We’re all basically made of the same stuff: generosity and selfishness, goodness and greed. — Madeleine M. Kunin
When I’ve spoken with friends and family on the phone recently, I’ve felt guilty.
After catching me up on their life, they turn the question to me — and I only have two words to share:
With my final year in graduate school approaching (they told me they’re kicking me out after this one), I am currently on the “job market,” applying to faculty positions in universities across the U.S. But in order to have any success in this process, I have relied extensively on the help, time, and effort of others.
But when considering those faculty members’ own deadlines and aspirations, are they—maybe even you—making the right decision to help me?
From the viewpoint of evolution, acting to help others is a puzzling idea. Sure, when we were in little scavenger groups trying to fend off lions, helping others to help the group was useful. But in today’s era, why should we care about helping others?
Most likely you’ve heard the expression in some form that “selfishness pays.” To get ahead (at least financially), you have to put yourself first and foremost. And in fact, after surveying 400 participants, researchers found this very belief.
Researchers asked participants about five important domains in people’s lives: relationships, wellbeing, health, children, and income. Then, they asked participants which of four different motivations was most likely to lead to success in these different domains.
There was (1) selfish motivations, (2) prosocial–or other-focused–motivations, (3) selfish + prosocial motivations, or (4) doesn’t matter.
When it came to relationships, wellbeing, and children, people believed that prosocial motives were the most important for success in those domains. However, when it came to income, about 70% of people believed that selfish motives were the best way to become rich.
But just because people believe this, is it true?
In determining the extent to which selfish motives result in greater financial standing, the researchers turned to four well-established data sets: the General Social Survey (3,500 participants), the European Social Survey (7,200 participants), the Household Longitudinal Study (4,400 participants), and the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (5,000 participants).
And across all of these studies, they found the same pattern:
The more people were focused on helping others (i.e., the greater their prosocial motivations), the higher their income.
Unfortunately, because none of this research was experimental, it’s unclear why those with more prosocial motivations tend to make more money. As speculation, researchers suggest a few possible ideas based on past research.
First, people with prosocial motivations tend to have richer social networks, meaning they’re more likely to receive news about new or better job opportunities. Second, those with prosocial motivations may be more likely to choose specific occupations (e.g., doctors), which often have higher salaries. Third, previous research shows that prosocial people are more likely to receive rewards or promotions at work.
Altogether then, caring about others may make them care more about you, which expands your financial opportunities.
GET TO GIVING!
Although today’s post focused on the benefits of caring for others, this doesn’t mean you should abandon all concern about yourself. The balance between selfish motives and prosocial ones can be tough at times, but it is an important one.
In my own job applications, just because I’ve selfishly had to rely on others for help and advice, I haven’t forgone all my prosocial motivations. But I’ll definitely have some catch-up work to do when those job apps are finally done!
Psych•o•philosophy to Ponder: Within the paper I discussed today, they found another interesting thing for people with prosocial motivations: they tend to have more children. Naturally, this makes sense when you consider selfish people are probably less interested in having children (considering all the self-sacrifices that come with children). As well, people with selfish motivations tend to have worse relationships and therefore possess fewer opportunities to have children. Regardless, these data do prove hope for humanity: We may be evolving toward lower levels of selfishness. Because selfishness/prosociality can be inherited (estimated to be around 25%), it may suggest that as more prosocial people have babies, the world as a whole will become more generous. Fingers crossed!
Eriksson, K., Vartanova, I., Strimling, P., & Simpson, B. (2018). Generosity pays: Selfish people have fewer children and earn less money. Journal of personality and social psychology.
I am guessing selfishness is a learned trait.
Unless you are married to them, work for them or they have an inordinate power over your life — wave good by and move on.
Thanks for the great thoughts! Indeed, a part of selfishness is learned (e.g., from the media, our parents, those around us, etc.). But part of our selfishness is built in. As an organism, we need to have some levels of selfishness to ensure we get the resources necessary for surviving. But that aside, unless truly selfish people are “necessary” in making your life work smoothly, no need to keep that negative presence around! Thanks for reading 🙂