Home Business The ‘age of selfishness’ is making us sick, single, and miserable. It’s because our brains are hardwired for both self-interest and altruism

The ‘age of selfishness’ is making us sick, single, and miserable. It’s because our brains are hardwired for both self-interest and altruism

The ‘age of selfishness’ is making us sick, single, and miserable. It’s because our brains are hardwired for both self-interest and altruism


We are living in an age of selfishness. Many of us noticed an increase in selfish behavior during the early days of the pandemic. At the time, we may have written it off as a flash in the pan that would subside. But it hasn’t. From rudeness in grocery stores to doors closing in your face rather than being held open by a stranger, behavior at a macro level seems to have fundamentally changed. Even airline pilots are going viral for reminding passengers not to be “selfish and rude.”

Why is it that people seem to act so selfish these days? Self-centeredness has been studied for centuries by philosophers, psychologists, and everyday observers of human behavior, with times of crisis known to predispose us to increased selfish actions. And we’ve experienced a period of “permacrisis” in recent years.

In the case of COVID-19, it might have even changed people’s personalities as younger adults became more prone to stress, distrust, and even neuroticism with declined agreeableness. This is thought to be due to personality being more malleable in younger age groups and amid changes to the normative tasks of adulthood; for example, transitioning to the workplace and relationship development. And if these changes are enduring in nature, it suggests that population-wide stressful events have the ability to bend the trajectory of personality and behavior for an entire generation.

Yet research shows we are wired for altruistic behavior and get significant gains from it. There is a healthy tension between selfishness and prosocial behavior (i.e. having a tendency toward generous behavior) that is crucial to understanding today’s social interactions, and conflict in general.

Indeed, people are hardwired for both self-interest and altruism. While a fight-or-flight innate response promotes looking out for oneself in life-saving circumstances, our success as humans depends on our evolved capacity to cooperate with others. This means that there are natural constraints and limits to selfish behavior.

Defining selfishness and what it is costing us

Psychologists often define selfishness by drawing on evolutionary biology, economics, and philosophy. But in its simplest form, it’s focus on the self over and above (and even at the expense of) others. Presumably, this means that selfish individuals make competitive choices that result in greater personal gain, securing more resources for themselves to the detriment of those around them.

And while at its face it sounds like there are big benefits to acting selfishly, there are costs that must be considered. While it might be a paradox, self-interested behavior has not shown empirical evidence of improved well-being. In fact, selfish motivation is correlated with poor psychological well-being, physical health, and relationships. For example, materialism is associated with negative self-appraisal including self-doubt, as well as risky health behaviors such as smoking and drinking alcohol. Impression-management focus is associated with lower life satisfaction as well as higher envy, self-handicapping, and social anxiety. Meanwhile, self-image focus predicts increased anxiety and depression, and health-damaging behaviors like failure to seek medical treatment and substance abuse. It also predicts decreased relationship stability with increased relationship avoidance, anxiety, and more interpersonal conflict.

Of course, there are costs and benefits to giving time, money, or support to others, but there are also costs to taking or receiving from others that we cannot–and should not–ignore, particularly in an age where we pride ourselves on focusing on and maximizing wellbeing.

The selfish-selfless spectrum

It is helpful to understand the neurobiology of the selfish–selfless spectrum and how we can refocus ourselves to maximize our well-being. Rather than rigidly defining humans as “universally selfish” or “universally altruistic,” both reflect extremes on the selfish–selfless spectrum across which we slide back and forth over time. Both individuals and populations at scale can shift in the behavioral spectrum over time. And this spectrum can be influenced by factors like cognitive therapy, mindfulness training for introspection, and broad-based social and cultural influences. Many of these approaches that reward-activate compassion are even entering mainstream clinical care to help manage depression and stress.

Increasing prosocial behavior and decreasing selfishness sounds hard, but it’s been proven possible in the lab setting as well as in everyday life. In fact, research shows us that micro-interventions of even 15 minutes can increase prosocial behaviors and decrease selfish behaviors in as little as a week–and the response is dose-dependent. The more you expose yourself to prosocial norms, the more you adapt to and demonstrate them yourself.

Depending on your gender, you might feel even stronger personal gains. The brains of men and women respond differently to prosocial and selfish, or individualistic, behavior. And researchers have shown that, for women, prosocial behavior triggers an even stronger reward signal than it does for men.

A caveat to consider

Healthy selfishness” refers to a healthy respect for your own health and happiness. While it might sound like an oxymoron, healthy selfishness can have a positive impact both on oneself and on others. Social decision-making is complicated. Even Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at Wharton, cites the complex blending of selfless and selfish as “otherish” to reflect the porous concept of wise or healthy selfishness.

At the end of the day, it might not be about eliminating selfishness altogether, but each of us doing selfishness better and cultivating a compassionate mindset to better balance the human spectrum of behavior. Compassion and altruism are not unchangeable factory settings. They are skills to develop and use every day. And they promise to create an upward spiral for both yourself and those around you.

Altruism isn’t dead, it just needs a revival. And science tells us that we’ll all benefit. So go ahead, surround yourself with altruism, and start practicing it today. You might just be surprised at the positive results.

Talia Varley, M.D., is the physician lead, of advisory services, at Cleveland Clinic Canada where she is a practicing clinician and an ESG insights leader with in-depth work in the “S”.

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