Selfishness, happiness, guilt and political allegiance

by Oct 21, 2012Happiness0 comments

Approx. Reading Time: 7 minutes
Oliver Burkeman in this Saturday’s guardian raised an interesting issue about happiness and selfishness.  He quoted recent experiments by Berman and Small[1] which showed that when people are given a windfall, they feel happier if they are told that they have to spend it all on themselves. On the other hand, if people are given a choice about spending it on, say a charity, or on themselves, they tend to feel worse if they spend it on themselves. What Burkemen and the article suggest is that it is guilt, or the conflict between the wish to be selfish and the expectation that one should help others that might be what leads to less happiness. In fact he links this with other research which shows that right wingers tend to be happier than left wingers, and he wonders whether this is partly because right wing ideology allows people to act from the belief that selfishness and individual gain is a good.

I had to read the article a couple of times as I could not quite get its implications.  Berman and Small’s research findings at first seemed to contradict what other research shows, which is that, maybe counter-intuitively, people feel happier when they are generous and give to others.  For example we know that helping others fires reward circuits in our brains [2], it makes us feel good, while doing something for an ulterior motive, such as financial rewards is not as intrinsically rewarding. Ori and Ariel Brafman [3] found that specific reward centres are triggered when we are involved in an altruistic cause. Specifically in experimental situations it is a part of the brain named the posterior superior temporal sulcus that lights up when in video games the rewards players get for high scores is seeing more money going to charity as opposed to into their own pockets. Indeed the same reward circuitry fires when we see others winning and the money won still going to charity. This part of the brain is also vital in social relationships and forming bonds. The Brafmans found that when the same game was played but this time the financial rewards were kept by the players instead of going to charity, then the nucleus accumbens was firing up. This is a very different part of the brain and its activation can lead to a feeling rather like a small dose of cocaine being released, is linked with our dopamine circuits, and indeed with potentially addictive behaviours. The nucleus accumbens is a more primitive brain area, related to having a more ‘wild’ side, such as in exuberant triumph, very different from the warm glow that altruism brings, and more like dopamine fuelled desires to accumulate and acquire that contemporary society so tempts us with.

Giving blood tends to make people feel good  while blood donations tend to decrease when donors begin to be paid for this [4]. Recent studies of  toddlers under two years old showed that they in fact felt happier when giving treats to others than when receiving treats for themselves. Not only that, they were happier if the gift was costly, that is when they give up some of their own resources for another person rather than giving a treat at no cost to themselves [5]. We seem to be born with a natural propensity for both altruism and selfishness and to have inner conflicts between them.

This also works the other way around. Not only do we feel good when we are more selfless but we also are more generous and helpful when we feel good. Much of the most pertinent research goes back to the 1970’s, when, for example, it was found that if a dime was sometimes placed in n a phone-booth and sometimes not before people entered it, those who found the dime were much more helpful to an actress outside who pretended to drop a sheaf of paperl [6]. Around that time in another experiment [7] people were induced into either good or bad moods by having statements read to them. Those induced into a good mood also became more helpful, which chimes with other research that shows that when we feel better we tend to also volunteer and help more [8]. Indeed even young children in good moods are more generous [9]. Those with higher levels of ‘ psychological well-being’ [10] are more likely to be outward looking and generous and are to give to charity. As we saw in earlier chapters,  doing good also makes us feel good. That warm glow’ that comes with acts like being charitable has a corollary in our brains. Volunteering leads to people feeling better and happier [11], and that engaging in random acts of kindness can leave a warm afterglow of positive feelings for days [12].

What is also interesting is that it seems that people who are wealthy are more selfish, especially if they value greed.  One study published this year found that [13] found that upper class subjects were three times more likely to cut off a pedestrian about to cross a road. In another test in a school, when offered the chance to take a few sweets from a jar which was then going to be given to children, the upper class subjects took twice as many as anyone else, they were more ruthless and dishonest when interviewing job applicants and were more likely to cheat in games, reporting higher scores in a dice game than were possible, as the dice were loaded. Whether it was their position of power that reduced empathy, or the lack of empathy that propelled them to power remains  a moot point, but valuing greed was the best predictor of poor behaviour.

