Skip to content

Being selfish or altruistic? It might be related

Some people struggle a lot with the choices between being a Good Samaritan: altruistic or putting themselves first, and by doing so being selfish.  But in fact, being selfish works in favor of an apparent altruistic behavior.

I usually reflect on how I can make my life better. Sometimes it is very clear when something is wrong, sometimes it’s something hidden between layers that make the “issue” hard to find. After reflecting and thinking thoroughly, to see if I’ve reached the root cause, I draft alternatives to solve the issue that’s keeping me from a merrier life. A good example of this is my dog; he was a gift from my wife, back when she was my girlfriend (almost 11 years ago). At that time, he was living with me, under my parents’ roof, and he used to sleep with me, in my bed. After we got married, and we moved into our own place, my wife “educated” him to stay in his own bed. The reason for doing so: hygiene. When he goes out for number 1 & 2, he usually steps on other dogs’ 1 & 2, not very clean, to say the least. What I realized after a couple of years is that I love to cuddle with my dog, and have him on the bed. How could I solve this?

We tried buying dog shoes, and putting them on to go out (3 times per day), and then taking them off as soon as his enters our home. That works, but that’s also a lot of work for us, and it doesn’t solve the problem’s root cause. Sure, the root cause are the bad neighbors that do not care about other people, so they leave those 1 & 2 all over the green areas, but in Bogotá is hard to rally people to change. As it turns out, not picking after dogs is one of the main two reasons people in my city complain about their communities (based on surveys: see here, it’s in Spanish), noise being the other reason. And then, one day I saw an article (couldn’t find it again) about the princess of Sweden picking up after her dog (I did find a picture here), and I thought: well, I’ll just use my dog’s bag and pick an extra couple of dumps, really, it’s not hard (after getting over the gag reflex), and completely hygienic, and it solves my problem of banning my dog for stepping on undesired  chocolate puddings. I’m definitely picking other people’s dogs’ excrement for selfish reasons, but as it turns out it also helps toddlers, other dogs, saves people from a nasty shoe wash, etc. Some might even call my actions altruistic.

My brother once mentioned a quote:

“We would frequently be ashamed of our good deeds if people saw all of the motives that produced them.” – Francois de La Rochefoucauld

We would frequently be ashamed of our good deeds if people saw all of the motives that produced them - Francois de La Rochefoucauld

It is pretty likely that behind every good deed there’s a selfish reason, even as simple as the need to feel good about helping someone. I even made it a habit to help a stranger, at least once, every day. I would give my seat away, push other people’s car, open and hold doors, etc. with the only purpose of feeling better about myself. I learned to not be ashamed of wanting to feel good about myself through selfish actions, sorry, altruistic actions.

I always tell people that they should put themselves first, second and third, but without being Machiavellian! Meaning: If you care about you, then you can care about others. But never do something for yourself that will purposely hurt others.

Wharton’s professor Adam Grant has an interesting approach to this altruistic-selfish issue. In his book “Give and Take” he talks about “givers”, “takers” and “matchers”, and explains how most of us fall under “matchers”: we give as much as we feel we are getting back, kind of pursuing fairness. His research shows that there’s a variety of “givers” that are more successful than any other: the “otherish givers”, those who give while taking care of their own backs, making a win-win situation. This behavior is much better than altruistically giving, which burns people out, depletes their energy and reduces their resources. This also links to higher levels of self-reported happiness.

So, in conclusion: Give priority to your selfish acts that look like they’re altruistic – in other people’s eyes. In actionable terms: mentor people, help others, provide insightful information to others, be the change you want in the world, and so on. By doing so, you will build rapport, make friends, gain fame of being knowledgeable, receive insightful information and opportunities, live in a better world, and so on, in return.

What do you think? Share your opinions in the comments’ section below!