Why Are Some People Selfish?

2001 Why Are Some People Selfish?
Selfish people's brain's spike in activity when someone is nice to them. PathDoc/Shutterstock

Most of us are at least a little selfish, but some more so than others. In order to get what we want in life we tend to reward those who are good to us by being good back to them, and punish those who aren't. But there are a minority of people, known as “Machiavellians,” who pay no regard to these social norms. A new study, published in Brain and Cognition, has managed to visualize what happens in the brains of these Machiavellians when others are nice to them, and found they went into overdrive, working out how best to exploit them, suggest the authors.

Named after the 16th Century Italian writer, politician and diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli, the term is used by psychologists to refer to someone who is highly manipulative, deceitful, and lacking empathy. The name derives not because Machiavelli was particularly any of those things, but because of the main character in his most famous work "The Prince" used clever tricks to hold on to power.


When it comes to society, it seems that some people are hard-wired this way, exploiting others for their own gain. And scientists are able to work out where people fall on a scale from low-Machiavellian to high-Machiavellian by means of a questionnaire. Hungarian researchers from the University of Pécs used this test to divide a group of students into those with high Machiavellian tendencies in a group of students and those who displayed low tendencies, and then used an MRI scan to see what happened in their brains during a simple game of trust.

The game worked like this: The participants were paired up with a partner. Individuals were then given five dollars and asked to decide how much they wanted to “invest” in their partner. The participants all thought that their partner was another student, but in actual fact they were a computer, which was programmed to either return their investment fairly (10% above or below the initial investment), or unfairly (returning only 30% of the initial investment). After this first interaction the roles were then reversed, with the computer partner having to "invest" in the participant. The participants then had to decide whether to give a fair or unfair return.  

When the low-Machs decided how much to give back to their partners they acted according to the social norms, rewarding their partner when they had given them a “fair” return first, and punishing them when they’d received an “unfair” return. The high-Machs, however, gave everyone unfair returns, regardless of what they’d previously been given. Unsurprisingly, at the end of the game, the high-Machs ended up with the most money.

But looking at the high-Machs' brain activity during the task, the researchers found that when the computer partner gave the high-Mach a fair return for their initial investment, their brain activity shot up in areas involved in inhibition and creativity. The researchers suggest that this indicates they might have been inhibiting their natural instinct to reciprocate fairness, while at the same time trying to calculate how best to take advantage of their partner.


So, it seems that those who are most manipulative and deceitful don’t decide to punish people because they are unfair to them, instead deciding to be unfair to them all the time, which feeds into their lack of empathy. But show them fairness or cooperation, and they start to figure out how best to exploit you.

[H/T: Medical Daily]


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