Are we all really so selfish?

Laura Traldi

Mocked and discredited, altruism is increasingly lacking in society. Why are we all so selfish? And what are the risks involved?

Red eyes and a ghostly look, the train conductor wanders among the wagons waiting for the police. We are a few miles from Milan and he has just run over a 16 years old boy who challenged fate by fooling around on the tracks. The train driver exited his cabin, saw the boy. What happened is not his fault but it’s difficult not to feel lost when you have just killed someone. The last thing this poor man needs is the anger of the passengers. Yet here it comes: «When do we leave? We’ve been here for two hours, you’re incompetent». Outside, a few feet away, a mother cries over her dead son’s body in the dark.

We think selfishness is mainly related to the big stories that appear on the news but it’s all around us. Even in the small gestures of daily life.

It’s not just the stories of migrants left for days (weeks!) on boats without being able to get on Italian soil. Not those of city councils banning black dolls, or preventing non-Italians kids to access school canteens. Or the communication that the government will no longer fund intercultural artistic projects. Altruism, the capacity to think of others before oneself, seems now also banned in direct relationships between people. In the sort of relationships that normally manage to take your eyes and mind off your navel and focus on a face, a look…

Are we really all so selfish?

Is it an impression or are we all now unable to grasp the feelings of others and keep them in mind before speaking or acting? According to some studies, we are indeed. And it is a rapidly rising trend. This was stated, for example, by a research published by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology and conducted by University of Michigan researcher Sara Konrath.

According to Konrath, who has been studying groups of students from different US colleges for ten years, the ability to experience empathy, and therefore to practice altruism, has fallen by 40% among American students since 2000. While narcissism — the immeasurable attention towards oneself — has surged.

These are results that explain how, suddenly, considerations that we would have been ashamed of until recently are now completely cleared.

Like talking about the delay of a train to a man who would just wants to cry the kid he just killed without meaning to. Or thundering «I don’t give a damn about what happened three hours ago» like EU MP Alessandra Mussolini did in Strasbourg when she was stuck in a restaurant in the aftermath of the Christmas market terrorist attack a few months ago.

Altruism is sometimes even positioned as a selfish divertissement

One just needs to spend some time on social media to realize that an increasing amount of people are convinced that altruism is never disinterested. Or, rather, that it is some sort of fashionable divertissement, a chic version of good-naturedness. That altruism is very close to being selfishness. «She could have fulfilled her crave for selflessness in some city canteen for the poor», wrote the very famour Italian columnist Massimo Gramellini on a national newspaper when referring to the young volunteer Silvia Romano who was kidnapped in Kenya. He later explained it was not a criticism towards her person. But it certainly was an attack on the attitude of those who take a standing to help others.

Yet nature itself tells us to be altruistic

A study just published (by a team of psychologists at the University of Virginia led by Tobias Grossmann) shows that babies (as early as at seven months of age) are emotionally activated and react in an altruistic way when they see a person who is agitated or afraid. Indeed, being altruistic is part of our genetic make-up and is regulated by our internal chemistry. It has been proven by neuroscientists — see Abidail Marsh’s TED Talk — that the amygdala (the gland that manages emotions in the brain, especially fear) determines our degree of altruism. In people who donate a kidney to a stranger, for example, the amygdala is 8% larger than in others. While it is 20% smaller in the brain of someone who is called psychopathic, ie unable to feel emotions towards others.

«When you look at the news, it seems people in Italy are becoming increasingly selfish. Yet it’s more an impression than a reality»

«As a matter of fact, our studies carried out in Italy show that rampant “wickedness” is more an impression than a reality, and that more than half of the population has a strong desire for altruism», says Gemma Mortensen whom we met last November at the Lisbon Web Summit, one of the most important technology events in the world. English, 41, a life spent «learning how to direct power to the public interest», Mortesen left his top job as chief officer to co-found More in Common, an international initiative born last year to fight the spread of divisive narratives in Europe.

We should nonetheless worry

«But we should still worry», Mortensen continues. «Because episodes of intolerance and selfishness have becomes so common that most people wonder what happened to our human nature». According to Mortensen, this is occurred when «the “me first” attitude has become a pounding political message that puts the person (or tribe) at the center instead of the common good. And it has become pervasive, extremely influential, and imposing a new way of looking at the world, providing a different parameter of judgment». This is, for Mortensen, a more serious matter than we imagine.

«The big issues are global and can only be faced by thinking together, for the common good».

«If, after conquering the hearts, nationalistic populism also conquers the minds (the narrative in fact has already moved onto reasoning that reinforces the convictions), our democracies will no longer be able to face challenges such as climate change, inequalities, the impact of technology on the labor market, the aging population, the threats to public health. Keeping heterogeneous and inclusive societies together will become increasingly difficult if we do not act immediately and decisively against anti-altruistic attitudes».

But how do you do that?

«As More in Common, we are creating hubs for experts who analyze the messages that have the most appeal in a territory and the reactions they provoke», explains Mortensen. «We will develop communication campaigns, events and local collective activities to help people focus, in their interactions with others, on points of contact rather than differences. We will encourage an attitude of active and positive listening instead of closing».

Is thinking of others first something that can be learnt?

According to a study published in December in Nature, yes. «We found out that you can train yourself to become selfless», says Anne Böckler of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, author of the research. For nine months, Böckler and her team proposed three types of mental training to different groups, very similar to those usually used in meditation activities. «One of the trainings was focused on developing attention to the present and to reality (as in the anti-stress sessions of mindfulness); the second worked, through a series of exercises, on the development of social-affective skills, such as compassion and gratitude; and the third, related to cognitive flexibility, taught to understand the points of view of others. We realized that the most effective training, which really transformed people’s behavior and point of view, was the socio-emotional one».

Rational thinking vs empathy

This is an important discovery because it demonstrates how, when it comes to the behavior of individuals in terms of altruism, rational thought is a less strong lever than empathy and sentiment, and how it is functional only in the aftermath.

But this brings about another issue: how to transform altruism into an instrument of high impact change. Because «being guided by emotions often leads to making less efficient choices, sometimes even those that are decidedly counterproductive, even if the desire is to do good», explains William MacAskill, co-founder of the Center for Effective Altruism in Oxford, professor of philosophy and author of How to Do Good Better (2016).

Efficient altruism

An example? «Imagine that I go to work for a charity or an NGO and spend my life helping others. Now let’s imagine I never got the job and ended up doing something much more profitable, like being in finance in Wall Street. I may have become a millionaire. Well, if I gave 1% of my salary every month to an important cause, I would have a greater impact than the one I would have had if I had dedicated my whole existence to that same cause». For an “efficient altruism”, in short, it is not so necessary that we all become altruistic, but that those who are behave in a smart way. To help those who want to help, the center has developed a community that provides information (based on data collected and analyzed by experts) on the causes in which it makes more sense to invest.

All true. But…

«It’s all true. But this reasoning is about people who have already chosen altruism», says Mortensen. «The problem that has to be tackled is the spread of an individualism that could bring to the other side that 50% of people who are still ready to dialogue. The risk is the destruction of the fundamental values ​​on which contemporary democracies are based. The forces that do everything to discredit altruism are widening divisions and will then use them to build a new political system. By now we know (and also the research of the Planck Institute confirms) that in order to activate oneself people decide according to emotions and not to statistics. This is why I think it is right to start building a new altruism with a high social impact by tapping into the topics that make people’s hearts beat. Altruism is not out of fashion. On the contrary, the world needs it more than ever».

Laura Traldi

Written by

Journalist. Founder of | Independent views on smart projects, people, and ideas | A blog that sometimes makes people talk | ITA & ENG

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade