Are (Most) People Motivated By Self-Interest? (Studies Find…)

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Everyone’s motivated by something. Some people are motivated by money, some by power, some by fear, and some people claim to be motivated by the desire to do good in the world.

But when it comes down to it, are all motivating factors ultimately a fractal of self-interest?

I am not an expert, but I am fascinated by what motivates people. I reflect quite frequently on what it is that drives me.

I certainly want to do good in the world, and I like to think of myself as altruistic, but when I think about it deeply, am I altruistic because I want to do good? Or am I altruistic because it makes me feel good?

Probably both, which leads back to wondering if all people are ‘by-in-large’ motivated by self-interest?

In this article, we’ll look to the experts to see if we can find out what’s behind most people’s motives.

Let’s Dive In.

What Do We Mean By Self-Interest? “”Psychological Egoism”” Explained

University of Colorado. Professor of human behavior, Dr. Cropanzano, describes self-interest as

A person’s focus on the needs, desires, and personal benefits of one’s self.

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Experts also agree, that often times, your actions which display self-interest, are displayed without your conscious awareness.

Acting in one’s own self-interest is commonly referred to as “psychological egoism”. What exactly is psychological egoism?

Stanford university describes ‘psychological egoism’, as a theory based on the understanding that each person has but one ultimate aim in life…, his or her own welfare. 

Dr. Robert Shaver has shown that the theory of ‘psychological egoism’ is supported by the frequent observation of self-interested behavior.

Even ‘surface level’, apparent altruistic behavior, is often revealed to be ultimately self-interested behavior. For example, I’m writing this article right now to help others with a better understanding of motivation, but if I do a good enough job at writing, then I’m also getting paid.

Dr. Shaver also points out that the theory of self-interested behavior (AKA psychological egoism) is supported by the strategy that most people typically use to motivate other people.
We usually appeal to their self-interest with threats of punishments or with promises of rewards.

Both of these would be self-interested motivational forces.

What Motivates People ? Is It Only Self Interest ?

Being motivated by self-interest isn’t a bad thing, it’s a human thing that has helped our species survive for hundreds of thousands of years.

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According to the world renowned, and esteemed psychologist Abraham Maslow, we humans, all find motivation from our desire to fulfill five basic needs, as described below.

These 5 basic needs are all formed out of self interest. This is called Maslow’s Theory, which according to ‘new age’ psychologists, “Maslow’s theory is largely correct in cultures all over the world”

Self-Interested Motivational Hierarchy

Everyone Acts Based On 5 Basic Motivational Categories

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1. Basic Human Needs That Motivate Us –

  • Food
  • Water
  • Shelter
  • Clothing

2. Securities And safety Needs That Motivate Us –

  • Financial security
  • Health Assurance (and insurance)
  • Safety against crime, accidents, and injury

3. Social Needs That Motivate Us –

  • Friendships
  • Romance
  • Family
  • Social groups
  • Love in general

4. Motivated By Esteem Needs (Respect) –

  • Appreciation and respect are huge motivating forces.
  • Being motivated by the need for respect isn’t usually a consideration by most people until the first three levels of motivational forces have been satisfied.
  • people have a deep rooted need to know that they are valued and by others and feel that they are making a contribution to the world.
  • Desire to win, academic achievements, and personal hobbies can all play a role in fulfilling peoples esteem needs.

5. Self Actualization (self-fulfillment) Needs That Motivates Us –

  • Self-Actualization is similar to esteem motivation but very different at the same time. People motivated by self-actualization want to do more and contribute more because they feel that they can and they want to contribute as much to society as possible.
  • Those motivated by esteem may also want to contribute more to society but they want to do so for the recognition, not for the contribution.
  • Those who are deeply motivated by self-actualization look to fulfill themselves by doing the best that they are capable of doing.
  • Self-actualizing people are self-aware, looking for personal growth, less concerned with recognition and the opinions of others, and mainly interested in fulfilling their self-potential as a person.

Is being selfish human nature? According to Maslow’s theory, the answer is yes. And for evolutionary reasons, acting in our own self-interest has keep humans alive for over 300,000 years and counting.

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Altruism vs. Self-Interest? Is There Such Thing As A “Good Samaritan” ?

Does anyone do anything out of pure selflessness ? Is there such thing as a good Samaritan who just wants to ‘do good’ for others, purely out of the best interest of someone else?

Are (Most) People Motivated By Self-Interest? (Studies Find...)

Altruism – In The Name of The Greater Good

Helping others is really a two way street. While helping others is nice and can be seemingly selfless (or altruistic), it also benefits the person who helps.

In 2015, research published by the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine found multiple examples of how ‘doing good’ (in both big & small ways), not only feels good, but is also rewarding for the person exhibiting the act of selflessness.

Brain Scan evidence from fMRI studies suggest a straight forward link between generosity and happiness in the brain. For example, donating to charity activates the same regions of the brain that respond to sex.

This research suggests that often, even kind acts towards strangers, are not completely selfless, but mutually beneficial.

From the perspective of ‘psychological egoism’ and according to the Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy, we only seek to benefit others, because from an evolutionary sense, we unconsciously help others as a mere means to our own good. According to the psychological egoist, we do not care about others for their sake, but ours.

Altruism, in other words, does not exist.

Conclusion: Are Most People Motivated By Self-Interest ?

It’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking in terms of “absolutes”, which is also known as ‘all or nothing’ thinking.

But from the perspective of the ‘bigger picture’…, by-in-large, the biological motivational forces behind the actions of most people does seem to rooted in self-interest.

It is very difficult to understand the deep rooted motivational forces behind every single human action, but according to the widely accepted Maslow’s theory and ‘psychological egoism’, most people are by-in-large motivated by self-interest.

Being motivated by self-interest is not a bad thing, and when your own personal self-interest is aligned with the best interest of society great things can happen.

Please let us know if this article was helpful or if there’s any gaps of information that we should add.

Do you need some tips to keep yourself motivated? Check out this article on finding motivation with-in.

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