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The Merits of Cultivating Selflessness

January 21, 2011

Emily Badger in Miller-McCune:

Most of our thinking about how to influence human behavior — how to get people to pay taxes, to obey laws, to not steal from each other — rests on the model of homo economicus.

This creature, first sketched by economists more than a century ago, is generally out for his own rational self-interest. He (or she) is, in short, selfish, and when we want him to do something, policymakers usually keep that in mind.

Lynn Stout, a professor of corporate law at UCLA, began to wonder about this deeply entrenched assumption, which leaves little room in human behavior for what we might call a “conscience.”

“The more I read, the more fascinated I became,” Stout said. “If you actually look at the data — the hard science on how people really behave — it becomes clear that the selfishness assumption is violated all the time. It is remarkably unusual for people to behave in a purely selfish fashion.”

More often than we think, people of all cultures — even children as young as 3, according to new research —  behave “pro-socially.” That is, they sacrifice their own self-interest, at least to some extent, to serve the larger group or an ethical ideal. Given the right social cues and situations, almost all of us will behave this way. [More]

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