Nautilus

Selfishness Is Learned

Many people cheat on taxes—no mystery there. But many people don’t, even if they wouldn’t be caught—now, that’s weird. Or is it? Psychologists are deeply perplexed by human moral behavior, because it often doesn’t seem to make any logical sense. You might think that we should just be grateful for it. But if we could understand these seemingly irrational acts, perhaps we could encourage more of them.

It’s not as though people haven’t been trying to fathom our moral instincts; it is one of the oldest concerns of philosophy and theology. But what distinguishes the project today is the sheer variety of academic disciplines it brings together: not just moral philosophy and psychology, but also biology, economics, mathematics, and computer science. They do not merely contemplate the rationale for moral beliefs, but study how morality operates in the real world, or fails to. David Rand of Yale University epitomizes the breadth of this science, ranging from abstract equations to large-scale societal interventions. “I’m a weird person,” he says, “who has a foot in each world, of model-making and of actual experiments and psychological theory building.”

Good or evil?: The great Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (left) argued that moral behavior is innate, whereas Thomas Hobbes, a 17th-century English philosopher, maintained that humans are “naturally wicked,” and must be protected from themselves by governments.Wikipedia

In 2012 he and two similarly broad-minded Harvard professors, Martin Nowak and Joshua Greene, tackled a question that exercised the likes of Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Which is our default mode, selfishness or selflessness? Do we all have craven instincts we must restrain by force of will? Or are we basically good, even if we slip up sometimes?

They collected data from 10 experiments, most of them using a standard economics scenario called a public-goods game.1 Groups of four people, either American college students or American adults participating online, were given some money. They were allowed to place some of it into a pool, which was then multiplied and distributed evenly. A participant could maximize his or her income by contributing nothing and just sharing in the gains, but

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus6 min readSociety
How Freedom Divides: An expert on animal societies on what sets human societies apart.
As a biologist who studies animal behavior, particularly the long-term stability of the societies of different species, our own included, I’ve traveled through diverse cultures around the world. The word I hear everywhere I go, a badge of honor to al
Nautilus7 min read
Why We’re Drawn Into Darkness: Author Robert MacFarlane on the awe and horror of subterranean places.
Robert Macfarlane grew up obsessed twith climbing mountains and nearly died on several occasions as he scaled some of the world’s high peaks. He found a safer way to indulge his alpine passions, writing about the mystique of mountains. As someone dra
Nautilus5 min read
Why Campaigns to Change Language Often Backfire
In the first decades of the 20th century, people around the world began succumbing to an entirely new cause of mortality. These new deaths, due to the dangers of the automobile, soon became accepted as a lamentable but normal part of modern life. A h