Equifax, one of the three companies that track our personal financial history and calculate our credit scores, announced last week that a security breach has exposed sensitive information about more than 140 million Americans, including social security numbers. If you're like me, you probably have difficulty trying to imagine the mindset of people who would steal, and presumably sell, people’s personal information, not only wreaking havoc on their financial lives but also causing millions of people massive anxiety and distress.
The ultimate cost of the Equifax breach is unknown, but whatever it is, those costs will be heaped on those that are incurred each year through theft, robbery, fraud, scams, embezzlement, and all of the other ways that the unscrupulous try to separate us from our money and possessions.
The monetary costs of financial and property crimes are staggering. In 2016, credit card fraud and identity theft cost consumers $16 billion, and that figure reflects only direct losses to victims. The costs to banks and merchants, which of course are indirectly passed on to consumers, are much higher. Shoplifting and worker theft resulted in $32 billion in losses to businesses, burglary and personal theft accounted for about $14 billion in losses to individuals, and phone scams bilked people out of almost $10 billion.
And these figures don’t include what individuals and businesses spend on an array of security systems to protect themselves from crime, nor the costs of law enforcement and the judicial system as they deal with those who prey on us. And, as staggering as the dollar amounts are, they don’t reflect the deep emotional impact on those who are victimized.
These numbers reflect a scourge of abject selfishness. Virtually all behavior that intentionally harms other people is rooted in the perpetrators’ beliefs that their own desires are so much more important than other people’s that they are entitled to rob, scam, cheat, and hurt others in order to get what they want.
Of course, everyone is self-interested in the sense that we all look out for ourselves, and we naturally put much more time and energy into our own concerns than into those of other people. That’s fine: evolution designed all animals, including human beings, to look out for themselves. But, to have a civilized society, people must pursue their personal interests in socially-sanctioned ways that do not unnecessarily disadvantage or harm other people. Those who use other people’s credit cards, steal their identities, perpetrate phone scams, and steal from businesses totally disregard others’ interests as they egotistically pursue their own.
Of course, contemptibly selfish people have always been with us. But two features of society have allowed selfish behavior to flourish. When people lived in small tribes and, later, in small communities, those who were known to take advantage of others were ostracized, if not severely punished, and the consequences of unbridled selfishness on one's reputation were quite high. Today, however, selfish people can exploit legions of strangers with impunity as long as they are clever enough not to be caught.
Furthermore, in the days before online banking, credit cards, and cyber-crime, it was far more difficult for a single self-centered individual to inflict massive damage. Pickpockets might have been common in Dickens' day, but their collective impact was trivial compared to one skillful hacker. And even bank robbers in the Old West could rob only one bank at a time, at great personal risk to themselves.
The financial and emotional costs of excessive selfishness are as great as those of many diseases, environmental threats, and other problems that plague society and undermine the quality of people’s lives. Yet, we seem to accept selfishness as somehow normal.
Given the financial and psychological costs of selfishness, researchers need to devote more concerted attention to the problem. We need to understand more fully the forces that lead many people to prioritize their desires so highly that they are willing to do great harm to millions of people, and we should begin to explore strategies for lowering the level of selfishness in society today.