Has Being Self-Centered Gotten a Bad Rap?

Our selfish nature may actually lead us to acts of good. Here's why.

Posted Mar 04, 2015

 InnervisionArt/Shutterstock
Source: InnervisionArt/Shutterstock

There has been plenty written in both the professional and popular press lately about narcissism. Research findings suggest that narcissism has increased a great deal in recent years, especially among young people. While living in a Facebook, celebrity, reality-show, and selfie-driven environment, how can we not become more narcissistic, many critics ask? Amid much hand wringing, many fear that our culture is going downhill fast due to so many self-centered people who care only for their own needs and not those of others. Further research has suggested that those with significant financial means are insulated from the larger world around them, becoming, over time, even more self-centered and less compassionate towards those who have less.

But upon further reflection and consideration of the research from multiple sources, I wonder if our perception of a world in decline because of an increasingly narcissistic culture might be overblown. Sure, most of us might prefer a more compassionate and less narcissistic culture, but there may be a more nuanced way to look at the issue.

Self-centeredness is a fundamental part of life and is actually rather adaptive. It is in our DNA to find ways to take care of ourselves and those most closely connected to us, such as our offspring. If you don’t take care of yourself and your loved ones, who will? In more than 25 years of teaching ethics at the college and postgraduate levels, I have been struck that whenever an ethical dilemma emerges, everyone—and I really do mean everyone—will consider solving the problem or conflict using the principle of egoism (e.g., “What’s in my best interest?”). In other words, when presented with an ethical challenge, everyone at least considers the question, “What’s best for me?” They may not ultimately act using an egoism approach to ethical problem solving but they surely will consider it—100% of the time.

Even when people do compassionate and altruistic things, it is for reasons rooted in egoism. For example, we may give large charitable donations to impress our friends and, if the donation is large enough, see our names on a building plaque. Someone might help a person in need primarily to avoid feeling uncomfortable or guilty about ignoring that person’s distress. If someone is a religious believer, he or she might act in an altruistic fashion to gain entry to heaven. Others might be motivated to win awards for their charity, or even the Nobel Peace Prize.

You get the idea: The motivation behind altruistic behavior might be a healthy dose of self-centeredness and narcissism. However, these charitable outcomes serve the greater good as well as the individual's.

A win-win!

If we really do appear to be living in a more egotistic or narcissistic culture, perhaps we should consider accepting this reality rather than denying or fighting it. Just because we tend to be self-centered, egotistical, and narcissistic doesn’t mean that we always have to act in our own self-interest or neglect the needs of others. And if acting on our own self-interests can make the world a better place through charitable and altruistic behaviors, then we can begrudge the narcissistic stroking his or her ego while doing so in a way that actually helps others and makes our community better.

Ultimately, we have to learn to balance and manage our narcissistic tendencies in a way that considers the needs and rights of others. Trying to deny or eliminate those tendencies seems unrealistic—and perhaps even foolish. A foot on the accelerator and a foot on the brake might be just what the doctor ordered to best balance our needs and those of others in an increasingly self-centered culture.

One of my clinical patients donates a great deal of money to many charities. He states that he gets much more out of his donations than the charities he is so generous with since he obtains so much joy from watching his money make others happy. He also enjoys seeing his name on building plaques or high-level donor lists, and to be recognized in other ways. This individual does a great deal of good for others, and for himself. Maybe we need a world with more people like him.

What do you think?

tom plante, used with permission
Source: tom plante, used with permission

For more information about ethical decision making, check out my book, Do the Right Thing.

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Copyright 2015 Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP