Are people selfish or generous?  Most people seem to agree with the opinion expressed by Jerry and Elaine in the classic TV show, Seinfeld:

Elaine: “I will never understand people.” 

Jerry: “They’re the worst.”

Are we really “the worst”?  Do greed and self-interest really drive most of what we do?  Or are we capable of putting the needs of others ahead of our own?  Traditionally, social scientists leaned toward the cynical view.  They believed in “rational self-interest” and the “minimax principle”—which says we’re all programmed to minimize our costs in life and maximize our gains. Likewise, evolutionary psychologists argued that altruism—helping another person without expecting anything  in return—is implausible.  But, in contrast to such unflattering views of human nature, consider four recent lines of evidence suggesting that human beings are a lot kinder and more generous than you might think.  

Even Toddlers Love to Help. Felix Warneken, who studies cooperation in children, suggests that before very young children are socialized to help others, they display a natural tendency to do so.  He further suggests that, in the environments in which people evolved, any small amounts of help kids could provide to others (fetching, for example) would have contributed to their family’s survival. Warneken’s research showed that toddlers happily and spontaneously helped an adult stranger—as long as the need for help was clear enough for toddlers to understand it.  For example, if an adult stranger needed help getting past an obvious obstacle or needed help retrieving a dropped object, toddlers readily offered help.  Warneken concluded that “early helping behaviors are genuinely prosocial and serve an evolutionary function in humans.”  

Those who Feel Empathy Engage in Extreme Forms of Helping.  Both classic research on empathy and helping and recent research on living kidney donors suggest that altruism is real. Daniel Batson, a social psychologist who has studied altruism for three decades, showed that if a complete stranger for whom we feel empathy is actively suffering, we will sometimes intervene and suffer in the person’s place—even when we could easily have walked away. 

Likewise, Abigail Marsh’s neuroscientific research on living kidney donors shows that these donors have brains that are wired to help.  For example, the brains of living kidney donors are much more responsive to faces that show fear than are the brains of most other people.  Marsh suggests that the same psychological mechanisms that promote parental care in people with children can be activated even by strangers who appear to be suffering.  She notes, for example, that human beings seem to be one of those highly social species that extends the web of compassion and parental care even to unrelated strangers. This is especially true if the strangers activate our parental care module.  Just try looking at baby Yoda without wanting to help him!               

Helping is Truly Rewarding. Research by social neuroscientists Naomi Eisenberger and Matt Lieberman shows that people experience pleasure when they see good things happen to people who need help, as well as when they help others at their own expense. They suggest that, because we are such social creatures, we’re wired by evolution to feel pleasure when we help other people—even when we pay a price in terms of time, effort, money, or discomfort. 

Elizabeth Triconi and her colleagues scanned the brains of people who played a game of chance with a stranger.  Early in the game, people won $50, while  the unlucky other player won nothing.  Not surprisingly, winning $50 activated areas of people’s brains known to produce feelings of reward.  But there was even more activity in these reward regions on later trials of the game when the other player finally won some money. And this was true even though the other player won money at people’s own expense.  Similar studies have shown that the reward regions of our brains become more activated when we give money to charities than when we keep money for ourselves. As Matt Lieberman put it, “Our supposedly selfish reward system seems to like giving more than receiving.”       

The Defector Argument. A classic argument against altruism is Richard Dawkins’s defector argument. The argument says that, if genes did promote altruism in certain people, other members of a person’s group could be expected to take advantage of these do-gooders and become free-riders—always taking without giving.  Because this arrangement would obviously benefit free riders and harm do-gooders, genes that promote unselfishness should disappear.

But this logic is based on some questionable assumptions. One assumption is that do-gooders tolerate cheaters. They don’t. They often punish them.  At other times, as Athena Aktipis has shown in her research on the evolution of cooperation, cooperators merely walk away from cheaters, leaving them to fend for themselves.  Such reactions to cheating makes cooperation a good strategy after all.                            

But perhaps the most direct evidence against Dawkins’s defector argument comes from research in health psychology.  Stephanie Brown and her colleagues followed more than 800 seniors (aged 65+) for five years—to see who survived. People who were most likely to survive over the five-year window were those who reported at the start of the project that they offered  the most emotional and physical help to other people. This “giving leads to living” effect held up even after controlling for a wide range of other known influences on longevity—such as age, health at the beginning of the study, gender, education, income, exercise level, smoking status, alcohol consumption, and marital satisfaction, just to name a few.  So,  the evidence does not support the defector argument.  People who help others actually thrive.

There can be no doubt that we are all capable of being selfish.  But it looks like most people are also capable of acts of great kindness and unselfishness.  So, I suppose there are times when our selfish nature gets the better of us and makes us “the worst” as Seinfeld suggested.  But it now seems clear that, from toddlerhood to old age, there are plenty of times when we can also be “the best.”    

For Further Reading  

Brown, S.L., Nesse, R.M., Vinokur, A.D., & Smith, D.M. (2003). Providing social support may be more beneficial than receiving it. Results from a prospective study of mortality. Psychological Science, 14, 320-327.

Lieberman, M.D. (2013). Social: Why our brains are wired to connect. New York, NY: Broadway Books.

Warneken, F. & Tomasello, M. (2006). Altruistic helping in human infants and young chimpanzees. Science, 311, 1301-1303.

Note. This blog is based loosely on portions a chapter from Brett Pelham’s (2018) book Evolutionary Psychology: Genes, Environments, and Time

Brett Pelham is a social psychologist who studies the self, gender, social perception, culture, and judgment and decision-making.  He is also an associate editor at Character and Context.