Does it pay to be selfish?

I read an interesting piece of research looking at whether it pays to be selfish or unselfish. The Adami Lab at Michigan State University have used evolutionary game theory (EGT) as a simplified model system to study the viability and stability of behaviour on evolutionary scales.

The research project used high-powered computing to run hundreds of thousands ‘games’ to try and work out whether it was selfishness or selflessness that won in the end.

Professor Richard Dawkins discussed these issues over 30 years ago in The Selfish Gene. Dawkins had used the term “selfish gene” to express the gene-centred view of evolution. This contrasted with the views focused on the organism and the group, popularizing ideas developed during the 1960s by W. D. Hamilton and others.

The Michigan State University study asked the following questions:

  • What conditions promote the evolution of cooperation?
  • What conditions sustain cooperation, and what conditions cause co-operators to defect?
  • What effect does population size and population structure have on the evolution of behavior?

So what did they find? Winning is not everything. Selfishness will eventually disappear as a personality trait.  Scientists say that evolution favours cooperation and, while selfishness offers short-term success, selfish people will eventually be phased out because they will be outmaneuvered by competitors who cooperate to achieve shared goals.

These findings might echo research undertaken by management consultants McKinsey which showed that employees who cooperated in the workplace achieved greater career progression than those who didn’t. Adlerians would also agree that cooperation is good for our mental health well being.

Professor Adami said: ‘Communication is critical for cooperation – we think communication is the reason cooperation occurs.’ It is believed that the same set of principles apply to all organisms, from single cell organisms to humans, which is visible in the way people group together in families, tribes and nations.

It could be argued that being unselfish, giving to charities, helping others, and doing good deeds does make you feel better about yourself. If you are able to give to others, or help someone who needs it, it can be very satisfying for you and beneficial for those receiving. Indeed children who see their parents doing this could grow up to be kinder themselves. However, there are occasions when being kind to someone could  instantly cause them to be suspicious. They might suspect that you have an ulterior motive, or are trying to con them in some way. Some people are very ungrateful, too, or expect more than you are willing or able to give.

Dawkins uses the Prisoner’s Dilemma gambling game to show that if certain conditions are met (which often are in nature), paradoxically, the best outcome is for selfish individuals to cooperate. And that the `good’ character traits of niceness, forgivingness and non-enviousness can, therefore, be the most successful.

It is relatively easy to learn to be kind and unselfish, easy to give service to others. It can be a lot harder to be the recipient, to accept kindness from another, because it requires a degree of humility and trust. We should all learn how to give and receive graciously. You don’t have to be rich to be unselfish or kind. Doing good deeds often costs you nothing.

The research findings were published by Christoph Adami, professor of microbiology and molecular genetics, in the journal Nature Communication.


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