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What Is… Selfishness

Insights into psychology: Selfishness - Healthy selfishness is a good thing

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.

Definitions

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.

Human nature

It sounds like there’s been a lot of argument 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?

Sources

  • Fromm, E. (1939). Selfishness and self-love. Psychiatry2(4), 507.
  • Kaufman, S. B., & Jauk, E. (2020). Healthy selfishness and pathological altruism: Measuring two paradoxical forms of selfishness. Frontiers in Psychology11, 1006.
  • Scientific American: Are People Naturally Inclined to Cooperate or Be Selfish?
  • Sonne, J. W., & Gash, D. M. (2018). Psychopathy to altruism: Neurobiology of the selfish–selfless spectrum. Frontiers in Psychology9, 575.
The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

38 thoughts on “What Is… Selfishness”

  1. I don’t see self-care as “selfishness” in the negative sense of the word. To me it is like the instructions on an airplane flight: put your oxygen mask on yourself first so you can put it on your child or traveling companion soon after. Putting self-care first IS a way of caring for self and others.

  2. I never thought much of that. I suppose not having my own famiy means I can spend hours on myself.
    I did in the past however had some difficulties with people who were pathologically selfless. It always turned out at the end they wanted something in return and wouldn’t even say what it was, I had to guess it.

  3. I think it was Fromm who wrote the Art of Loving. And, I know he knows his stuff. I personally have taken a path of becoming more selfish, as a means of better self care. I guess many of us here have probably gone down this or a similar path.

  4. I’m probably more on the selfish side than the selfless, unless it’s my immediate family. I’ve tried to be more generous with friends (not financially so much, which I can’t really do, but with time), and it backfired on me. Now, with rare exception, I only agree to do things I want to do. Mostly I say no to things, yet I still end up doing a lot of social events anyway. They’re endless! Some people can participate daily, but my self-care routine says nope…

  5. We definitely need more discussions like this. Self-care is important. It leads to more good in the world. On the other hand, it can get out of balance and then people go beyond selfcare and become selfish.

  6. This is a topic that I have had a hard time with. I am starting to understand though that self-care is not selfish. Looking after me allows me to be there for others.

  7. For me, self-care encompasses a lot of activities: personal hygiene in terms of showers and bathes daily, medication management three times a day, sleep hygiene which means limiting staying up late on a school night, eating two to three full healthy meals a day and/or a protein shake, (preparing these meals for family at that time), managing calorie content and walking so as to continue with weight loss, exercise such as walking 6 days a week or engaging in stress relieving activities like yoga, blogging so as to develop feelings that I am in a support-oriented group who is aware of my issues, regular visits with the therapist, regular visits with the psyche doctor, annual visits for wellness like mammograms and preventive visits to the family doctor, or as needed for other healthcare, avoiding alcohol at all turns and limiting caffeine to morning rituals for the most part. Without these things, I cannot fulfill my obligations to my self, my family, my extended family or my community. I consider all these acts as self-care which in total allow me to be a better wife, mother, daughter, sister, neighbor, community member, etc.

  8. What are your thoughts on selfishness and society?
    I find that there are more selfish people now than in the past, BUT I am open to the idea that there really aren’t more selfish people, they’re just easier to find with the internet version of “news” and all that kind of mess.

    Do you think Erich Fromm was onto something? Yep. But it’s obvious that his paper didn’t have a huge impact, because the same old situation seems to apply now as did in his day. I know I’m indoctrinated with that whole “do for others FIRST, because if you do for yourself, you’re SELFISH” ideology.

    I was told, after my husband passed away, that “I was free to take care of myself now and do for myself.” I still have trouble with the concept. Even though nobody else is available for me to take care of. I catch myself feeling guilty when I buy that special food or treat just for me. The idea of going to a spa is really conflicting, and not just because I have social phobia and don’t like strangers touching me or getting in my space; but because it seems a SELFISH thing to do to be pampered that way.

    I am fairly self-centered, mostly as a result of my chosen isolated lifestyle. I’m sure some folks see that as being selfish.

  9. The general idea of what selfishness, as well as selflessness, self-love, self-care etc. is, is certainly quite messed up in our society and people don’t seem to realise that you have to be a little “selfish” to be able to help others more effectively and be a more loving individual. I myself struggle with the concept of selfishness too. I think rationally I have a reasonably good idea of what selfishness is and what it is not, but on some more emotional level my rational knowledge can go out the window sometimes and I have thoughts that doing something for myself or not doing something for someoone else that they want me to do means I am selfish. I remember when I saw for the first time the psychiatrist who later diagnosed me with dysthymia and AVPD, and that first time we saw each other, she told me that I “lack healthy selfishness”. I found that a little strange and I wondered what healthy selfishness is and had a huge dilemma to think about, how do you define when selfishness is healthy and when it’s not. I had even more of a dilemma when not much longer than a week later my godmother told me that I am very selfish, and I found it funny in a way how people can tell you such vastly contradicting things in such a short time, and was wondering for ages how you can be both lacking healthy selfishness and very selfish and I was curious which of them was right. 😀 I hadn’t come across the term healthy selfishness since then until now that I read your post and I didn’t know it was an actual term that is in use. But I think it totally makes sense what Erich Fromm wrote about how lack of healthy selfishness, and thus self-love, can actually make people more likely to act in a selfish way.

  10. Thanks! My self-care routine has been under development since 2008 when I hit my rock bottom which was absolutely terrible – lengthy hospital stay and introduction to clozapine as a new medication after several were tried and did not work. It includes baby steps like giving myself credit for a walk that is only .5 miles. It is still a walk in my book. I can still check it off my list for my accomplishments during that day. Baby steps are key as well as forgiving myself if I skip a day or a week or a month or three months on one behavior or another. Also, it is difficult for me to add many new self-care behaviors all at once. What has worked best for me is adding one aspect of self-care at a time.

  11. That healthy selfishness survey is super interesting, and I wonder about things like self-reporting bias and cultural perspective.

    I’m deeply, deeply uncomfortable with people who say they are selfish – I imagine acts like deliberately neglecting care duties or being an interloper in a marriage – but perhaps I could examine this more closely, such as having boundaries and so on.

    1. Western culture has a weird mix of messaging around individualism and selfishness. I wonder if that relates to the blend of Protestant work ethic and Calvin’s idea of total depravity. I would imagine culture plays an important role, particularly collectivist vs. individualist cultures.

      1. Yes, as what’s “selfish” to one might seem normal to another. This is changing with untenable rent prices, but I know that cultures whose children don’t “leave the nest” at age 18 once viewed this practice as selfishness on the part of parents… whereas others might see the adolescent who remains home as too dependent.

  12. Some great points. Contrary to what people believe there’s a massive difference between being selfish and doing something for yourself. I think if more people accepted that maybe we’d all be a little bit better at looking after ourselves!

  13. I loved this. With regard to Fromm, every time I think I like him, he pisses me off, and then I encounter something else brilliant. This had both so he gets to simply exist in my mind without judgement lol

    I’m going to take the selfish test, though I know I tend to “pathological altruism,” a term I didn’t know existed and a behaviour I can confirm springs not from love of others but a lack of good feelings about the self and a kind of desperate neediness. Or so I’ve heard.

  14. Like always you’ve given me food for thought. I tend to put others’ needs before my own, therefore, I am unapologetic about the material things I do not share. I feel as though because I work for them I have the choice to share better yet not share said items. I am referring to hygiene products. I am particular about my shampoo and conditioner as well as my soap, body wash, razor blade brand, lotion, etc. I also encouraged my child to share BUT taught her that it is up to her if she wants to because the items belong to her, ie toys.

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