We all know someone who is selfish. These are the people who will make decisions that benefit them, seemingly without giving any thought to the impact this might have on others. These are the people who will take the last chip, or who will try to dictate the activities of their group of friends.
Dealing with these kinds of people can be difficult but the first step to dealing with them effectively (and not going completely out of your mind in the process!) is to better understand what causes them to act that way in the first place.
So where does selfishness come from?
Evolutionary psychology postulates that most human traits can be described by Darwin’s theory of natural selection. In other words, the psychological traits that we maintain today exist because they helped our ancestors to survive. Those traits that were not advantageous toward our survival would deny those individuals the opportunity to procreate.
It is very easy to see how there might be an evolutionary advantage to selfishness. After all, if you only have limited resources, giving those away to someone else is not going to improve your chances of not going hungry! Thus, selfishness is an unfortunate trait that has made its way into our present day and that still persists.
But why are some people more selfish than others?
According to surveys, we expect intelligent people to be more selfish. Intelligent people know what it takes to get ahead and will therefore make those short-term survival-oriented decisions.
However, studies have found that the reverse is actually true (1). This is to say that the more intelligent a person is, the less likely that person is to be selfish.
The reason for this might stem from the fact that altruism also has survival value. Humans are naturally social creatures and this is a tool that we can use to our advantage. There is strength in numbers and by staying in groups, we are able to better fend off predation, better protect our resources and learn from one another. Thus, it actually pays to have the necessary traits to help us get along. This is demonstrated aptly in game theory – a mathematical theory that shows how working with others can help to maximize gains for the whole.
This might be why acts of giving trigger the release of feel good hormones like oxytocin and serotonin. It might also explain why more intelligent people are actually often more likely to give.
From a neurological standpoint, this release of endorphins may be the result of our theory of mind, combined with mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are neurons that fire when they witness (or imagine) something happening to someone else. This is the neurological basis for empathy.
Theory of mind meanwhile is our psychological construct that allows us to predict what other people are thinking or how they are going to act. This is what gives us our ‘social IQ’ and essentially allows those mirror neurons to be more ‘accurate’.
In other words then, while we all have ‘in-built’ altruism and selflessness – some people might be more predisposed to this kind of thinking due to differences in brain structure. And a more intelligent person is likely to have a better ability to a) think about the long-term consequences of their actions and b) understand the implications that their actions will have on another person and how that is likely to make said person feel.
Note too that some people simply appear to lack this ability. Psychopathy is a clinical disorder characterised by the complete lack of empathy and understanding. And someone doesn’t have to be a murderer to be a psychopath! An ex who was happy to cheat on you without showing remorse might well be a genuine psychopath, as might a colleague who steps on your toes in order to get ahead.
There are other factors that play a role here too though. One interesting factor is that the longer a person is given to think about something, the more selfish they become. If you can get someone to act spontaneously, then they are more likely to donate money, or to do us a favor (2). The reason for this is that although intelligence is a predictor of generosity, this is still something primarily governed by emotion.
Purchasing behaviour also tends to be impulsive and ruled by emotion too by the way – which is why a good salesperson will always try to apply time pressure when trying to make a sale!
With all this in mind then, how do you go about dealing with selfish people and preventing them from harming you?
One solution is simply to recognize their selfishness and to therefore push harder to ensure that you (and others) are fairly treated. We have a tendency to be polite to others and especially if we are empathetic and thoughtful people. This makes it unfortunately very easy for others to take advantage of us and so when we know someone is selfish by nature, we need to ensure that we work extra hard to ensure that our voice is heard and that we get our ‘share’.
At the same time, it’s useful to consider the person’s actions from a detached standpoint. While it might seem frustrating or even malicious, ultimately they are lacking the processing power that you are privy to and this is going to be to their detriment. Try not to get hung up on how they ‘should’ be thinking and instead accept them for who they are and find ways to cope with them.
One way you can do that is to help explain how things can be done fairly. Introduce systems to prevent a ‘first come, first served’ approach and ensure that things are divvied out equally. If that person protests, try to explain things from your point of view. Failing that, point out to them how giving an inch now might ultimately be more beneficial for both of you in the long term.