Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Are We Naturally Helpful Or Selfish?

A recent scientific experiment concluded that female chimpanzees prefer to help others instead of act selfishly.  Researchers gave female chimps a choice between helping another chimp get food or just take food for themself.  The subjects repeatedly choose to help the other chimps.

Applying this question to humans, do you think we are naturally kind or selfish?  Do you believe we care about the fate of others or are insensitive to it?  Do you think there's a difference between men and women in this regard?


  1. Wow! Interesting question. I don't know that I have a strong opinion about that. I do believe our base nature is a bit selfish, but that we learn to be moved by the pain of others. Selfishness, in my opinion, comes from a place of fear or lack. If we believe that there are limited resources, we want to make sure that we get ours first. However, if we believe that God is loving and supplies abundantly to all, then it takes nothing from me by my giving or acting unselfishly; because my belief tells me that there's unlimited water at the well. Does this make sense? Thanks for getting the old kanoodle thinking this early in the morning! ~Serene

  2. I think people may be naturally helpful but in a 'selfish way'. There is 'The Money Song' in Avenue Q about how helping others makes you feel good.
    I'm not sure about a difference between the sexes my boyfriend is way less selfish than me. He is very good at sharing his stuff. Whereas I would rather keep all my things to myself and help people get their OWN things. ;)

  3. I am really not sure what to believe any more about innate vs. cultural traits!

    I know this guy Tomasello who does similar research at the Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig (this guy: and came to the conclusion that human infants of age 9 months and up already do altruistic stuff (such as pointing to the place where a tool is located when they see an adult looking for the tool, or opening a cabinet door when an adult comes in with a bunch of files to be put in the cabinet, and this is before they start speaking!), that four-year-olds have a sense of fairness (carrying out a shared task up to the point where they both get a reward even if one of them could walk off with their reward earlier than the other), and that chimps never do such a thing (they will only cooperate until one of them got the reward, at which point it will stop participating). This seems to suggest that altruism and cooperative behavior is innate in humans but not in chimps - and Tomasello says that it's based on shared attention, which also led to the development of language in humans uniquely, so this is big stuff. However, I recall someone else did a study with infants and toddlers from a non-western culture (I forget which one) and found that they do not show the same altruistic / cooperative behavior patterns, so it could be cultural instead of innate after all.

    With the chimps in this new study, since they only studied 7 of them and it seems all were living in the same lab, it could also be a cultural thing with them... I'm not entirely convinced and I would love to read the original study but I have to go read about discourse topic and focus instead :)

  4. I think that it depends on how you were raised. I think that goes for men and women.

  5. 1. I'd want to know how they tested "choice." 2. In primate/monkey culture caring for others is a form of currency. The most groomed are the "most rich."

    As for humans, I think given free will - we are neither innately helpful or selfish. It's a matter of nurture in that case. In my opinion. I think we all have some survival instincts no matter what, but I also think there are people who would and would not care if others died or suffered as a result.

    I think it's not a matter of gender, and really a matter of how you were raised. For example, a male/female born in a strong Southern culture is likely going to be helpful. Where as maybe someone born and raised in what one would consider "inner city" may have a stronger by-stander effect or self-preservation ingrained. It's not really a fallacy in my opinion, just human nature [or well, nurture].

  6. Hmmmm, interesting. When I do something kind for someone friend or stranger, it makes me feel good, therefore I "get" something from that. Does that make me selfish? Everything we do we do for a reason, but that does not diminish the net result, something good was done.

    As far as gender difference, I think both men and women are capable of kindness, however I do think women are more comfortable being demonstrative about it. Not better or worse, just different.

  7. I think women are most likely to help.
    I read about one of the many UN programs where they always give the support to the women instead of the men as per previous studies they are more likely to give equally to those in need -
    Like many of the above commenters, I also think that it has to do with how you were raised.

