Futurelearning

People aren’t as selfish as you think they are

A widespread ‘tale of terror’ in Western societies is that people are focused on getting ahead in a world obsessed with money, materialism, individual success and status. In fact, this tale has worked its way so far into our view of human nature that we may think it a simple truth: people are selfish and society works best when it plays to this.

So even when it comes to major collective problems, like climate change, we often assume that solutions must either give people no choice or appeal to self-interest. Businesses will only take action to reduce their carbon emissions when legally required to do so or if they see a profit in it. Competition for funding and prestige pushes researchers to discover climate change combating technologies. Individuals will take up more sustainable behaviours such as composting or driving electric cars when they become convenient and cheap.

And yet as we also know – being people in a world of people – self-interest is not the best way to describe most of what we see around us. For starters, the great majority of our encounters with others are not calculated exchanges, but generous acts in which we give because of the impulse to do so. Try watching someone fall over on the footpath in front of you or struggle to solve a problem at work and you will probably find yourself drawn to help. This is the pull of empathy – our tendency to experience a sympathetic emotion in response to the suffering or need of another person. A large body of research in psychology shows that most people’s first move in collective settings is to cooperate. They only withdraw if their trust is betrayed and they sense that others are playing by different rules.

The story that we are primarily selfish is a tale of terror then, because it alienates us from our best selves and other people. It implies that we must build a personal empire in order to survive and so stymies progress towards an open society in which we collectively solve the problems we face.

Creativity and productivity too are primarily open-minded and open-hearted endeavours. Solving hard problems cannot be done by thinking ‘what’s in it for me’. It requires focused, even obsessive attention on the problem itself, so that working on it is its own reward. To go back to climate change, the people I know who are forging the way on this issue – in business, the media, universities and politics – are doing so because they feel compelled to figure out what is going on and share what they have learnt with others.

The story that we are primarily selfish is a tale of terror then, because it alienates us from our best selves and other people. It implies that we must build a personal empire in order to survive and so stymies progress towards an open society in which we collectively solve the problems we face.

What would happen if we were to replace this narrow, bleak vision with a ‘tale of joy’ that emphasises people’s cooperative and creative natures? Well, research we have conducted in New Zealand suggests that when people learn that others' deepest values concern connection and expression – and not money, materialism and status – they feel a sense of belonging to a human community, reassurance and hope. These feelings, in turn, inspire people to act for the common good.

Similar research to ours conducted by the UK-based Public Interest Research Centre showed, for example, that people who believe others share their concern for collective wellbeing are more likely to vote in a general election.

So why don’t we get the word out that, beneath all the bluster and competition we are surrounded by, people yearn to give freely of themselves and offer something of value to those around them? Maybe then, people would feel safe to live that tale and, each in their own way, let their cooperative and creative impulses take flight.

Dr Harre’s latest book, The Infinite Game: How to Live Well Together, is published this week by Auckland University Press.

Newsroom is powered by the generosity of readers like you, who support our mission to produce fearless, independent and provocative journalism.

Comments

Newsroom does not allow comments directly on this website. We invite all readers who wish to discuss a story or leave a comment to visit us on Twitter or Facebook. We also welcome your news tips and feedback via email: contact@newsroom.co.nz. Thank you.

PARTNERS