The words, “you’re so selfish”, or any variation, reverberate through interpersonal relations. If the words aren’t spoken, they are often thought. In this post I want to address several aspects of selfishness, including how selfish each person is, (often without realizing it), the psychological factors that allow selfishness to go unnoticed by the individual, and how it is often selfish to think how selfish someone else is and how that can be the beginning of change.
Recent research indicates no decisive conclusion regarding whether humans are “fundamentally generous or greedy and whether these tendencies are shaped by our genes or environment.” (Robison, M; 2014). Studies seem to indicate we are both, and the reasons are genetic, evolutionary, and environmental.
Selfishness negatively impacts our interpersonal relations, and can be focal point for personal growth. The issue lies in becoming aware when being self-centered. All to self-centeredness goes unnoticed as a result of unconscious processes. Scientific studies have amassed a number of unconscious biases, many of which are predispositions that fulfill ones ego. This is self-serving and, as such, selfish. These biases include:
Self-serving bias- this is the tendency to attribute success to one’s work and character, and one’s failure to external circumstances.
Fundamental attribution error- personality traits are attributed to another’s negative behavior, rather than situational factors. When once behaves badly, however, the situation is blamed for negative behavior rather than character.
Illusion of control-a mistaken belief one has more control over external events than one does.
Social desirability bias- the tendency to want to present, in surveys, as better than one actually is. This can either be conscious, or unconscious, when a result of ego-defenses.
Backfire effect- the tendency to reinforce one’s own beliefs when confronted with contradictory evidence.
Hindsight bias- the idea one knew something all along when presented with information.
You may be thinking right now how you can see these biases at work in others, but surely you aren’t so bias. That is what social psychologist’s call:
Bias blind spot-the tendency to believe you are less biased then peers.
As you can imagine (hopefully), this makes realizing how selfish you actually are pretty difficult. One of the best examples I have came from a client I saw in an anger management group many years ago. When discussing his anger when driving, he reported the following: When others were going slower, they have nowhere to be. When other drivers pass, they are maniac drivers. It stands to reason then, that he is driving the perfect speed, always. It should be evident how this is a selfish stance. Driving is an excellent bell for awareness of selfishness. Whenever you feel someone is driving selfishly, you can see how this is simply your perspective, and a selfish one at that.
It makes sense that we are selfish in perception. Thoughts are generally accepted unquestioned. One is the center of his / her universe. Personal experience colors everything we think and do. In other words, it is perfectly natural to be selfish in a fashion that reinforces one’s own ego.
This brings me to the final point in my argument: often (but not always) when you point out how selfish another is, you are actually being selfish. Recently in a class we were discussing the right to die when terminally ill and suffering low quality of life. A student replied she felt it is selfish for someone to decide to die. She continued her argument discussing how that person isn’t considering the family. My reply was that family members are being selfish wanting the person to continue to live. When you think someone else is selfish, think about it. Isn’t it possible you are also being selfish, wanting the other to behave the way you want?
“The Stories of the Lotus Sutra” by Gene Reeves, suggests it is perfectly natural to be selfish. In Chapter 4, he discusses how it is reiterated through the Lotus Sutra to do “good”. When discussing this he says, “…doing good can never be a matter of complete selflessness. The Dharma Flower Sutra and Buddhism in general, do not teach that complete selflessness is either possible or desirable.” (Pg. 44).
It is natural to be selfish. We are selfish creatures, at least as much as we are cooperative. But if your goal is personal and/ or spiritual growth, a sub-goal is to be less selfish and think of others. This requires an awareness of thinking or behaving in a selfish way. Identifying that you think someone else is being selfish can be that “Zen bell”. When you find yourself considering someone else selfish, look at whether you might be behaving/ thinking selfishly yourself by wanting him or her to conform to your wishes. TThen, make the growth choice, and an alternatively selfish choice, to be who you choose to be. Becoming your Buddha nature is also selfish, in a much healthier way.
Copyright William Berry, 2016
Reeves, G; 2010; The Stories of the Lotus Sutra; Wisdom Publications, Somerville, MA.
Robison, M; 2014; Are People Naturally Inclined to Cooperate or Be Selfish?; Scientific American; Retrieved from: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/are-people-naturally-inclined-... on April 14th, 2016.