Are Most People Selfish, Selfless, or Both?

Research reveals that people prioritizing others, and themselves, are happiest.

Posted Feb 26, 2020

Kate Ter Haar/Flickr
Source: Kate Ter Haar/Flickr

Note: This guest post is by James McQuivey, Ph.D.

In David Brooks’s recent piece in The Atlantic, “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake,” he makes the case that our society’s shift from self-sacrifice to self-fulfillment is at the root of the collapse of the modern nuclear family. As he writes, “People with an individualistic mind-set tend to be less willing to sacrifice self for the sake of the family, and the result is more family disruption.”

It’s a compelling hypothesis partly because it seems so self-evident. People used to value sacrificing for the love and support of others, now they see others as a means to self fulfillment. This is not itself an incorrect observation. But is it correct to suggest that these are necessarily opposing values? Sure, seen over the long arc of social history, a swing from one pole to another suggests that the values are incompatible, but is that necessarily true in the life of an individual who has supposedly been seduced by this notion of living for oneself?

This is an interesting time in which to raise the possibility of a false dichotomy in public discourse. When we talk about how polarized we are as a nation, we typically express the opinions at war with each other in dichotomous terms: You are pro- or anti-gun. You are pro-life or pro-choice. You are pro- or anti-immigration. Yet nuanced surveys of public opinion even on topics for which passions run high suggest that most people do not easily fit into one side or the other. And researchers like myself who have conducted surveys of over a million people often find that it’s not merely that people are “in the middle” on these issues; it is, in fact, possible to hold seemingly opposing beliefs.

The ability to hold contrary thoughts in your mind—and still be able to function—was famously said by F. Scott Fitzgerald to be “the test of a first-rate intelligence.” Yet an entire body of psychological research on cognitive dissonance suggests that people will subconsciously avoid this condition because of the tension it creates.

The discussion surrounding Brooks’ article creates an ideal opportunity to test this notion. Are people torn between a self-centered vs. other-centered mode of living that is partially contributing to family and relationship discord, and is it possible that the need to choose one side is indeed driven by cognitive dissonance, thus hastening the change in the culture that Brooks decries?

Using data from my April 2019 survey of US Adult Sexual Behaviors and Attitudes study, I was able to test this question. In the study, I asked people to agree or disagree with a list of statements containing advice that someone might give to a friend on what would make them happy in life. The list included advice such as “You have to live for yourself first” and “Making sacrifices for people you love brings joy.”

In total, eight such statements were either clearly focused on putting the fulfillment of the self first or prioritizing finding and sacrificing for others, including for a life partner.

Using factor analysis, I confirmed that these two factors of four statements each were statistically independent. I then used the factor loadings to create weighted variables that measured how much someone agreed with the self-focused items as well as the partner-prioritizing items.

To explore how polar these attitudes were and whether people give advice that is more self-focused or partner-prioritizing, I split each variable in half, into high and low. Combining these two variables allowed me to create four groups: one that was low on both scores, two that were high on one but not the other of the two scores, and one that was high on both scores. Interestingly, the groups were nearly equal in size, meaning roughly a fourth of the respondent pool fell into each category, including the category in which both self-focused and partner-prioritizing advice were endorsed.

What about those people? Are they, as cognitive dissonance theory suggests, wracked by the internal anguish of wanting to recommend supposedly contradictory life advice to a friend? Quite the opposite: The people who emerged as high on both self-focused and partner-prioritizing scores seemed better off than everybody else. When asked how happy they feel in the moment, 49 percent were “very happy,” or a 5 on a scale of 1 to 5. This compares with 26 percent of people who scored high on partner-prioritizing advice, 15 percent of those who preferred to only give self-focused advice and 13 percent of those who scored low on both types of advice.

Similarly, when asked how satisfied they were with their lives, 47 percent of those who were supposedly torn by the anguish of holding contradictory views were very satisfied indicating a 5 on a scale of 1 to 5 for life satisfaction. In the next group—again the partner-prioritizing individuals—34 percent were very satisfied. The self-focused and those unwilling to give either recommendation came in much lower, at 21 percent and 20 percent, respectively.

Those who scored highly on giving both self-focused and partner-prioritizing advice were the happiest and most satisfied relative to those who gave advice to others to focus mostly themselves or mostly on others.

Chalk one up for Fitzgerald. It turns out that not only can people hold supposedly contradictory views in their minds at the same time but that the same mental and emotional machinery that allows them to do this also makes them the happiest among us.

This also bodes well for their relationship satisfaction: For example, among those in each group who were married, 68 percent of those who gave self- and partner-focused advice reported that they always “feel loved in this marriage,” compared to 54 percent of partner-prioritizing individuals and 40 percent of self-focused people. This last number is lower than the 45 percent of marrieds who would give neither advice. A similar pattern persists for many areas of marriage, including sexual satisfaction and how much fun partners share together.

We should all wish to suffer from the burden of such cognitive dissonance. This highlights a weakness in the theory: People who have the mental and emotional resources to hold potentially contradictory ideas can use those resources to explore novel and nuanced ideas. It’s precisely this ability that gives people the ambiguity tolerance they need to move forward in the complex and changing world that Brooks writes about, a world we needn’t see as moving in only one direction.

This said, it’s still worth noting that the fourth of adults in the self-focused group are significantly less happy, satisfied, and fulfilled in their relationships than people who would give more partner-prioritizing advice. Though Brooks’ description of a nation falling into disrepair due to selfishness isn’t true overall it does turn out to be true for those stuck in this particular rut. To the extent that government programs are seen as a solution to the ills described in the article, they will have their most profound effect if they encourage selflessness, sacrifice, and working to earn the love of others in addition to whatever other self-focused empowering message they impart. 

James L. McQuivey, Ph.D. has taught at Boston University and Syracuse University. He is a consumer behaviorist and analyst who is regularly sought for commentary by publications like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. His research into family studies focuses on human mating strategies and the role of parents in determining positive life outcomes. He is the author of the book Why We Need Dad. Follow him on Twitter @jmcquivey.

References

In April 2019, a survey of U.S. Adult Sexual Behaviors and Attitudes was fielded to a nationally representative sample of adults ranging in age from 18 to 74. The outgoing sample was balanced by sex, age cohort, and U.S. Census region. Sample sourced from and data collection provided by Dynata, a global leader in first-party data and data services. The respondents were weighted back to the outgoing sample parameters for sex, age, and region. Data were validated for internal consistency and compared for population representation to US Census data and GSS data for income, rates of marriage, and childbearing. The project was conceived, designed, executed, and paid for entirely by Dr. James McQuivey.

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