Selflessness is the quality of caring more about what other people need and want than about what you yourself need and want. But for many of us, true selfless behaviour sounds like a fairy tale dreamed up by idealistic types often found in liberal college campuses, safely sealed from the reality of everyday life. For, those who face the facts of life have long realized that every human action must have some hidden layer of self-interest that makes this idea nothing but a justification for the naïve to never grow up.
From this “realist” point of view, everything we do, from helping our neighbour to donating blood are things we do because we benefit from them in one way or the other. While these benefits may vary, and some are less obvious than others e.g.: future favours or prestige; the core motive is always self-interest and our concern for other people is only secondary.
This rather simple view of human nature has a lot going for it these days. Not the least, thanks to a strong push from influential economists, who saw self-interest and personal utility as the bedrocks of our free market system and who went to great lengths to turn this idea into our shared reality.
Successful they may be, this idea may bite back in a time of crisis.
As we look at this epidemic unfold, our attitudes towards the unprecedented restrictions, the dedication of our healthcare workers or the odd pub owner who decides to keep his place open, we often find that even our simplest of choices are heavily influenced by our collective self-image.
And indeed, it seems our choices are often more to do with what we believe and how to think about ourselves, than with facts or even our direct experiences. Building on this insight, a relatively recent study from 2015, authored by Z. Janet Yang, went one step further and tried to establish how our core self-image could influence our social responses to a health crisis during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
In 2014, the Ebola outbreak triggered considerable friction in the U.S. media when a Liberian man, visiting family in Texas, became the first Ebola patient dying from the disease in the U.S. The event polarized the American public, with many coming out in strong favour of sending American aid workers into the quarantine zone. While others increasingly perceived the country’s involvement as risky and unnecessary.
Studying this conflict between supporters and their opponents, Yang identified two key variables that explained the divide. People who saw the world through an individualistic “dog-eat-dog” lens, perceiving our social reality as inherently competitive tended to protest against collective action and denied the U.S. aid. Whereas, those with a solidaristic, communitarian “we are all in this together” worldview, who saw our social reality as inherently cooperative and interdependent preferred the altruistic option.
Naturally, the current pandemic is vastly different from what happened in 2014 but the dynamic is still the same: There are many of us today with strong, individualistic beliefs and there are those who think they can not be affected by the crisis (usually those with private health coverage or the younger age groups). We can also observe this divide in the media where even expert opinions often fall along the same core belief systems, arguing for the interests of big businesses and private freedom or our health and safety.
What Yang’s study points out is that our position in this debate is mainly determined by a core belief, a semi-conscious choice we made at some point in the past. Since then this belief system has been shaping our perceptions and our reality and right now it may also prevent us from seeing the best path forward.
From this perspective, the view that we are all inherently selfish will inevitably have an impact on where we end up when this crisis is over. Even simple decisions, such as accepting not to sunbathe in a park, not having friends over or not taking public transport are all tied to our basic perception of human nature: If we see everyone around us as selfish and who would take any opportunity to pursue their own narrowly defined needs and wishes – unless forced to do otherwise – we are also much more likely to do the same.
In the current situation, our capacity to see ourselves as fundamentally interdependent can indeed save lives and, in the long run, it may even help us to preserve our freedom. For now, there is no way or reason to observe, track and police every single individual to enforce our collective interest – even though countries like China are experimenting with systems to do this. However, the more we subscribe to a selfish ideology, the closer we get to the point where our actions may indeed make such extreme measures seem reasonable.
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