The science behind our selfishness in a pandemic

One of the things the pandemic has revealed is our capacity to be selfish. While many studies have unpacked this phenomenon, there’s a school of thought that believes we’ve got it all wrong. 



The coronavirus hasn’t only decimated our population and placed lives and livelihoods on anxious hold – it has also been a test of character. Considering we are at each other’s throats over masks, the true facts of the pandemic and more, it is almost certain you are failing the test in someone’s eyes. All sides appear to be driven by pure selfishness to the others.  Where does this selfish behaviour, aggravated by a series of calamities, come from?

It is natural to be self-oriented. Self-interest is the most fundamental human motivation, argued English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. However, acting out of self-interest is not always the only thing on our minds—there is a plethora of research that has shown that human behaviours can be motivated as much by altruism and moral considerations. This begs the question: at what point does looking out for oneself become selfishness, a trait we judge as disagreeable?

Diane Barth, among other psychologists, defines selfishness as being comprised of two characteristics: “concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself” and “having no regard for the needs or feelings of others.” The majority would lie somewhere on a sliding scale between selfless and selfish acts. However, the public generally seems to associate successful people with being selfish. What gives, considering the facts don’t necessarily bear that out?

A study published this year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology aimed to find out if more self-oriented people built more wealth.

Led by Kimmo Eriksson of Stockholm University, the team analysed 5,294 responses from both the General Social Survey (GSS) in the US and the European Social Survey (ESS) and compared variables such as yearly income and number of biological children. The scientists employed certain survey questions to help identify who among the responses were ‘selfish’. Overall, while 68% believed selfishness was a common trait of those who made more money, the study found that those who displayed selfless attitudes and behaviours had higher incomes and more children. “Generosity pays,” as per the title of their study.


If selflessness really is rooted in the brain, why is it that some of us find difficulty in caring about the needs of others? The answer, pointed out by psychologist Lisa Marie Bobby, may lie in emotional intelligence.


Furthermore, other research suggests that altruistic behaviour may be our brain’s default option. A study carried out across 2016 and 2017 by Leonardo Christov-Moore from UCLA found an area of the prefrontal cortex that can be purposely affected to make people less giving.

So, if selflessness really is rooted in the brain, why is it that some of us find difficulty in caring about the needs of others? The answer, pointed out by psychologist Lisa Marie Bobby, may lie in emotional intelligence.

“Emotional intelligence exists on a spectrum, and some individuals are higher in emotional intelligence than others,” says Bobby. “One symptom of low emotional intelligence is the tendency to be self-absorbed, or exclusively concerned about what you’re thinking, feeling, needing and wanting, instead of the thoughts, feelings, needs and desires of others.”

What’s more is that we tend to find it difficult to detect selfishness in our ways, making it harder to identify a trait or behaviour of ours that we ought to cut out. Psychologists from Yale and economists from the University of Zurich performed a study this year uncovering the fact that selfish people make adaptations to their memories to avoid feeling bad about their behaviour.

“When people behave in ways that fall short of their personal standards, one way they maintain their moral self-image is by misremembering their ethical lapses,” explained the study’s senior author, Molly Crockett.

A few years removed from this pandemic and more than a few of us will be remembering our actions of today in a different light to how others will have perceived them. Therefore, cracking down on selfish behaviour is everyone’s responsibility.

On the topic of masks, for example, both sides need to consider these questions: where does liberty end and the right of those around to good health begin? Or lockdowns for instance: at what point does one’s right not to get infected interfere with another’s to pursue economic prosperity? Thoughtfully considering the arguments on both sides, and not just assuming the other is behaving out of sheer selfishness, will stem the tide of real and perceived selfishness.





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