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Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Psychological selfishness

Carlson, R. W.,  et al. (2020, October 29).


Selfishness is central to many theories of human morality, yet its psychological nature remains largely overlooked. Psychologists often rely on classical conceptions of selfishness from economics (i.e., rational self-interest) and philosophy (i.e. psychological egoism), but such characterizations offer limited insight into the richer, motivated nature of selfishness. To address this gap, we propose a novel framework in which selfishness is recast as a psychological construction. From this view, selfishness is perceived in ourselves and others when we detect a situation-specific desire to benefit oneself that disregards others’ desires and prevailing social expectations for the situation. We argue that detecting and deterring such psychological selfishness in both oneself and others is crucial in social life—facilitating the maintenance of social cohesion and close relationships. In addition, we show how utilizing this psychological framework offers a richer understanding of the nature of human social behavior. Delineating a psychological construct of selfishness can promote coherence in interdisciplinary research on selfishness, and provide insights for interventions to prevent or remediate negative effects of selfishness.


Selfishness is a widely invoked, yet poorly defined construct in psychology. Many empirical “observations” of selfishness consist of isolated behaviors or de-contextualized motives. Here, we argued that these behaviors and motives often do not capture a psychologically meaningfully form of selfishness, and we addressed this gap in the literature by offering a concrete definition and framework for studying selfishness.

Selfishness is a mentalistic concept. As such, adopting a psychological framework can deepen our understanding of its nature. In the proposed model, selfishness unfolds within rich social situations that elicit specific desires, expectations, and considerations of others. Moreover, detecting selfishness serves the overarching function of coordinating and encouraging cooperative social behavior. To detect selfishness is to perceive a desire to act in violation of salient social expectations, and an array of emotions and corrective actions tend to follow. 

Selfishness is also a morally-laden concept. In fact, it is one of the least likable qualities a person can possess (N. H. Anderson, 1968). As such, selfishness is a construct in need of proper criteria for being manipulated, measured, and applied to peoples’ actions and motives. Scientific views have long been thought to shape human norms and beliefs(Gergen, 1973; Miller, 1999).