Am I selfish? Am I a good person? Can humans every really be truly selfless? You might have asked yourself one of these questions at some point in your life. Maybe you’ve never questioned your own level of selfishness prior to reading the accusatory headline of this article, but for those who aren’t strangers to introspection, this is familiar pondering. While these questions might seem to have no concrete answers, a lot of research has actually gone into discovering the true nature of altruism and selfishness.
People do seemingly selfless things for personal gain all the time. Maybe they want to portray themselves in a better light, maybe they want someone to return the favour or maybe they want to feel better about themselves. After all doing good just feels good. Why? Altruistic behaviours activate pleasure centers in the brain, releasing chemicals such a dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. We are more likely to repeat these actions as they trigger happy hormones like these and doing things for others can even become a habit.
But why do our bodies do this in the first place? From an evolutionary standpoint, humans shouldn’t be altruistic. It would seem that selfishness would take you farther in terms of survival, after all putting the needs of others before your own doesn’t sound like a smart survival tactic. An individual who never puts themself at risk for someone else would be far more likely to survive than an altruist who constantly puts themself at risk for others. So then why are humans altruistic?
Though many scientists have looked into how humans have evolved to be altruistic, some of the most prominent work was done by George R. Price, the creator of the Price Equation. The Price Equation is a formula that helps determine how a trait changes over time. It can be applied to many aspects of evolution, but Price focused specifically on how it could help predict altruism in the natural world. He found that in actuality, individuals acting purely in pursuit of their own self interests, would be more likely to be subjected to natural selection.
Studies show that although altruism seems moral it is rather “selfish and genetic”. The purpose of altruism does in fact apply to the popular evolutionary theory of survival of the fittest because it works to continue one’s gene into future generations. Confused? Here’s an example: If a bird sacrifices itself for its young, it behaves with altruism. Although the mother bird is dead, her sacrifice has allowed her children to live thus reinforcing the idea of self sacrifice. This allows her altruistic gene to indirectly live on after her death and spread to the future generations
“Altruism was not selfless and moral, but rather selfish and genetic”.MICHAEL Regnier, The INDEPENDENT uk
But we need both selfishness and altruism in a genepool to survive. Altruism may help preserve the group and carry them on to the next generations, but selfishness ensures that the individual survives. Both these traits exist for a purpose, and we need both of them to ensure the survival of a species.
Know someone selfish in your life? What if I told you it’s because they’re acting out of fear. People often exhibit selfish behaviours when they’re insecure and fear a loss of control. These people might face a great deal of anxiety due to not knowing whether or not they are going to be able to fulfil their own tasks so they are less likely to help others fulfil theirs. Selfish people also tend to have unmet needs that make them act out of self preservation, behaving in accordance with saving all their time and resources for themselves.
Here’s a personal example: have you ever taken great notes and felt reluctant to share them when asked to by a peer? I have experienced this a couple times and couldn’t figure out how to shake this feeling of reluctance. This is because although it comes at no cost to me, sharing those notes could mean losing a resource that could potentially help me reach my academic goals. This results in a feeling of a loss of control, which is what causes that initial feeling of reluctance, and feelings of selfishness.
People often exhibit selfish behaviours when they’re insecure and fear a loss of control.
The way one was raised also plays a part in one’s selfishness. Children that are spoiled by parents or never have shared with siblings, don’t learn selflessness or empathy. It’s a no brainer that only children tend to be more spoiled than other children as their parents funnel their attention and resources to them only. If a child is never taught empathy or never needed to share they might remain the same way throughout the remainder of their lives.
Now it’s easy to call someone selfish, but if you think about it, calling someone selfish is selfish in a way too. When someone is allegedly being selfish, they are not behaving in the way you want. Isn’t wanting them to conform to your own personal wishnes, a selfish behaviour too?
Accoding to Psychology Today, young children are actually supposed to be selfish. Part of growing up involves learning that other people have emotions and one must respect these emotions. No one is born having this capacity right away because if they did, they wouldn’t be able to develop a sense of self preservation.
Next come the teens. When discussing the idea of selfishness with two fellow teens, one said that “teenagers aren’t more selfish than anyone else, it varies based on person to person”. However this might not be fully true as research has shown that teenagers use different parts of their brain to make decisions than adults, making them “hard wired for selfishness,” according to neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore from University College London. Her research implies that “teenagers are less able to understand the consequences of their actions” as their prefrontal cortex, which helps one process how their decisions affect others, is not fully developed.
“Young children, of course, are supposed to be selfish (this is different from entitled)”.Psychology today
If not teens or kids, who is the most altruistic? Studies have shown that the activeness of reward areas of the brain when doing an altruistic act increased with age, going from less than 25% through age 35 to around 75% among individuals 55 and older. One might assume that the elderly performing an altruistic act could be them wanting to be remembered in a good light when they pass. However, the fact that their brain is more responsive to experiencing acts of altruism suggests that they are on average kinder, more empathetic, and genuinely more invested in the welfare of others.
Although it is up for debate whether humans are inherently selfish or not, there are many ways in which one can be selfish and not even realize it. According to Psychology Today, There are a variety of biases that exist for the sole purpose of self servance and boosting one’s ego. You might not even realize you have these biases because they occur unconsciously. Some examples of these are:
All these biases are self serving and work to boost one’s ego although they might not let us see the whole truth. And there are even more biases than these which shows how difficult it is to really know how selfish you are being. It is however possible to become less selfish by being aware of one’s own biases, knowing about just these three is a step in the right direction. After becoming aware about how one’s unconscious biases can be self serving, you can work towards not succumbing to them.
It might seem pessimistic to say that humans are inherently selfish, but this only makes acts of altruism all the more powerful. And there are so many little ways you can become more selfless such as being a good listener to others, giving up your time to help out, forgiving difficult people and checking up on friends and family. Defying selfish urges and acting altruistically, even if it is with self serving intentions, will make the world a better place no matter what your true intentions were. Even just by questioning your own selflessness and having the desire to boost it shows a certain level of care for the world around you that shouldn’t be discounted.