Common wisdom holds that people, at their most instinctual level, are self-interested. But selfishness brings very little in the way of health and psychological benefits to humans in the interconnected, modern world, write Ohio State University social psychologist Jennifer Crocker and her coauthors in “Social Motivation: Costs and Benefits of Selfishness and Otherishness,” in the Annual Review of Psychology.
We asked Crocker why selfishness persists in society and whether an “America first” stance constitutes national selfishness. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What inspired this exploration of the costs and benefits of selfishness and its opposite, which you refer to as “otherishness”?
The social and behavioral sciences have a very strong assumption that people are self-interested, that all we do is act in our own interest. But there are huge amounts of evidence that people can be altruistic, generous and compassionate. We collectively give billions of dollars away to people we’ve never met, who live around the world, and we will never know how we’ve affected them. Clearly there is a strong human impulse for caring about the well-being of other people.
What we call being otherish can be good for you and doesn’t have the costs that people assume it must have. However, giving all of your money away or throwing yourself in front of a bus to save someone is not a sustainable way of being in the world. So we wanted to know, is there a more sustainable way of being otherish?
What exactly do you mean by “otherishness”?
Otherishness is not just the absence of selfishness, which we define as doing things that are good for yourself, regardless of their impact on other people — without asking, “Is what I’m doing going to harm or damage others in some way?”
Otherishness, rather, is a sustainable form of caring about the well-being of others. It’s not altruism, because that implies selflessness and giving without regard to the impact on the well-being of the self.
Otherishness can be very simple things like giving emotional support to someone. In our research, we’ve found that when people give support to others, the recipient is then likely to reciprocate.
What were some of the consequences, for good or ill, of selfishness?
We didn’t find any evidence at all that a selfish motivation is good for people’s psychological well-being or their physical or mental health, or their relationships. That was stunning to me, how hard it was to find any evidence of that.
A fair amount of research suggests that selfishness makes you isolated from other people. You don’t feel connected, you don’t feel that you are making a positive difference in other people’s lives, nor that they are there to support you.
Selfishness is bad for relationships. It’s hard to sustain a relationship with someone with that kind of mindset. Sure, we think of marriages, but work relationships also suffer. If everyone is out for themselves and doesn’t want to share information or collaborate, that is destructive over time.
Having mutually supporting relationships is key to mental and physical health. The absence of high-quality relationships in your life has the same effect on mortality as smoking a pack of cigarettes per day. Good relationships are one of the strongest predictors of happiness and they lower anxiety and depression.
Then why do so many of us act in selfish ways? Are we hard-wired for selfishness?
We are absolutely hard-wired for selfishness. All species are, from reptiles onward. It is a motivational system for self-preservation, the fight-or-flight response that all species have to promote the survival of the individual when faced with life-threatening circumstances.
And humans have a lot of cognitive capacities. I think our self-concept gets attached to this self-preservation system. Threats to our reputations feel like threats to our physical selves.
A tool known as the Trier social stress test measures this quite effectively. People are given a few minutes to prepare a five-minute public speech for an audience that has been trained to give no positive signals. This task induces the fight-or-flight response, even though there is nothing life-threatening about that situation. And studies find that we feel very threatened by the negative judgments of other people. The fight-or-flight system takes over, and it narrows our focus to our own needs and desires, and we become oblivious to others.
Are we also hard-wired for otherishness?
Snakes aren’t, but all mammals are, because their offspring won’t survive without caregiving of some level. We have a hard-wired caregiving system that is regulated by the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin.
Yet humans care about a lot more than just their own children. We are capable of caring about people all over the world, like those affected by a tsunami. We care about ideas, organizations and institutions. We care about the Constitution, freedom and equality. And it may activate that same physiological caregiving system. We know, for example, that the oxytocin system is at play in how gratitude expressions lead to social bonding.
The two systems — caregiving and self-preservation — can interact with each other, too. The caregiving system can downregulate people’s stress response to threats. This makes sense evolutionarily: For offspring to survive, the parent needs to be able to take care of them even while other threats are around.
What’s a situation where otherishness comes with a high cost?
The main area where you see costs is in long-term caregiving for loved ones. But the caregiving literature is very conflicted these days. There’s a tradition that argues that caregivers burn out and that being in a caregiving role is costly and has negative health effects.
But some researchers have argued that it is not the caregiving per se, but rather seeing a loved one decline, the lack of emotional support, and the financial costs of caregiving. People want to care for their loved ones when they’re in need, but society doesn’t make it easy.
Whole industries have sprung up around the idea of “self care” — that you shouldn’t feel guilty about spending time or money on yourself. Does this go against what you found?
No, it completely fits with the idea of sustainable giving. You are a mom for, what, 60 years? My son is 27 and I’m still his mom and he still needs some things from time to time! You have to give care in a way that’s sustainable because otherwise it sets you up for disasters of caregiving. I remember when my son wouldn’t sleep as a baby. I had one night where I thought, “If I just dropped him over the banister, he’d stop crying,” and then I immediately thought, “Oh my god, what am I thinking!”
Many parents have fleeting moments like that, that they would never act on. Those may be important signals that it’s time to do some self care or get some social support. Self care can be whatever works — personally, I like yoga. But to pretend that it’s wrong or bad to take care of the self creates people who cannot cope.
Is selfishness on the rise?
People such as Jean Twenge in her book Generation Me have proposed that there’s an increase in narcissism in younger generations. But that idea has come under attack because many of those studies used “convenience samples” of college students and may not be truly representative of attitudes or personality traits of an entire generation.
Thinking of our political scene, is the “America first” agenda a form of national selfishness? Does this harm us or help us as a country?
I’m not a political scientist, so I should say, “I have no idea.” But in general, when we are focused on selfishness or me-first, we create bad situations for ourselves: Other people act that same way in response. They will do what they need to do to survive.
Your review starts by asking, “Are people basically selfish, or do they genuinely care about others?” Did you find the answer?
I think it’s both. We have both motivations, and we go in and out of those many times in a day. The question is, how much of your life do you want to spend in one motivation versus the other? And what are the consequences going to be?
How do you strike that balance in your own life?
I do a lot of work trying to clarify my goals for projects, events and relationships in my life. It isn’t perfect, but it helps me stay on track. When I’m working on a writing project, I ask myself, what is it I want to contribute to the reader or to the field? When I visit my mother, am I just trying to look like a good daughter, or is there a way I want to be supportive? Of course, stuff happens and sometimes I focus on my own needs and forget my otherish goal. But I do better than I would if I didn’t think about it in advance.