Why Are People Selfish?

Humans are naturally self-fulfilling, self-pleasure-seeking individuals – we want what is in our best interest.

There is a thin line that separates self-love from selfishness.

We asked 6 experts, “why are people selfish?”

Read their top insights below.

Christina Marlett

Christina Marlett

Founder | CEO, Courageous Self-Care

It is actually critical to concentrate on our own pleasure and well-being

The worst compliment I ever heard was for a woman receiving an award. She was described as being completely selfless. The speaker praised her for never doing anything for herself and always thinking of others first.

It’s quite likely that this woman had a low sense of self-worth and was approaching burn-out. To only give and never receive is an outdated paradigm.

We must teach others how to treat us and if we never take time to prioritize our own well-being, then no one else will either.

Selfishness is defined as seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others.

As a self-care expert, I think it’s actually critical to concentrate on our own pleasure and well-being.

If we don’t know how to do that, then there’s no way we can give from a place of fullness and love.

If we are continually focusing on others, then we are likely suppressing our own fears and hurts. It’s much easier to spend time caring for others than to look in the mirror and address what’s going on inside.

It takes courage to discover who we are and then boldly and generously share that incredible person with others. In order to go on that journey, we do need to focus on ourselves.

If others perceive that as being selfish, then that’s just their perception and it’s no business of ours. It’s time we give ourselves permission to concentrate on our own well-being because then we can show up fully for others.

Justin Baksh

Justin Baksh, MS, LMHC, LPC, MCAP

Licensed Mental Health Counselor | Chief Clinical Officer, Foundations Wellness Center

People are selfish because it’s the way they’ve been programmed

It’s about their core beliefs – which are formulated from birth to the present day. The human body is like a computer’s hardware. However, the software that makes us run continues to be influenced by the day we take our first breath.

You can have viruses implanted along the way, and you don’t know unless you check for them or receive notifications.

On the surface level, selfishness may seem intentional and deliberate. You may feel that the individual is very calculated in what he or she are doing. However, it may or may not be.

It is entirely possible that he or she is not aware of their irrationally selfish behavior because of the biased way they have been programmed or the subconscious factors that unconsciously influence their actions.

Humans are naturally self-fulfilling, self-pleasure-seeking individuals – we want what is in our best interest.

That’s the way we are built.

However, we also have plasticity, which is the ability to learn something new. We’re also very much in tune with our environment, and sometimes have very little awareness of how that impacts us on a day-to-day basis.

If somebody is overly selfish, they need education and awareness. They need to dig deep to discover the motive behind it.

An example would be children who grow up in a household with two to three siblings where parents had financial struggles, so access to food was limited.

Children who receive a limited portion of food, can, in their adult lives, still display certain behaviors with friends in social settings, not realizing they have been programmed to act that way. They could grab the last piece of pizza quickly, or hoard too many slices before their friends get a chance to partake.

It is unintentional. The programming has been tainted and, even in adult life, they feel they have to fend for themselves.

In order to correct this behavior, they must become aware of what is causing it and learn a new way of thinking.

Read related article: How to Be Less Selfish?

On the other side of the coin, someone can be too selfless to the point of being a doormat. They can give too much and become co-dependent…they don’t have healthy boundaries.

The perfect middle point would be sharing with others but not giving everything.

For example, the parent who teaches their children to let others play with their toys along with them, or to take only their share of the pie. This would be a perfect middle point on the continuum of selfishness/selflessness – a balanced approach to life.

Elyse Bender-Segall

Elyse Bender-Segall

CEO, PRR Evolution

I think people can be selfish for various reasons.

Sometimes people may be selfish due to a lack of time in their own personal lives

While they do not purposely mean to act selfish, it can be seen this way to people who may be affected directly by their behavior. Days are short and no matter how early you wake up, you blink and the day is done.

Another reason people may be selfish is because they feel they are always at the giving end of the stick.

Regardless whether or not this is the case, they perceive it to be that way and feel that if people are going to take and never give they will do the same.

Selfish people can also be born that way and wired that way.

For example, narcissistic people are always only thinking about themselves. So genetics and chemical makeup are another reason people can be selfish.

Caleb Backe

Caleb Backe

Health and Wellness Expert, Maple Holistics

Selfishness can stem from experiences in someone’s childhood

For instance, their parents may have not taught them how to be empathetic and give to others, and once these self-centered behaviors are learned early in life they are very hard to change later on.

Also, an individual who is selfish might have learned to be so as a way to survive in life when others who were supposed to care for them did not.

Specifically, if a person’s basic needs such as food and clothing were not met when they were young they might have had to resort to looking out for only themselves, and as an adult, they can still have the mentality that if they don’t look out for themselves no one else will.

Susan Petang

Susan Petang

IACC Certified Mindful Lifestyle | Stress Management Coach, The Quiet Zone Coaching

It’s been my experience that when people behave selfishly, they’re subconsciously protecting themselves from past trauma.

It could be that a friend, parent, teacher, or other authority figure dismissed their opinion or them personally. Whatever that trauma was, usually low self-esteem is involved, as odd as that may sound.