  8. I think everyone is selfish at their core, but why shouldn't they be? I never understand when people insult others by saying, "So-and-so is selfish." You're living your own life, not that of another. You should be putting yourself before others, within reason. That is to say, I'm not advocating taking more than is necessary in dire straights or completely ignoring the needs of others but as far as survival goes, the "selfish" are probably going to fare better.

    Me? I'm accused of being selfish constantly and the Grand Canyon is filled with all the damns I don't give about it. I live to make myself happy. A lot of times that means doing something for the people I love, but again, I do that because ultimately it benefits me. If my mother, best friend, and boyfriend are all happy...then I'm happy. But at the base of it, it's always me. I believe there are people less selfish than me out there, but anyone who would go so far as to describe themselves as "selfless" would do better with a word like "pretentious" or "delusional."

    I realize written out I sound a bit harsh, but I assure you while being selfish at my core I'm also a good person. The two are not mutually exclusive.

  9. Oh, it depends. If we're doing alright ourselves, we're more willing to give. If we're feeling sick or if we aren't doing so great, we're probably more likely to help ourselves first. (At least, that's how I operate.)

    Re-read that and wow, Starbuck's doubleshots really mess with my brain. Going to not drink one of those ever again...

  10. Aren't we altruistic out of self-interest?

  11. I think humans are naturally selfish, like for instance you see two toddlers and one toy, they'll fight till the end to get it because they are naturally selfish, I think kindness is something that is taught as we get older, especially if you have siblings and you have to share. =)
    I don't know about men and women, that would be interesting to know. =)

  12. Ha! This is so cool! But honestly, I don't know. I think we like to help to an extent? I mean, strangers hold doors open, etc but then they also cut you off while driving. -__-

    I have girlfriends that help, but want help back. I have friends that help you, just to do it. And, I have very selfish friends that seem like they are great but they are horrible.

  13. Definitely makes you stop and think.
    I don't think you can generalize humans into one kind in this category. Every person male or female is different. Although females tend to be more compassionate in general I think.

  14. I really don't believe this is based on gender..I do believe it has to do with experience, upbringing, and self-centeredness. It is my hope that everyone would want to give to others what they have and make another smile, but that is not the case. Some people (like you Ally) have hearts of gold and will share in all ways they can. Others will abuse and use that generosity for their own selfish gains. I do believe good people will go out of their way to help another.
    I also believe that when either tragedy or experience aids in the humbleness of an individual, when they are faced with real issues, they become more grateful of things, and will try to give back in return being grateful that they were able to get out of the situation they were in.

    I believe humans are naturally selfish, but takes a reason to turn it around.
    I do not believe it is based on any specific gender.
    I do believe everyone "Cares" about the fate of others, but only certain individuals will fix it or intervene. the rest will probably watch life move by...

  15. I agree with Emma, for the most part, in that it really depends on how you are raised and what you are taught. Though, I do believe that we are all born with an innate nature that's compassionate. It can be lost over time if it's not demonstrated by the people who surround you in your childhood, or it can be nurtured.

  16. Maybe the female chimps are just looking for approval from the other chimps, and that's the underlying selfish motive for appearing unselfish!

    Okay, I'm just being silly with that. But I will never forget once in college when my English professor posed the question: "Is it possible to love completely unselfishly?" I answered with an unwavering, indignant, "Of course!!" And she shot back, "But don't we usually give love hoping to get it back?" It made me angry at the time for some reason; it sounded so pessimistic and sad to me. But sometimes I wonder if there is a little bit of truth in it. Hmmm...deep thoughts... Anyway, I really appreciate Alya's honesty in the comment and willingness to say what most people feel but would not say out loud!

    I do think it's possible for men to be just as unselfish as women, though, despite the reputation of each sex. I gots me a husband who'd bend over backwards to do most anything for me without ever looking for a thank-you. He was raised to be compassionate and helpful. I was too, but most of the time, I think I am more selfish than he is.