- Humans evolved a combination of selfish behaviors that lead to benefits within groups and selfless behaviors that benefit their broader groups.
- Within relationships, when individuals focus on within-group processes, selfishness prevails, often with adverse long-term effects.
- When partners focus on the relationship as a unit unto itself, prosociality prevails.
- A key to truly loving relationships may be an emphasis on the relationship as a team and a downplaying of the "what's in it for me" attitude.
So picture this:
Hank and Callie have been married for 15 years. They have two kids and they both work full-time. One day, to their delight, they unexpectedly receive a check for $10,000 from the IRS based on a mistake that was made regarding their tax returns last year. (Yes, this is a hypothetical example!)
Hank has been eyeing a new wave runner that costs just about $10K. His current wave runner is outdated and is slower than most of the current models. Meanwhile, Callie has been talking about how much she wants a new BMW, and this money would be exactly what would be needed for the down payment. Alternatively, they've both been talking about how they'd love to add an extra bathroom to their finished basement, which is estimated at about—you guessed it—$10,000.
Here are a few ways things could play out:
Scenario 1: Hank pushes hard for the wave runner. He argues that he has worked excessive overtime for the past year and that he really deserves it. Further, he points out that Callie's current car is working just fine and that the additional bathroom can wait. Friction and resentment fill the air...
Scenario 2: Callie pushes for the BMW. She argues that her car is 10 years old and that she has never owned a new car in her life. Further, she states that she, too, has worked extremely hard over the past year and spent a disproportionate amount of time out of the office focused on their kids. And she really wants this car! As is true in Scenario 1, friction and resentment fill the air...
Scenario 3: Hank and Callie sit down and start by asking this question: What's best for us as a whole? What's best not for either of them as individuals but, rather, what is best for their relationship? What is best for our team? Within minutes, they both realize that the answer is quite simple: The addition to the house will benefit their team. It will not only benefit themselves, but it will benefit their kids, their friends, extended family who may stay with them, etc. They smile, quickly decide that this is a no-brainer, and text a contractor that very evening.
Selfish vs. Selfless Behavior in Evolutionary Perspective
As I've discussed in some of my past writing, we can think of the fundamental human conflict as the conflict between selfish motives and other-oriented motives. As renowned evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson (2019) has famously articulated, humans, as a highly groupish species, evolved processes both to benefit themselves within groups—a process he calls within-group selection—as well as processes to benefit one's own group and its various members, which he refers to as between-groups selection.
The fundamental human conflict pertains to the conflict between taking actions to benefit oneself (engaging in selfish behavior) versus taking actions to benefit one's group, often at a cost to oneself (engaging in selfless, or other-oriented behavior).
One way to think about this issue relevant to modern culture (as I wrote in this post) pertains to video games such as Fortnite that can be played in either solo-mode or squad-mode. When playing in solo-mode, it's every player for themselves, and all-out selfish behavior prevails. But when playing in squad-mode, a dramatically different approach tends to emerge: Players oscillate toward teamwork, showing as much concern for the welfare of teammates as for themselves. When in squad-mode, such other-oriented actions tend to win the day.
Love as Teamwork
In long-term relationships, as is true in any kinds of human group contexts, people often show a combination of selfish and selfless behaviors. Sometimes, people in a relationship focus primarily on what's in it for them. They may focus largely or even completely on looking to fulfill their own needs from the relationship. Such needs may include sex, material items, status, social capital, and more. Often unwittingly, in long-term relationships, people may well oscillate toward a "what's in it for me" attitude.
In playing this out, consider a scenario in which both members of a couple generally take a "what's in it for me" attitude: Each person focuses not on what's best for their partner or for the relationship itself but, rather, on how they can effectively use the relationship to optimize things for themselves—for their own lot.
Perhaps this approach provides us with a novel way to think about conflict in relationships. Maybe relationships that are riddled with problems are comprised of individuals who focus more on their own needs and wants rather than what is best for their partner and/or the relationship itself. Perhaps conflict-laden relationships, to put it simply, are lacking in teamwork. Or in video-game parlance, perhaps poorly functioning relationships are comprised of individuals who play the relationship game in solo-mode.
Now think about relationships that seem to be characterized by genuine love. You know, that couple that can't stop holding hands or looking into each other's eyes and smiling and kissing. That couple that somehow seems to be in puppy love even though they've been together for decades. That couple that makes everyone else shake their head with a combination of confusion and envy.
Perhaps a secret to cultivating a truly loving relationship simply is this: When both members of a couple are "playing in squad mode," the relationship wins and, as a result, both partners win as well. Perhaps, from an evolutionary perspective, we can understand a truly loving relationship as one in which each individual genuinely puts the needs and wants of the relationship itself—of the team—above their own. In thinking about things this way, it's easy to see how such an approach can lead to a win-win situation. And perhaps, in a sense, this is what love is.
As a highly group-oriented species, humans evolved a combination of selfish traits as well as traits that downplay selfishness and facilitate an other-oriented approach to interactions with others within groups, including within intimate relationships. When relationships are made up of individuals who focus on their own needs and wants, conflict is almost certain to emerge. Yet when relationships include individuals who genuinely put the needs and wants of the relationship and their partner above their own, the relationship wins and, at the end of the day, perhaps its members each win as well. And maybe—just maybe—that's what love is.
Wilson, D. S. (2019). This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution. Pantheon: New York.