When It’s OK to Be a Little Selfish

More satisfying decisions may emerge when one person takes the lead.

Posted Jul 29, 2019

ArtFamily/Shutterstsock
Source: ArtFamily/Shutterstock

When making joint decisions with someone else—choosing a movie to watch with your spouse or a restaurant to visit with a friend—you may face a personal decision first. Should you push for the option that you want, or put your preference aside to please your companion? Should you be selfish, or selfless?

When two people both behave selfishly or both behave selflessly, the ultimate choice tends to be farther from what they originally wanted than when one is more selfish and one is more altruistic, according to a recent paper published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

A team of researchers asked study participants to watch a collection of videos, such as clips of Saturday Night Live, and rate how much they enjoyed each one. The participants also completed surveys to measure how selfish or altruistic they typically were. Two weeks later, the participants returned to the lab. They were divided into pairs and instructed to pick one video to watch together.

Compared to pairs with two relatively selfish or two relatively selfless individuals—judged by high or low scores on the selfishness survey—pairs in which one was more selfless and less selfish tended to choose videos that were closer to what each person genuinely preferred. A similar finding appeared when participants were primed to act more or less selfishly by reading a made-up news story.

“When we got selfish people together or altruistic people together, they kind of blew it,” says Michael Lowe, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor of marketing at Georgia Tech. “They ended up picking something that neither of them really wanted to watch.”

Why might this occur? People with similar temperaments often begin to negotiate, Lowe says.

In the case of two selfish individuals, each person states their true preference. But they don’t accept each other’s offer. Since neither wants to capitulate, they’ll select an item neither want but both can tolerate.

Two selfless people offer suggestions that they mistakenly believe the other might prefer. The problem with that strategy, Lowe says, is that people tend to overestimate how different others’ preferences are from their own, and so they suggest an option more distant from their desired outcome than is necessary.

Lowe speculates that couples may benefit from taking turns being the more “selfish” one when making decisions. Each partner can feel confident taking control or ceding control because they know they’ll do the opposite next time.

This strategy has proved successful in Lowe’s own relationship, he says. He and his wife used to struggle to decide where to go for dinner, each wanting the other to choose. “We found out that we actually wanted to go to the same place, but we both were trying to be nice about it,” Lowe says. “Now, we’ll make each other be honest about what we want. I’ll say, ‘You pick tonight. What do you want to do?’ It’s going really well.”

Of course, choosing a cute dinner spot isn’t especially consequential. The research only explored low-stakes situations, notes Kelly Haws, a marketing professor at Vanderbilt University, who has collaborated with Lowe in the past but was not involved with the present study. The same framework might not apply to more substantial decisions—such as buying a house or naming a baby—to which people would devote more time and energy in order to secure their desired outcome.

But for everyday decisions, one may want to be wary of simply appeasing a partner. “It’s surprising that when both people try to be nice to each other, it actually backfires,” Haws says.

Learning to act a little selfishly may be difficult for some, Lowe notes. But it’s worth pushing past the discomfort, he says, especially in a relationship in which decisions must frequently be made, or in a big group at a standstill.

“Sometimes groups need someone who will say what they want and take the lead,” Lowe says. “I wouldn’t suggest always doing that. But if you can tell that someone is reluctant to make a decision, go ahead and say, ‘Let’s go here, it’ll be great.’ Having someone take the lead is often really appreciated.”