As a study casts light on our self-perception of selfishness, Maria Konnikova asks whether fundamentally we are more or less decent than we would like to think.
The past decade has seen a countercurrent build against the notion of the selfish man. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker argued that, throughout history, violence has steadily declined and that today we live in a far better and far kinder world than ever before.
In 2007, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom performed a series of studies on six- and 10-month-old infants and found that babies prefer adults who are nice to others over those who aren’t—and even over those who are neutral.
In a series of 10 studies in 2012, a group of psychologists from Harvard found that, when forced to rely on their intuition, people are much more likely to behave selflessly and charitably than selfishly.
Things have moved on, then, since Thomas Hobbes argued that humans live in a state of “continual fear” and that life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.
The Common Cause Foundation—a charity that advocates social and environmental change for shared good through openness and transparency—has recently published the results of several surveys that provide a window into this dichotomy: the Hobbesians at one end and the Pinkerites at the other.
Close to three quarters, 74%, of the 1,000 people surveyed identified more with unselfish values, such as honesty and forgiveness, than selfish ones, such as status or financial gain. In other words, the Yale and Harvard studies are borne out in self-perception: we see ourselves as basically decent. However, a full 78% of respondents saw others as more selfish than they were. So, when it comes to our views of strangers, our approach is far more Hobbesian.
Clearly, these results directly contradict one another. Just as we can’t all be above average, so too it is logically and statistically impossible for two-thirds of us to be selfless if two-thirds of us are selfish. If the vast majority of others are selfish, it stands to reason that we are too, regardless of what we think. And if most of us are nice, reason suggests that others are as well.
So, wherein lies the truth? Are we fundamentally more or less decent than we would like to believe?
I enter the debate a sceptic of the human race: I’ve just spent three years working on a book about confidence artists—the sometimes-psychopathic, sometimes-regular, folk-like-us whose livelihoods centre on taking advantage of others.
My head is full of data that counters the Common Cause Foundation’s surveys and the psychological studies. Take the Common Cause findings. Sure, people think they are selfless—but self-reporting is notoriously unreliable and likely to give results we can’t trust. Consider this: over the course of 20 studies, psychologist Jean-Paul Codol found that people consistently think they behave more in ways that are in line with good social norms than others, be that when it comes to recycling, helping others or donating to charity.
In fact, we rate ourselves highly on almost every desirable trait and low on most undesirable ones. Conversely, we tend to think others are far worse than us at displaying good characteristics, and far more likely to exhibit bad ones.
In six studies, Cornell psychologist David Dunning and his colleagues demonstrated that people overestimate how they fare on socially desirable characteristics, such as accepting social norms. At the same time, they shrug off potentially negative tendencies, such as aloofness and submissiveness. This just about dismisses the prima facie validity of the Common Cause Foundation’s findings: when you’re talking about how good you are or how bad others are, you need to do more than ask the question. How we talk is not how we act and how we respond in the abstract remains far removed from how we respond in specific circumstances.
The experimental findings, though, are a bit trickier to wave away; it’s tough to argue against real results that show innate preferences for goodness and intuitive altruism. But bear in mind a series of studies of a group of three-year-olds. When developmental psychologists asked each child to stay alone in a room with a new toy without turning around to peek at it, hardly any of them could resist the temptation—and more than half lied about it. In a follow-up with five-year-olds, the children fared even worse: all of them looked—and all of them lied. Yes, we may prefer goodness from an early age. But, from that same age, we also lie and cheat. We may have innate goodness, but we also have innate slyness.
Yet, I can’t help but think of the moments of hope I gleaned as I waded to the nadir of human nature. Surely it is preferable to see the work of Paul Bloom, Joshua Green at Harvard and the Common Cause Foundation less as a hardboiled sceptic and more as someone who believes that, while some of us are selfish and terrible, most of us are not.
Let us re-examine, for a moment, the study on lying: while Bloom’s findings placed us at infancy, the propensity to deceive wasn’t measured until the age of three—and it increased as children grew older.
What does this tell us? Our personalities don’t exist or develop in a vacuum. They are shaped from the first by social forces, by the norms and mores that surround us. Children are incredible mimics. They watch, they absorb and they learn. Perhaps the lying that we are observing is a result of that mimicry. We are not innately deceptive or morally suspect; we absorb such behaviours from a distrusting society. Our default state is closer to that observed by Bloom—one where goodness is preferred to selfishness.
And, as it turns out, the people who hold on to this goodness may end up better off in the long run. Sure, they might fall for a con artist—but, then again, so might everyone else.
When it comes to the rest of life, they may be significantly better positioned to do well. Higher so-called generalised trust—that is, trust in the basic goodness of other members of society, the opposite of what the Common Cause Foundation found—has been shown to bring with it better physical health and greater emotional happiness. Countries with higher levels of trust tend to grow faster economically and have sounder public institutions. People who are more trusting are more likely to start their own businesses and to volunteer.
Similarly, a 2014 survey by two psychologists at Oxford found a strong positive relationship between generalised trust, health and happiness: people with higher levels of trust were 7% more likely to be in better health and 6% more likely to be “very” happy, rather than “pretty” happy or not happy at all.
Here is what I take from the findings of the Common Cause Foundation: the 78% of respondents who overestimated selfishness are, of course, woefully misplaced. We would do well to be in the 22% who expect the best from others.
Perhaps, too, we would do well to examine our own perceived selflessness a bit, so that, rather than simply assuming we are more altruistic than the next person, we truly act more altruistically. If we considered ourselves to be selfish, our reality would not be pleasant—and it might force us to channel more selfless behaviour. We should, in other words, fear less, trust more and push ourselves to be a great deal better than we are.
by Maria Konnikova