Having not read the detail of the study Burkeman quotes I do not know what the demographic was of those tested, but one wonders whether the same result would be found in more sociocentric cultures which value community life more, such as many eastern cultures. Indeed Boehm’s new book about egalitarian hunter-gather life in our evolutionary past suggests that in such hunter gatherer groups being selfish tended to be greatly punished and altruistic and generous acts rewarded, and that this might be where these social propensities came from [14]. What seems to be the case is that we care a lot about what others think and are more generous when we think we are being watched. Indeed researchers at the University of Newcastle, Melissa Bateson and Daniel Nettle, looked at whether or not students when making tea or coffee would contribute to an honesty box which provided the income with which stocks were replenished[15]. Just above the box they experimented with hanging two kinds of pictures; the first was simply of a pair of eyes and the second was of a flower. Astonishingly, when the picture of the eyes was hanging above the honesty box the students contributed three times as much!

What Burkeman seems to be pointing out, interestingly, is that those that can quell guilt and act selfishly, and with no conscience, might feel happier. Thankfully life is not like the experiments he quotes where people ‘have to’ act selfishly, although maybe contemporary capitalist life does encourage such attitudes more than previous societies.  I wonder if he is also making an important point about some left leaning liberals being fearful of being selfish and aggressive, and suggesting that being a bit more selfish might do us some good. This is basically what the great psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott suggested  when he wrote that being able to be ruthlessly angry to a parent (ie with no ‘ruth’ or care) can give rise to a sense of freedom and strong  self that people do not feel if they feel too guilty too easily, something seen especially if children have parents who make them feel easily guilty or who cannot tolerate their rage or upset. Those with ambivalent attachments whose parents were inconsistent and unreliable, similarly often have can be too worried about other people’s feelings, to the detriment of their own. An interesting book about such matters called Pathological Altruism has just come out.[16] which describes such problems. I think Burkeman is helping us see that too much guilt is not a good thing, which it is hard to disagree with, as long we don’t think that too much selfishness is a good thing either. He  maybe is helpfully pointing us towards what Jonathon Haidt [17], who he also quotes, has been urging, which is that those on the left and the right, the caricatured woolly liberals and selfish right-wingers, have things to learn from each other.

[1]          J. Z. Berman and D. A. Small, ‘Self-Interest Without Selfishness The Hedonic Benefit of Imposed Self-Interest’, Psychological Science, 2012.

[2]          J. Moll, R. Zahn, R. de Oliveira-Souza, F. Krueger, and J. Grafman, ‘The neural basis of human moral cognition’, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, vol. 6, no. 10, pp. 799–809, 2005.

[3]          O. Brafman and R. Brafman, Sway: The irresistible pull of irrational behavior. Crown Business, 2008.

[4]          J. Costa-Font, M. Jofre-Bonet, and S. T. Yen, ‘Not All Incentives Wash Out the Warm Glow: The Case of Blood Donation Revisited’, SSRN eLibrary, Jul. 2011.

[5]          L. B. Aknin, J. K. Hamlin, and E. W. Dunn, ‘Giving Leads to Happiness in Young Children’, PLoS ONE, vol. 7, no. 6, p. e39211, Jun. 2012.

[6]          A. M. Isen and P. F. Levin, ‘Effect of feeling good on helping: Cookies and kindness.’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 21, no. 3, p. 384, 1972.

[7]          D. Aderman, ‘Elation, depression, and helping behavior.’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 24, no. 1, p. 91, 1972.

[8]          M. B. Harris and L. C. Huang, ‘Helping and the attribution process’, The Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 90, no. 2, pp. 291–297, 1973.

[9]          A. M. Isen, N. Horn, and D. L. Rosenhan, ‘Effects of success and failure on children’s generosity.’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 27, no. 2, p. 239, 1973.

[10]        J. Konow and J. Earley, ‘The hedonistic paradox: is homo economicus happier?’, Journal of Public Economics, vol. 92, no. 1–2, pp. 1–33, 2008.

[11]        S. Meier and A. Stutzer, ‘Is Volunteering Rewarding in Itself?’, Economica, vol. 75, no. 297, pp. 39–59, Feb. 2008.

[12]        S. Lyubomirsky, K. M. Sheldon, and D. Schkade, ‘Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change’, Review of General Psychology, vol. 9, no. 2, 2005.

[13]        P. K. Piff, D. M. Stancato, S. Côté, R. Mendoza-Denton, and D. Keltner, ‘Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior’, PNAS, Feb. 2012.

[14]        C. Boehm, Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. Basic Books, 2012.

[15]        M. Ernest-Jones, D. Nettle, and M. Bateson, ‘Effects of eye images on everyday cooperative behavior: a field experiment’, Evolution and Human Behavior, 2010.

[16]        B. Oakley, A. Knafo, G. Madhavan, and D. Wilson, Eds., Pathological Altruism, 1st ed. OUP USA, 2012.

[17]        J. Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. London: Allen Lane, 2012.

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