The element of low self-esteem can cause an individual to either mentally treat themselves badly, or treat others badly to elevate their opinions of themselves – such as behaving selfishly.

Susan Capurso

Susan Capurso

Speaker | Author | End of Life Guide, East and Doula Care

It’s in the DNA!

In my lifetime I’ve stumbled across many people from all different walks of life.

Before addressing the selfish people, know there are kind and good people in the world who will give you the shirt of their back, literally.

I had an acquaintance stop by after my husbands funeral and hand me a very large check. It came from his heart, just because.

I had another man send me a large box of high style pens with all of my information on them as a congratulations gift to for starting my own practice.

People do very kind things for one another and I’d like to think I have that same heart. This is what makes the world a good place.

Selfish people, I’ll try to be short. There are so many in the world, they surround our lives every day of the week. I believe they don’t any better.

The person who doesn’t call back when they say they will. The person who did not answer a very important email that you look for every day in your box.

It’s not only the person at the store who knows your right behind them with a big bag of groceries in your arms yet shows no consideration in holding the door.

How about the tenant who lives in your house without paying rent for 6 months, yet is working, and believes they are entitled to keep on living for free?

Selfish comes in all forms, all shapes, and all sizes.

I’ve come to believe that is partially the circumstances that controlled them as a child, and DNA. Even the circumstances in your life can be learned from and changed moving forward.

You have to want to make these changes. This can be hard to do. We were each born with a distinct personality, body, mind, and soul that puts together the puzzle that we become.

Sometimes there is one piece missing, the “Selfishness” piece, and I’m not sure it can ever be found. Back up, maybe it can be found.

If you can acknowledge and know that you have this selfish gene, (most cannot), then you have the capability to learn and teach yourself ways to improve on this missing link.

In other words, you have to say, “I know I am selfish and always have been. I hate this part of myself, and every day I’m going to incorporate little acts of generosity and kindness into my life and into the lives of others.”

If you can do this and genuinely mean your words, then follow up on your actions, just maybe you can tackle this. You have to be accountable for improving and stop the madness you invoke!

To wrap up, “Why are People Selfish?” I guess we’ll never really know why. I do know that it is a ram-pet epidemic that needs to be addressed.

It gets really tiring to us un-selfish people to have to deal with the promises, inconsistencies, and rudeness at the expense of the rest of us throughout life. And in four simple words, “It’s just not nice!”

Frequently Asked Questions

What is selfishness?

Selfishness refers to the act of prioritizing one’s own interests above those of others. It can manifest itself in various ways, such as refusing to share resources, ignoring the needs of others, and acting recklessly or harmfully without regard for others.

How can I deal with a selfish person in my life?

Dealing with a selfish person can be challenging, but there are some strategies you can try, such as:

• Setting boundaries and expressing your needs clearly and confidently
• Pointing out the impact their behavior has on others and on the relationship
• Validating their feelings and needs but also emphasizing the importance of reciprocity and fairness
• Offering alternatives and compromise and seeking mutual solutions
• Seeking support and advice from others when necessary

How does social media contribute to selfishness?

Social media can selectively amplify self-centered attitudes and behaviors by encouraging people to cultivate an image of their own importance through photos, status updates, and wall posts. This can lead to feelings of competition, inadequacy, and insecurity in others.

Can parents unintentionally promote selfish behaviors in their children?

Yes, parents can unintentionally encourage selfish behavior in their children by overindulging them, ignoring their emotional needs, or rewarding selfish behavior. 

Parents can encourage ethical and empathetic behavior by positively reinforcing their children when they share, actively seeking opportunities to help their children, and modeling self-sacrifice.

How can parents teach their children to be less selfish?

Parents play a critical role in shaping their children’s values and behaviors, including selfishness. Here are some tips for parents who want to teach their children to be less selfish:

Model selfless behavior: Children learn by example, so it’s important for parents to model selflessness and empathy in their own behavior.

Encourage empathy: Talk to your children about how their actions affect others and encourage them to think about the feelings of others.

Praise selfless behavior: When your child demonstrates selfless behavior, such as sharing or helping others, praise and reward them for it.

Set expectations: Clearly tell your child how to treat others and hold them accountable if they don’t meet those expectations.

Teach gratitude: Encourage your child to appreciate what they have and to express gratitude for the good things in their life.

Is it possible to find a balance between selflessness and selfishness?

Yes, finding a balance between selflessness and selfishness is possible and can lead to a more fulfilling and meaningful life. Here are some tips on how you can find that balance:

Practice self-care: Taking care of your own needs isn’t selfish but a necessary part of being able to give to others. Make time for activities that bring you joy and allow you to recharge.

Set healthy boundaries: Communicate your needs clearly and set boundaries to prevent others from taking advantage of your generosity.

Practice gratitude: Focusing on what you have and expressing gratitude can help you feel more fulfilled and less focused on what you lack.

Be mindful: Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings and make a conscious effort to act in a way consistent with your values and goals.

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