When No One's Watching, Are You Still Likely to Do Good?

There are two competing selves inside you. Which usually wins?

Posted May 16, 2014


So, are we just lying to ourselves and others when we have these idealistic conversations?

In a paper in the May, 2014 issue of the Journal of Personalty and Social Psychology, Jeremy Frimer, Nicola Schaefer, and Harrison Oakes suggest that each of us has two distinct conceptions of self.

First, there is the actor. The actor is your public-facing self, the one that you bring out when other people are watching. The actor often has some focus on being prosocial, that is doing things that are for society’s benefit.

Second, there is the agent. The agent is your doing self. When you pursue your daily goals, you typically act more selfishly in your own interests. 

As evidence for this split between actor and agent, participants from the United States (a relatively individualistic society) and India (a relatively collectivist society) were asked to perform one of two tasks. 

One task involved rating the importance of a variety of selfish and prosocial goals. This task was designed to get people to think about themselves as actors. The other task involved having people describe four of their own most important goals. This task was designed to get people to think of themselves as agents. 

After this initial task, everyone rated how strongly their own goals were about helping themselves—and how much they were about helping others. 

Participants who had been asked to think about a variety of prosocial and selfish goals rated their own goals as equally strong toward helping themselves and others. Those who were asked to list only their own goals rated their goals as more strongly focused on themselves than others. This pattern held both for Americans and Indians, suggesting that the agent is fairly selfish across across cultures.

A second study demonstrated that when people are primed to think about the variety of goals they might pursue, they act more like someone who is told to role-play a prosocial person, while those who are primed to think about their own goals act like someone told to role-play a selfish person.

One final study found that when people were primed to think of themselves as actors, they felt their goals were more idealistic, but when people were primed to think of themselves as agents, they felt their goals were more realistic.

Can We Do Better?

This split between two self-concepts may explain why people often act differently when they believe that others are watching them. We want our public-facing self to act consistently with our ideals—each of us wants to be seen as the kind of person who does things to help society. But when left to our own devices, the pressures of life often push us to do what is in our own self-interest.

This work has interesting implications for how to get people to do more public service. Lots of charities and nonprofits need volunteers to help them carry out their work. People who do volunteer work also report feeling better about themselves after doing it. Yet, few people actually volunteer their time. Perhaps prompting people to think about themselves as actors rather than agents could promote more engagement with volunteer organizations.

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