The Psychology of Selfishness: Evolutionary, Personality and Sociocultural Factors Driving Selfish Tendencies

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

“I say let the world go to hell, but I should always have my tea.” 
― Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground

Selfishness, commonly defined as the act of prioritizing one's own needs and desires above those of others, has long been a topic of interest within psychology. While selfish behavior is often portrayed negatively, it is important to understand the various factors that contribute to its development and manifestation.

Evolutionary Roots of Selfishness

The foundation of selfishness can be traced back to the basic principles of evolution. From an evolutionary standpoint, the primary objective of any organism is to ensure the survival and reproduction of its genes (Dawkins, 1976). This inherently self-serving process promotes the development of traits and behaviors that enhance an individual's chances of success, often at the expense of others (Trivers, 1971). While cooperation and altruism have also evolved as adaptive strategies (Axelrod & Hamilton, 1981), selfishness remains a significant aspect of human behavior, as it can provide short-term benefits and promote self-preservation (de Waal, 2008).

Cognitive and Emotional Aspects

At the cognitive level, selfishness is closely related to the concept of egocentrism, which refers to the tendency to view the world from one's own perspective and prioritize one's own needs and desires (Piaget, 1954). Egocentrism is a natural part of human development, with children often exhibiting selfish behaviors until they develop the ability to understand other people's perspectives (Flavell, 1999).

Emotionally, selfishness has been linked to the experience of entitlement and narcissism. Entitlement involves the belief that one deserves special treatment or rewards, often resulting in the prioritization of one's own needs above those of others (Campbell et al., 2004). Narcissism, on the other hand, is characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance and a constant need for admiration, which can lead to selfish behaviors (Raskin & Terry, 1988).

Personality Traits and Selfishness

Research has identified various personality traits that are associated with increased levels of selfishness. The Dark Triad of personality, which includes Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy, has been found to be positively correlated with selfish behavior (Paulhus & Williams, 2002). Individuals high in these traits tend to manipulate others for personal gain, exhibit a lack of empathy, and prioritize their own interests above others (Jonason et al., 2011). Additionally, low levels of agreeableness, one of the Big Five personality traits, have been linked to selfish behaviors (Graziano et al., 1996). People who score low on agreeableness are typically less compassionate, cooperative, and trustworthy, which can result in a greater propensity for selfishness (Costa & McCrae, 1992).

Social Factors and Selfishness

The manifestation of selfishness is not solely determined by individual factors; social and environmental factors also play a significant role. For example, the presence of competition and scarce resources can elicit selfish behavior as individuals strive to secure their own well-being (Insko et al., 1993). Furthermore, cultural factors and social norms can also influence the expression of selfishness. Cultures that prioritize individualism and personal success may foster an environment in which selfish behaviors are more accepted and prevalent (Hofstede, 1980).

Interventions and Strategies to Mitigate Selfishness

One potential approach to mitigating selfishness is through promoting empathy and perspective-taking. Interventions that encourage individuals to consider the feelings and needs of others have been shown to reduce selfish behaviors and increase prosocial tendencies (Batson et al., 2002). Similarly, cultivating gratitude and promoting a focus on shared goals and values can also contribute to a reduction in selfish tendencies (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).

Furthermore, creating environments that foster cooperation and trust can help to counteract the effects of competition and scarcity that often promote selfishness (Ostrom, 1990). By establishing social norms that emphasize community and interdependence, it may be possible to encourage individuals to prioritize the collective good over personal gain (Fehr & Fischbacher, 2003).

Education and public awareness campaigns can be employed to challenge cultural factors that contribute to selfishness. By promoting cultural values that prioritize empathy, cooperation, and compassion, we can work towards creating a society in which selfish behavior is less prevalent and socially acceptable (Haidt, 2001).

The psychology of selfishness is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon, with roots in evolutionary processes, cognitive and emotional development, personality traits, and social factors. Understanding the various aspects of selfishness can provide valuable insights into human behavior and inform strategies for promoting prosocial behaviors and reducing negative outcomes associated with excessive selfishness.


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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY

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