New research finds people are selfishly motivated (even if they are unaware of it)

It’s a time-honored quandary that has plagued both laureate philosophers and watchers of Friends alike — can there really be a completely selfless act? New findings say no.

According to a recent co-authored paper by researchers from Harvard Business School and the University of Pennsylvania, people are governed by “motivated error”. In other words, we’re more likely to ‘unintentionally’ make errors if the outcome of doing so is positively self-serving. 

“By acting as if they suffer from cognitive limitations or behavioral biases, individuals appear to ‘create’ uncertainty (e.g., about whether selfishness was caused by a decision error) in order to rationalize undesirable choices,” the authors assert. This is to say that people make mistakes (whether or not they are aware of doing so at the moment) when they feel that the error will help them to circumvent the social judgment of acting in their own self-interest.

In the working paper, posted on the National Bureau of Economic Research website, the authors aim to wrangle sense out of the selfishness complex. Across three studies with approximately 4,200 participants, the researchers deduced that people make gratuitous errors when the blunder allows them to attain a more personally gainful outcome. Conversely, if the possibility of a favorable outcome does not exist, people are very unlikely to make any mistakes at all. 

In a series of three unique studies, participants were presented with perhaps the ultimate moral predicament: accepting money for oneself versus donating it to charity. 

In the first round of experiments, participants had the option of either accepting the money for themselves or donating it to charity. In this scenario, the participants were found to be more likely of (perceivably) unintentionally miscalculating zeroes if doing so meant they could keep the money for themselves. This information could be argued to be unsubstantial, if it weren’t for the second scenario — when presented with the option of electing between giving money to two charities where the option of keeping the money for themselves wasn’t an option, the participants ability to add zeroes conveniently (yet perhaps not so virtuously) vanished. 

In an additional subset of the experiment, participants were asked to opt to either keep a portion of the earnings for themselves or donate it amongst several charities, they were more likely to hang onto it only if an additional piece of information was presented — that one of the charities would receive nothing. The authors deduced that this slight condition change removed the guilt from the participants by making them feel their decision to keep the money was justified, beyond any financial gain. 

In the final experiment, the authors found that participants were more likely to succumb to anchoring bias—or, relying on certainly on the first piece of information provided, so long as doing so was in their favor. 

Being aware of this intrinsic fallibility of human nature may make the best of us pretty cynical. Before you become too jaded, it might serve you well to remember that this inherent selfishness is, in most cases, not necessarily intended. Remember this the next time someone ‘forgets’ to meet up with you.