Understanding selfish and selfless

Being selfish is negative. Being selfless is good. Is that so? Selfish and selfless are seemingly close relatives.

Selfish is a marker of establishing territory where you are the center. The two primary characteristics of selfishness are being concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself;
Having no regard for the needs or feelings of others.

It is totally different than selfish behaviors of a child that says this toy is mine, this clothing is mine. This room is mine. Kids grow out from that behavior. Well…maybe some.

Ironically, people who are selfish are usually unaware of the fact, believing they are genuinely nice people. A selfish person cares only about themselves (obviously) and creating happiness for them, regardless of how others are affected. Individuals who are extremely caring and emotionally understanding are typically the ones who are “used and abused” by the selfish. In the beginning, they will seem caring and looking to pamper you, but only long enough for you to let your guard down.

Is selfless the exact opposite of selfish? Many intellectuals say no. This is because selflessness isn’t even possible. The choice to ever be “selfless” will always be driven by a form of serving one’s self? No person chooses to be selfless because THEY absolutely hate it or are against doing it. People choose to be selfless because THEY want to, or believe they should be because of some virtue they hold dear, etc. Regardless of the reason for choosing it, the reason always serves some aspect of their self/being.

Many people distinguish selfish people as those who take and selfless people as those who give. Generally speaking, “selfless” gets a warmer welcome and is more widely accepted as “good”. Neither selfishness nor selflessness is good or bad. In fact, the two concepts are intricately linked. A relatively small study using 36 people was researched in Japan by Riken.

These volunteers were asked to choose one of two options, each with a baseline reward to themselves. One option then involved an extra financial reward for the participants and the other, a reward to ‘others’—in this case a series of well-known charities.

The group looked at what happened when a person is giving an extra reward to one of the charities, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and a computational modeling method called a connectivity analysis. They discovered that there is a three-stage cascade process involved.

In the first stage, the brain detects a perceived benefit to others. The first stage was accompanied by neural activity in the right temporoparietal junction (right TPJ) and the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (left dlPFC) regions. The second stage involves understanding the impact of the offer of value on the outcome. This corresponded to activity in the right anterior insula (salience network). The third stage is the actual decision-making process. Decision-making corresponded to activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), supporting findings from previous studies that have implicated the mPFC in strategic reasoning.

One of the most striking findings was that there was a distinct difference in the neural processes involved in giving to others between prosocial and individualistic subjects. This difference existed even when the two groups chose similar things in the original task.

This isn’t all about selfishness and generosity, but rather perceptions of value, emphasize the researchers. Rather than being altruistic, a generous subject may be perceived more value in social contributions or be subject to predispositions such as inequity aversion and guilt. The team have called the process of deciding to give to others ‘social value conversion’. In the paper, the team predicted that social value conversion is actually a primitive computation that may be essential for different forms of social behavior.

The team’s findings provide building blocks for investigating more complex forms of social decision-making. Exploring ideas about generosity and selfishness would call into question the role of cultural and religious factors, and variations across countries and regions, for example, in accounting for how we each perceive and take on board consideration for others.

Subject volunteers were age 20 to 32 and total subjects were 32. A very small study as fMRI is a very costly device that tracks how the brain is activating neural networks in decision making. Selfishness and selflessness are associated within a brain’s social neuronal networks. So the links are valid but in a small scale.

When psychologists evaluate selfish behaviors, many indicate:
Manipulation. …
Uncaring. …
Plotting and scheming. …
Self-centered and conceited. …
Giving and sharing do not come easily. …
Expectations of others to do things for them.

Psychologists view selflessness as a set of altruistic behaviors as helping others as a reward. Altruism involves acting out of concern for the well-being of other people. In some cases, these acts of altruism lead people to jeopardize their own health and well-being to help others. In many cases, these behaviors are performed unselfishly and without any expectations of reward. This is valued as empathy at being pro-social vs selfish as anti-social. But are the two so very far apart?

Some social psychologists believe that while people do often behave altruistically for selfish reasons, true altruism is possible. Others have instead suggested that empathy for others is often guided by a desire to help yourself. Quite ironic!

The self preservation always wins. Our brains may have a self referential bias. To test for self-referential bias in working memory, the research team, a collaboration between Duke University, the University of Bath in the U.K. and Southwest University in China and funded by Chinese government grants, created a computer program and tested it on 102 study participants.

First, participants learned to associate the colors blue, green and purple to labels of “friend,” “stranger” or “self” with a simple game. Then, two different-colored dots, like green and purple, would briefly flash on the screen. After a five-second pause, during which participants had to remember the locations and colors of the previous dots, a black dot would appear on screen. Participants then indicated if the black dot flashed in the same place as one of the colored dots, and if so, which label fit.

Participants correctly identified the “self”-labeled dots significantly faster than the “friend” or “stranger” dots. That meant their working memory focused on the dots labeled with the “self” color.

Referential thinking is the tendency to view innocuous stimuli as having a specific meaning for the self and is associated with personality traits and disorders.

The SRC (Self Reference Criterion) is an unconscious reference to one’s own cultural values, experiences, and knowledge as a basis for decisions. Closely connected is ethnocentrism, that is, the notion that people in one’s own company, culture, or country know best how to do things.

In the recent US Congress Impeachment decision, the SRC was very high with both parties. Each party’s SRC was so bound in “self” bias hat there were no crossing over party lines.

SRC plays roles in a variety of lifestyles. Each individual owns his/her particular lifestyle behavior as preservation of self identity. These are matched by neurotransmitter studies. with particular focus on serotonin.

What of altruism? One person’s SRC usually outweighs it. Altruistic motivations, for example, contribute to the well-being of another even though it may be at their own expense. Differentiating between altruistically motivated, norm motivated, strategically motivated and self-reported prosocial behaviors are rather confusing. Human prosociality is a complex phenomenon, a fact that is reflected in the number and diversity of measures that are used
to assess prosocial behavior across different disciplines.

Whether self preservation is selfish or selfless, it’s all biased to a pseudo-narcissistic protection of each self, as a master or a submissive of our own fate. From weight management, economy, and friendships, and opinions we may give others unconditional positive regard but we always think of our SRC first and our own conditions for the self.

Whether selfish or selfless, self is always first. Then we choose others. Yet, when cognitive rationing comes into play selflessness becomes more influential.

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