Why are People Selfish

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"Why are People Selfish"
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Is selfishness a learned or an innate human behavior? Can it be "cured"? Is it always negative? What are its effects if allowed to go unchecked? These questions and others have been considered by scientific researchers, the religious community, parents and educators for decades without definitive answers.

Even the most loving and attentive parents would likely agree with this statement on some level, "Newborn babies are wonderful but they can be the most selfish people on earth!" However, selfishness in newborns is not necessarily a negative; it may actually be a matter of survival. Since infants are incapable of caring for themselves they must be fairly demanding of others in order to make sure that their basic needs are met. For babies and young children selfishness in that context can be a matter of life and death.

As children grow and achieve greater levels of maturity and self-sufficiency, it is generally society's expectation that they become less selfish and begin to develop more altruistic traits. When asked, "Why are some children selfish?" the most common answer among parents is, "Their parents spoil them." This would seem to suggest that there may be a general consensus among many parents that unselfish behavior must be taught. But are some individuals more naturally inclined to either selfishness or altruism than others? There is at least one research study that seems to suggest that they are.

The Duke University Medical Center conducted a study in which forty-five volunteers played a computer game designed to measure altruism. Depending upon the manner in which the game was played participants could either win money for themselves or insure that money was awarded to some charity. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) was then used to monitor brain activity as the volunteers played.

The participants who behaved altruistically (played the game so that the money would go to charity) seemed to exhibit higher levels of activity in the pleasure centers of the brain. This led researchers to believe that some people are more likely to behave unselfishly because giving to others makes them feel good.

Conversely, there also seem to be mental health conditions such as narcissism or antisocial personality disorder that are marked by selfish behavior. Whether the result of genetic factors or childhood traumas including physical and emotional abuse or neglect the selfish behavior exhibited by these individuals can be truly astounding in severity.

Ironically, however, the behavior of the extremely selfish or self-centered person is actually counterproductive in the long run. Psychologist Martin Seligman conducted a study on happiness and found that traits such as gratitude, hope, curiosity, and the ability to love and be loved were some of the major contributors to longer term happiness and contentment. Unfortunately, these traits do not exist in abundance in selfish people. The selfish individual might be able to successfully bully his or her way into achieving short term goals and desires, but their intimate relationships are generally severely damaged in the process.


"Brain Scan Predicts Difference Between Altruistic and Selfish People," Medical News Today, January 22, 2007.

Foltz-Gray, Doris. "What Makes Us Happy? New Studies are Finding the Keys to Contentment."

Namka, Lynne. "You Owe Me! Children of Entitlement."

More about this author: Robin Landry

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