to find that such qualities as ‘empathy’ (being able to feel what others feel), ‘altruism’ (helping people in need with no hope of reward) and a broad range of ‘prosocial’ behaviors (sharing, helping, consoling, cooperating, etc.) were much more frequent than was formerly believed.

For example, the study of Social Value Orientation extended the ‘rational self-interest’ postulate by showing that individuals systematically differ in their personal preference for ‘self-regarding’ or ‘other-regarding’ decision rules. The latter seek to enhance joint and equal outcomes (prosocial orientation), while the former seek personal advantage, either in absolute terms (individualistic or pro-self orientation) or in comparative terms (competitive orientation).1

Those with a prosocial orientation tend to emphasize more the moral implications of their decisions, and prefer cooperation and self-sacrifice, like taking less from a common resource, protecting the environment, or giving to charity. Social value orientations seem to be influenced by factors such as family (prosocials have more sisters), age (the elderly are more prosocial), culture (Western cultures are more individualistic), gender (women are more prosocial), and career (economists tend to be less prosocial).

Some psychological research has even shown that the development of such attitudes is a natural part of character formation in a normal person. Newborn babies cannot distinguish clearly between themselves and others, but cry more intensely when hearing another baby crying. This shows an innate tendency to respond to the needs of others as if they were one's own. At one year of age, they show concern when someone else is hurt or sad. At 18 months, babies can already distinguish between themselves and others, but still assume that others’ feelings are similar to their own.

By age two, they can tell their own feelings from those of others, but still seek to console others who show signs of pain, and their empathic emotions are more complex. At three or four, it is common to observe a large range of prosocial behaviors. Older children are able to understand other people’s life conditions and tell whether their problems are acute or chronic, or whether they are caused by belonging to an oppressed group. An 8-year-old child described empathy with others as follows: “You forget what is in your own head, and you make their mind your mind. Then you know how they feel and how you can help them2.”

These studies conclude that the tendency to be concerned about others is just as natural in human beings as worrying about oneself. This does not mean that people are not capable of having self-centered, avaricious or even antisocial attitudes. Human beings can exhibit a broad range of behaviors, from the most selfish to the most altruistic, which demonstrates the cultural nature of any predominance of these traits.

In fact, several factors contribute to the development of such characteristics in a person. The living example and comments of parents and other loved ones have a powerful influence, as do the mass media, albeit to a lesser extent. When children are taught to compete with others and try to outshine them, their altruistic inclinations are gradually smothered. Praising prosocial actions is more effective than merely punishing conflictive behavior.

Research has also shown that people in whom altruistic attitudes and prosocial orientation prevail tend to share various other characteristics. They see themselves as being more in control of their own lives, with less need for approval from others. They have a positive outlook on the human condition, are concerned for the welfare of others, and feel responsible for doing whatever they can for them. They are happy when others receive help, even when they themselves are not the ones providing it. Their empathy enables them to ‘put themselves in the shoes of others’, feel their pain as their own and see the world through their eyes. They experience a fundamental connection with all of humanity and are prompted by affection and compassion, even towards total strangers.


C. Is Altruism Really Selfish?

When observing people who are willing to inconvenience themselves for others, there are at least two possible explanations: (1) they do it out of love; or (2) their ‘selfish genes’ in some mysterious way drive them to choose to risk their own survival in order to ensure the survival of the group and therefore of genes similar to theirs. The strength of mental models is such that some have preferred the second option in an attempt to find selfish explanations for even the most altruistic acts.

This concept of altruism as selfish, developed by Hamilton in 1964, is known as ‘inclusive fitness’ and includes two hypotheses.3 The first is ‘kin selection’, according to which cooperation with close relatives by childless persons enables a greater propagation of their share genes. The second is ‘reciprocal altruism’, according to which non-relatives can develop a type of ‘you scratch my back, I scratch yours’ exchange of favors.

Instead of accepting the logical interpretation that they do it out of love, those who advocate this approach argue that ‘selfish genes’ drive them to accept sacrifices in order to ensure group survival. Now then, both love and selfishness involve feelings that move us to act in certain ways. Love leads us to prefer the well-being of others to our own, while selfishness drives us prefer our own well-being to that of others.

Evidently, the first interpretation is simpler, as it establishes a direct causal relationship, while the second is more entangled because it attempts to achieve the effects of love through the means of selfishness. The popularity of the second interpretation is not due to scientific reasons, but to the fact that admitting the existence of love is inconsistent with ‘standard’ mental models of human nature. It is therefore rejected in favor of a theory that is not only more complicated and hard to substantiate but also highly unlikely.


D. Twisting the Arm of Science

The fact is that no empirical studies have been done to provide scientific grounding for the assumptions of the selfish altruism hypothesis. Neither has any comparative advantage or disadvantage been shown for any human behavior to reproduce it. Such notions are not scientific, but rather mere speculations. Lewontin claims that it is not difficult to make up stories about how a certain feature could provide advantages in the race for natural selection, but believes that this practice would turn science into a mere game.4

This debate is a clear example of how scientific theories are adapted to the mental models that prevail in the world, instead of the other way around. In order to keep the traditional version of the ‘law of the jungle’ intact, complicated theories have been developed to explain any facts that would put it in doubt. Consequently, a simple, direct explanation is rejected in favor of one that is convoluted, unlikely and impossible to prove.

This goes against a basic scientific principle known as ‘Ockham’s Razor5,’ according to which, when explaining a given phenomenon, simpler theories should be preferred over more complicated ones. In cases such as these, one could ask whether the generally accepted theory actually explains the empirical data better than the alternative theory, or whether it is just a more complicated and therefore less useful way to interpret the same evidence.

* * * * *

In summary, there is no scientific proof to support the myth that human beings are to be defined as necessarily selfish and greedy. Rather, research into this matter concludes that we are fully capable of sincere, selfless concern for the wellbeing of others. The difference depends partly on the way we were brought up and partly on our own decisions.




1. Messick, D.M.; McClintock, C.G. (1968). "Motivational Bases of Choice in Experimental Games". Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 4: 1–25.

2. Based on a quotation by Rollo May, cited by Alfie Kohn in "No Contest– The Case against Competition. Why we Lose in our Race to Win.” New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1992, pp. 232-233.

3. Hamilton, William D. (1964), "The Genetical Evolution of Social Behavior", Journal of Theoretical Biology 7: 1–52.

4. Lewontin, R.C: “Biology as Ideology - The Doctrine of DNA”. New York: Harper-Collins Publishers, Inc., 1991, pp. 98-103.

5. It gets its name from the 14th Century Franciscan monk, Guillermo de Ockham, to whom it is attributed. It is commonly seen spelt ‘Occam’, and is also known as the parsimony or economy of thought principle.

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