An Examination of Selfish and Selfless Motives: A Review of the Social Psychological and Behavioral Economics Literature

An Examination of Selfish and Selfless Motives: A Review of the Social Psychological and Behavioral Economics Literature

Gabriela Carrasco (University of North Alabama, USA) and Eric Kinnamon (Alabama A&M University, USA)
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 17
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-1826-6.ch006


Current behavioral economics/game theory and social psychology literature have been captivated by the idea of altruism and egoism. In large part, these two disciplines have tried to determine the foundation of selfish and selfless behavior, without much result. The current chapter examines the root issues associated with this inquiry and argues for a shift in attention towards factors associated with cooperation. As such, empirical research from both disciplines is presented to show the advancements in relation to identification of these factors. Additionally, the authors offer a possible solution to the fractured literature in the form Weber, Kopelman, and Messick's (2004) dual process model in an effort to merge findings from both disciplines in an attempt progress this line of research.
Chapter Preview


In order for selfish or selfless behavior to occur there must be at least two individuals, the target of the behavior and the executor of the behavior. Additionally, selfish or selfless behavior can only occur within the exchange of a resource (e.g., time, money).

Social Dilemmas

According to Van Lange, Balliet, Parks, and Van Vugt (2014) a social dilemma is a situation whereby non-cooperation, or a selfish action, is beneficial for the individual in the short-term; however, non-cooperation by the group will be detrimental for the group members in the long run. The dilemma occurs when an individual is forced to choose between their own well-being now (i.e., selfish behavior) or work with the group in a long-term (i.e., selfless) investment of the resource. Similarly, Dawes and Messick (2000) goes further by suggesting that the dilemma occurs when “reasonable and rational” decisions at the individual level lead to less benefits, thus coaxing the individual to act “unreasonably and irrationally” (p. 111). Social dilemmas have been a pervasive issue addressed in religion, philosophy, natural and social sciences, politics and business.

Mixed Motives

Social dilemmas present a problem because of mixed motives. Mixed motives are dueling or inconsistent motives that have the potential to influence an individual in seemingly unpredictable ways. In the case of social dilemmas, an individual must choose between actions based on pure self-interest or actions with the group in mind. According to Van Lange et al.(2014) mixed motives are based off of three main arguments: individuals are driven to do well for oneself, the outcome of a situation is, in part, based on others’ actions, and non-cooperative behavior on an individual’s part opens up the door for possible retaliation from others (p. 13). Thus, an individual’s actions in a mixed-motive situation take into account the potential outcomes, the individual, the group, and the exchange between the individual and group.

Complete Chapter List

Search this Book: