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.


Emulate those you admire but look at yourself when you starting resenting others


I have often wondered about the impact of role models in my life whether it be the role played by my parents, siblings, teachers, friends or other significant others. I have benefited from the insightful work of Alfred Adler, and his ideas about the birth order, especially since I am from a large family.  My personal family constellations can be very dynamic when I have to interact with other people, which is usually every day. But I also speculate about the nature nurture aspect of personality such as whether I have predisposed genes to certain behaviours. However, that might be an issue for another day.

I benefit from acknowledging the feelings I get when I engage in group process.  Indeed, group-work affords the opportunity to reflect upon my own stuff in a way that can be very dynamic and potentially trans-formative.  It can be like walking down a hall of mirrors where I am seeing reflections of myself in each participant in the group. In group-work the key seems to be to reflect on experience while having experience rather than getting caught up in the emotion.

Wilfred Ruprecht Bion (1897-1979) is famous, certainly in the therapy world,  for his ideas on group processes, but he was also a major contributor on the treatment of psychosis and on thinking, as well as developing psychoanalytic theory on art and creativity. Bion is arguably the most original and the most intriguing psychoanalyst after Freud and Klein.

So, what does Bion say about groups? Essentially groups are set up to pursue sensible and realistic goals, what he calls the ‘work group’, but groups will inevitably descend into madness every now and then.  For Bion this is called the ‘basic assumption’ functioning and he theorised that there were three types of basic assumption functioning.

The three types of basic assumption functioning for Bion:

  • dependency there is a clear leader, who assumes a “parental” role but resentment at being dependent may eventually lead the group members to “take down” the leader, and then search for a new leader to repeat the process,
  • pairing two people, regardless the sex of either, carry out the work of the group through their continued interaction,
  • fight-flight the group behaves as though it has met to preserve itself at all costs; the shared unconscious assumption, often carried out through action. The leader for this group is the one who can mobilize the group for attack, or lead it in flight.

From my family constellations I have a tendency to fight for attention, to become the scapegoat and/or to resent power imbalances.  Meeting the first child in the birth order and the only child can be an interesting reflection for me.

What one projects in groups invariably has an external target, and the target usually responds and displays some degree of what they are being accused of (a process called projective identification). The projector is vindicated. However, there is an opportunity to notice this process in group-work, to become reflective and to take back the projection. Thus, learning to take responsibility for your own projections and take them back is the essence of successful psychotherapy and of the experiential learning that occurs in Bionian groups.

From a Kleinian perspective, one’s minds are always in one or the other of two positions: paranoid-schizoid functioning or depressive position. The paranoid-schizoid state entails extreme splits such as guilt, blaming, hating, scapegoating, paranoia and the tendency to aggression and fighting, whether verbal or physical. The depressive state involves accepting the middle ground where guilt is not punitive but reparative. Therefore, one is not in a manic state but is in a rather subdued, depressive state (not to say depressed). In this state miracles don’t happen but hard graft is one’s lot. You have to sit on your extreme feelings and live and let live.

The goal is to avoid the pit of paranoid-schizoid functioning and strive to remain as much as can be managed in the depressive position.

For me, group-work can be like walking down a hall of mirrors. As I mentioned earlier the key seems to be to be able to reflect on experience whilst having experience.  In other words rather than getting caught up in the emotion of whatever you are going through it is better to try and witness it.  Say, for instance, that you are being attacked in a group. It can be more useful to reflect that you are being attacked and try to uncover what is going on within yourself rather than developing feelings of hostility towards others in the group.

You might just learn more about yourself in one session that you do in a multitude of individual therapy sessions.   The Chinese have a proverb that says something like Emulate those you admire but look at yourself when you start resenting others. Perhaps there is some truth in this sentiment ……


Group-work in psychiatry
Different types of group therapies
Group processes
Group therapy for psychological trauma


definition of middle child syndrome

I found this today at

The middle or second born child or children often have the sense of not belonging. They fight to receive attention from parents and others because they feel many times they are being ignored or dubbed off as being the same as another sibling. Being in the middle a child can feel insecure. The middle child often lacks drive and looks for direction from the first born child. Sometimes a middle child feels out of place because they are not over achievers and like to go with the flow of things.

Being a middle child would mean they are loners. They really don’t like to latch on to a person in a relationship, there fore they have trouble keeping one due to lack of interest. Not liking to take the limelight for anything, they are not over achievers and just simply work enough work to get by, and typically that goes with school as well as a career. They are however very artistic and creative. If forced to use abilities they will work well, but do not work well under pressure. They often start several projects but rarely keep focused long enough to finish a project. The best career move for a middle child would be along the lines of using their creative. Going into a writing or journalism career, and into a career that they could freely express themselves would be good. Anything that would have hours that are flexible, and projects that frequently changed would be good for a middle born child. Since relationships are not of high importance to a middle child, often times they are alone. However, the best possible match for a middle child would be a last born.

Is that you? “Going into a writing or journalism career, and into a career that they could freely express themselves would be good”. Makes me wonder where the broadcasters were in their family order? Interestingly, the majority of people on my course appear to be the eldest or the only child. Adler is known  as the pioneer of the birth order theory and developed a model that characterised the child up to position 16 in the family. His belief, which is both accepted and rejected by researchers, is that the order or position of a child’s birth in the family influences their personality. However, what is often misunderstood is the fact that Adler did not believe it was simply the order of birth that influenced a child’s character, but rather it was the child’s environment, as well as their natural instinct or interpretation of their birth order which molded personalities. So perhaps we need to apply a subjective analysis of each individual case and the environmental conditions. This will be a topic I will come back to.

I now need to visit Evens Cycles to buy some mineral oil as my front hydraulic disc brake is not working.