In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is selfishness.
I think our society has a twisted idea of what selfishness is. This gives people the idea that they shouldn’t prioritize essentials like self-care because it’s selfish. In this post, I wanted to take a look at what selfishness really is, and what’s helpful and what’s harmful.
Let’s start off with a basic dictionary definition. Merriam-Webster Dictionary says selfishness is “a concern for one’s own welfare or advantage at the expense of or in disregard of others: excessive interest in oneself.”
The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines it as “the tendency to act excessively or solely in a manner that benefits oneself, even if others are disadvantaged.”
On the selfless end of the selfish-selfless spectrum is altruism. In the 1800s, French philosopher Auguste Comte first described altruism as a moral imperative to place others’ needs ahead of one’s own self-interest.
It sounds like there’s been a lot of arguments over the years about whether humans are inherently selfish or altruistic. Probably, we have natural tendencies towards both selfishness and cooperativeness. From an evolutionary perspective, prosocial behaviour may have conferred adaptive advantages in propagating the family genes.
Genetic factors appear to play a role in which way we lean towards more heavily, but there are also a lot of social factors that come into play, and there are cultural differences in displays of prosocial behaviour. Researchers have identified a number of genetic variants that may contribute to selfishness/selflessness, including the genes that encode for receptors for the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin.
Healthy selfishness and pathological altruism
While it would be easy to see selfishness as all bad and altruism as all good, there’s actually a lot of grey area. Abraham Maslow, who created a hierarchy of human needs, saw selfishness as something that could be either healthy or unhealthy. He believed that selfish motivations could underlie even apparently unselfish acts.
Healthy selfishness is associated with greater psychological well-being, life satisfaction, and self-esteem. It’s also linked to higher levels of prosocial behaviour. It’s actually not associated with pathological selfishness, which values reward to the self even at the cost of harm to others. People who engage in self-care tend to be more intrinsically motivated to help others.
Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman has developed a Healthy Selfishness Scale, and you can do a test on his website to rate your own healthy selfishness.
Pathological altruism, on the other hand, can be maladaptive. It’s been associated with vulnerable narcissism and selfish motivations for helping others. It can cause harm to the self by irrationally placing others’ perceived needs over one’s own. The motivation for this may be a lack of self-esteem and fear of rejection. People with high levels of pathological altruism tend to rely on others to meet their esteem needs.
Selfishness, self-love, and Erich Fromm
In 1939, psychologist Erich Fromm published a paper entitled Selfishness and Self-Love. In it, he wrote, “Modern culture is pervaded by a taboo on selfishness. It teaches that to be
selfish is sinful and that to love others is virtuous.” He didn’t believe that loving the self and loving others are contradictory, nor did he believe that selfishness came from self-love.
He wrote that the social taboo on selfishness sends the message, “don’t do what you want, don’t enjoy yourself, don’t spend money or energy for pleasure, but feel it as your duty to work, to be successful, to be prosperous.” Does that sound like something that’s ever run through your head?
Fromm also wrote, ” The doctrine that selfishness is the arch-evil that one has to avoid and that to love oneself excludes loving others is by no means restricted to theology and philosophy. It is one of the stock patterns used currently in home, school, church, movies, literature, and all the other instruments of social suggestion. ‘Don’t be selfish’ is a sentence which has been impressed upon millions of children, generation after generation.”
He called this messaging “one of the most powerful ideological weapons in suppressing spontaneity and the free development of personality. Under the pressure of this slogan one is asked for every sacrifice and for complete submission: only those aims are ‘unselfish’ which do not serve the individual for his own sake but for the sake of somebody or something outside of him.”
Selfishness as a lack of love
Fromm described problematic selfishness this way: “The selfish person is only interested in himself, wants everything for himself, is unable to give with any pleasure but is only anxious to take; the world outside himself is conceived only from the standpoint of what he can get out of it; he lacks interest in the needs of others, or respect for their dignity and integrity. He sees only himself, judges everyone and everything from the standpoint of its usefulness to him, is basically unable to love.”
Fromm argued that this kind of selfishness is an overcompensation for a lack of self-love, and a key shortcoming of democratic society is that it has failed to make people love themselves. When people don’t love themselves for fear that they will be seen as selfish, it actually makes them more likely to behave in a selfish manner.
A brief detour to Calvinism
I’m only marginally familiar with Calvinism, but Fromm isn’t a fan. He quotes Calvin as saying, “we cannot think of ourselves as we ought to think without utterly despising everything that may be supposed an excellence in us.” He also describes Calvin’s stance this way: “Therefore, to be fond of oneself, to like anything about oneself is one of the greatest imaginable sins. It excludes love for others and is identical with selfishness.”
Yikes. Granted, this is a small tidbit of Calvin’s views provided through Fromm’s lens. Still, if Calvin’s ideas have had a strong influence on the Western world, it seems reasonable to think that his beliefs contributed to modern expectations not to be selfish.
Some thoughts on selfishness and society
I thought Erich Fromm’s paper was brilliant. Normally psychoanalytically-inclined peeps aren’t my favourite, but Fromm seems like an interesting dude. It sounds like what Western society taught people back in 1939 was just as messed up as it is today. We need more self-love, and less of the nonsense that self-care, or doing anything for your own benefit, is selfish. Let’s break free of the “don’t be selfish” rule and instead embrace healthy selfishness and taking care of our own needs as well as the needs of others.
What are your thoughts on selfishness and society? Do you think Erich Fromm was onto something?
- Fromm, E. (1939). Selfishness and self-love. Psychiatry, 2(4), 507.
- Kaufman, S. B., & Jauk, E. (2020). Healthy selfishness and pathological altruism: Measuring two paradoxical forms of selfishness. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 1006.
- Robison, M. (2014). Are People Naturally Inclined to Cooperate or Be Selfish? Scientific American.
- Sonne, J. W., & Gash, D. M. (2018). Psychopathy to altruism: Neurobiology of the selfish–selfless spectrum. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 575.
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.