What Is The Root Of Selfishness?

February 05, 2017

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In this day and age, the noble act of selflessness is hard to come by. Let me prove this with a single task. Can you name six genuinely selfless people aside from Saint Teresa of Calcutta? It is more difficult than you think, huh?  

Most of us are characterized by the tiny hints of selfishness. However, some people are more consumed by this trait. 

Let me begin by defining what being "selfish" is. There are two main points according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. A selfish individual is concerned with his or her own advantage, pleasure, or well-being. Furthermore, he or she does not have any regard for others.

There seems to be nothing wrong with the initial part of selfishness. Observing human interactions made me realize that human beings have their personal interest at heart. We want to pursue things that will ultimately be good for our own well-being. This is desirable, especially in the evolutionary sense. Charles Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection highlights that common species are after the same thing, but only the best adapted varieties survive. Similar ideals can be applied to man. 

The latter part of the definition ignites the issues. Achieving success in the expense of other people is the kind of selfishness that you must avoid. In the extreme sense, Psychologists refer to this personality trait as Machiavellianism. The term was coined from the infamous philosopher and diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli. His most notable work is "The Prince".

The Prince or "Il Principe" exposed his strong and unscrupulous political views. He believed that rulers should be harsh with their enemies and civilians. This is why Machiavellianism refers to a person who is willing to manipulate, exploit, and deceive others in order to fulfill his or her own goals. This personality trait is part of the "Dark Triad" including Narcissism and Psychopathy.

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Knowing all these nuggets made me curious to learn what lies beneath a selfish person. I shall dissect this matter using the biopsychosocial model


Researchers found that they can "make" people selfish by turning off a region of the brain with a flick of a switch. It was that simple! This region is none other than the Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex (DLPFC), which is said to trigger self-control. The researchers used repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation on participants to temporarily disable their DLPFC. The participants were more likely to engage in egotistical behavior upon the supression of the (right side of) DLPFC. 

It seems like selfishness can be pinpointed in the brain. Who knew that this would ever be possible? 


Humanistic Psychology highlights that we all have goals and needs. Some people have the tools to conquer life's hurdles, while others have to suffer the insecurity of unmet needs. One theory states that selfish individuals hoard their resources to themselves to increase the sense of control.

For instance, you had a friend called Jack. Jack grew up in an impoverished family along with his 9 siblings. He had a constant urge to fight for his possessions. At various points in his life, he felt that everything was taken away from him. He hit the jackpot at the age of 30. To gain a sense of control, he began to hide his wealth away from his family. Doing so helped him to ease his inner conflicts. 


A recent study used a modified version of the Prisoner's Dilemma - a test of people's willingness to set aside their personal interests to attain the greater good. After utilizing different strategies, the researchers found that being selfish was more beneficial than cooperating. The benefits may be short-lived, however.

One of the most important things to do when dealing with a selfish individual is to understand the reason behind his or her actions. Incorporate the Biological, Psychological, and Social factors.

Remember that you cannot control the personality of other people in most cases (unless you are a healthcare professional). What you can control is your reaction towards them. Thus, it is best to accept one's nature. 

Sources: 1 & 2

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