Getting out from Number One: Selfishness May Not Dominate Human Behavior

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, April 28, 1990 | Go to article overview

Getting out from Number One: Selfishness May Not Dominate Human Behavior


Bower, Bruce, Science News


Getting Out From Number One

Within each one of us snarls a savage, selfish beast, argued English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes in his 1651 treatise "Leviathan." Without the civilizing force of an absolute monarchy, people revert to the "state of nature" in which "every man is enemy to every man," Hobbes wrote. A chaotic war of all against all follows, rendering individual existence "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."

Hobbes was not the first social observer to peg humans as selfish to the core, but his argument came at a time when the fledgling social sciences were adopting a similar stance. Seventeenth-century economists and political scientists -- the earliest modern social scientists -- relied on the assumption that people always act on the basis of rational self-interest. "Looking out for number one" is still considered a cornerstone of the human psyche by social scientists in a variety of disciplines.

In addition, sociobiologists, who study the biological basis of social behavior, argue that natural selection -- the preservation of genetically based traits that best contribute to successful reproduction -- favors selfish behavior. Helping a close relative may seem a purely friendly gesture, but in the sociobiologists' view, it increases the likelihood that copies of the altruist's genes will filter into future generations. Unrelated comrades may receive help only in the expectation that they will later return the favor.

In the related field of evolutionary biology, an influential theory devised by Richard Dawkins of Oxford (England) University envisions genes as relentlessly selfish replicators attempting to traverse the millennia by using human beings as "survival machines."

Dawkins and many in the sociobiological camp do not contend that genes equal destiny. But he argues that selfish genes get first crack at molding human nature, followed by cultural and other environmental influences.

"Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish," Dawkins writes in the revised edition of The Selfish Gene (1989, Oxford University Press). "Our genes may instruct us to be selfish, but we are not necessarily compelled to obey them all our lives.c

Indeed, most psychological theories--from Freud's psychoanalysis and Skinner's behaviorism to current concepts of self-esteem and other aspects of the "self" -- assume we are ultimately capable of caring only for ourselves. But considerable research suggests otherwise, argues psychologist C. Daniel Batson of the University of Kansas in Lawrence. A growing number of scientists studying social behavior and human evolution now challenge the reign of selfishness theories, notes political scientist Jane Mansbridge of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Unselfish motives, such as solidarity with others and commitment to a principle, sometimes surpass self-interest in their influence on human attitudes and behavior, according to many recent investigations.

"They key question concerns the contexts in which people are most likely to put the good of others ahead of their own," Mansbridge says.

Studies conducted over the past decade reveal that caring sometimes transcends selfish motives when someone empathizes with another person's plight, Batson asserts in the March AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGIST. Empathy is the experience of feeling what someone else is experiencing, and includes sentiments of sympathy, compassion, sorrow and pity. Batson and his colleagues find that simply exposing college undergraduates to a peer they believe in receiving mild but uncomfortable electric shocks evokes abundant empathy and numerous offers to help the peer by taking the remaining shocks themselves.

Empathy has its limits, however. Even students who readily empathize with a peer refrain from volunteering to take "clearly painful" shocks. Batson concludes that psychologists must focus on empathy as "a fragile flower, easily crushed by self-concern. …

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Getting out from Number One: Selfishness May Not Dominate Human Behavior
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