Tuesday, October 19, 2021

The Myth of Selfishness



We can all, under the right circumstances, behave selfishly, but laboratory studies consistently show that when faced with things like resource distribution, say sharing a plate of cookies, we demonstrate what scientists call "inequality aversion." Even children as young as three will divide a cake out equally, and at six would rather throw a slice away rather than allow one person, including themselves, to have more.

Indeed, it appears that we Homo sapiens, whatever else we are, are serious about equality. 

Over my decades in the classroom I've witnessed it myself, even amongst children younger than those studied. Sure, sometimes a kid can behave selfishly, but most of the time I find myself inspired by children's instinctive fairness in social situations. I once, in a misguided attempt to "teach" about fairness, tried to give all of the girls a special jewel, while excluding the boys. The moment the girls realized what was happening, they spontaneously handed their jewels back to me, rejecting them, saying, "It's not fair." They would only accept their jewels if I included the boys. There was nothing for me to teach these children about fairness.

Were I to ask a strangers on the street, however, I'm certain that most would classify selfishness as one of the traits found under the heading of "childishness," along with a tendency toward tantrums and unreasonableness. We know what people mean when they say that someone is behaving "like a big baby." And those of us who work with children know that it's a slur against babies and young children in general.

The worst tantrums I've ever witnessed have been adults who have lost it. Unreasonable demands are far from the exclusive domain of children. And when it comes to selfishness, adults are far and away more likely to behave according to the own self interest even when it clearly harms or disadvantages someone else.

Selfishness is a learned behavior. We are born with a natural aversion to inequality. We are then socialized to want the biggest piece for ourselves, not through explicit teaching because most of us value fairness as a moral value, but because of the way the world is structured, with competition being one of the primary mechanism through which we distribute resources. A truly childish society would never allow billionaires to sit on their piles while millions of others are forced to live hand to mouth.

Many of us go out of our way as early childhood educators to teach equality, fairness, sharing, and turn taking, yet the research is quite clear: we are a species that already understands these things, at least in social situations. Perhaps the children should be our teachers. But we do it, I think, because we know the sad truth is that once the kids are in the world beyond our classroom walls, they will find themselves in an adult world in which selfishness often shows up as a virtue, even as few of us beyond the Ayn Rand inspired dead-enders believe it to be anything other than one of the roots of evil.

Research also tells us that most of us, most of the time, also exhibit "inequality aversion." That finding, which has been replicated countless times, flies in the face of what many of us think we know about humans. We tend to think we live in a competitive dog-eat-dog world, but when we look to our left and look to our right we see fellow humans who are, in their hearts, unselfish and averse to inequality. Anthropologists tell us that this has been the norm for as long as there have been humans, that our species has thrived largely because of our instincts in favor of equality. So how did we get where we are?

I have my theories, but the bottom line is that our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn't tolerate selfishness in others. They would start by teasing and mocking someone who hoarded resources, for example, and if that didn't bring them into line, they would turn to shame and even, in extreme cases, ostracize them. I'm not advocating for shaming others, but I can honestly say that I feel ashamed of myself when I've behaved selfishly. I think most of us do. I don't know if those girls who returned the jewels to me were experiencing shame, but I imagine they would have had they kept the jewels. 

No, it seems to me that the only way that anyone can accept inequality is if they have bought into a story that frames inequality as inevitable or even righteous. In the past, that story might have been about the "divine" nature of the hoarder, which would excuse things like royal rule. Today, the story is that those with the most "deserve" it because they are smarter or have worked harder. These are modern mythologies, of course. We know for a fact that no one has the divine right to more. We know that hard work doesn't necessarily lead to more; if it did, most early childhood educators would be living large. And we all know smart people who have never been able to cash in on their brains, no matter how big. 

Perhaps, if we really value equality and fairness, we ought to be thinking more about the stories we tell, both to children and one another. But one story we can stop telling right now, is the myth of "childishness" because it implies that selfishness is our natural state, which is perhaps the most pernicious myth of all.

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