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What is Our True Nature? Are We Really Narcissists Only Out for Ourselves?

are we really narcissists

We all have our own selfish needs and agendas. But are we really narcissists who just care about ourselves? Learn what is our true nature in this article.

KEY POINTS

People often feign self-interest to conform to what they falsely believe to be a social norm.
A balance is required between advancing oneself and helping others.
It can be helpful to attune to our natural inclination to help others in need.

“This American system of ours … call it Americanism, call it capitalism, call it what you like, gives to each and every one of us a great opportunity if we only seize it with both hands and make the most of it.”

–Al Capone

Are We Really Narcissists Only Out For Ourselves?

Do most people, while not becoming notorious gangsters, follow Capone’s lead and look out first and foremost for Number One?

Actually, they don’t. Instead, they act more in line with the reasoning of the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, who stated: “We should not fall into the trap of presuming that the assumption of pure self-interest is, in any sense, more elementary than assuming other values. Moral or social concerns can be just as basic or elementary.”

Even many conservatives have come around to recognizing the motivation to help others. Conservative Harvard political scientist James Q. Wilson, for example, once asserted, “On balance, I think other-regarding features of human nature outweigh the self-regarding ones.”

Further, the philosophical brainchild of capitalist economic theory, Adam Smith, admitted the following: “How selfish soever man may be supposed; there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.”

Could it be that we claim to be self-interested even though in reality we are just as—and sometimes more—interested in the welfare of others? Is it possible that, due to our need as human beings to belong to social groups in order to survive, we are physiologically constructed with larger brains and less able to care for ourselves in our early years than any other mammal because we value social connections—which require kindness, compassion, and concern for others—more than maximizing benefits for ourselves?

Related: 5 Types Of Psychological Manipulation And How To Deal With Them

Are We Really Narcissists Only Out for Ourselves?
What’s Our True Nature? Are We Really Narcissists Only Out for Ourselves?

Pretending To Be Selfish?

If this is the case, why would we tell people we are self-interested when we actually are not? Could it be because we have bought into Smith’s economic theory and the philosophical theories of Hume and Hobbes and others who advocate for self-interest, creating a cultural norm of self-interest?

Defying a norm is an act most of us would rather not engage in, primarily because, as University of Amsterdam emotion researcher Gerben Van Kleef has found, others tend to become angered when we do so. Honestly sharing that you are volunteering because you want to help others could earn you the wrath of someone angered by your norm violation. Such a person might claim you are trying to impress someone, a goodie-two-shoes, or just a socially inept nerd.

Numerous studies by Stanford social psychologist Dale Miller confirm that we often feign self-interest to conform to what we falsely believe to be a social norm. In one of Miller’s studies, for example, participants were asked how likely undergraduates would be to donate blood for either $15 or nothing. They estimated that almost 100 percent more undergrads would give if there were a financial incentive. In other words, the norm of self-interest at work: no money, no honey; or so we believe.

As it turned out, less than 18 percent more of the students were willing to give blood if they were to receive cash for doing so. Sadly, our specious beliefs in the norm of self-interest cause us to act self-interested even if, at our core, we are not.

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Anthony Silard Ph.D.

Anthony Silard, Ph.D., is a leadership educator and expert. Anthony is the author of numerous scholarly articles on emotion and leadership with an emphasis on how leaders develop high-quality relationships and manage challenging emotions such as loneliness and secondary trauma. He has coached G-20 cabinet ministers and the CEOs and senior leaders of Fortune 500 companies such as Disney, IBM, and GE and the world’s largest nonprofits such as CARE and Saves the Children. He has taught leadership at the Monterrey Institute of Technology, California State University San Bernardino, Claremont McKenna College, and IESE Business School and has lectured on leadership at Harvard, Stanford and Georgetown. His latest book, Screened In: The Art of Living Free in the Digital Age, was released in March 2020.View Author posts