Can A Psychologist Cure My Worst Character Trait, Unstoppable Selfishness?
I don't want to be an inconsiderate arsehole for the rest of my life.
One of my worst characteristics is that I'm selfish. I'm not being self-deprecating, and I'm not fishing. I am selfish. I exhibit what I know aren't attractive qualities; talking incessantly about myself or my life; not feeling bad when someone has to clean up my mess or finish something I didn't finish; borrowing things from people and forgetting to return them. In short, I tend to do things are right by me, even if it means that someone else loses a bit. Or a lot. Is that fucked? Yes. Did I recently watch a film about a psychopath with serial killer tendencies and see myself in him? Yes I did. Am I worried? Absolutely.
In the ongoing search for A Better Me, one that doesn't make other people's lives worse just by existing, I decided to ask for help.
I spoke to Dr Nick Haslam, a clinical and social psychologist, who has—among other things—spent a career researching personality disorders to find out if I have a huge problem and if there is hope for me yet.
VICE: Nick, help me! I'm selfish and I want to change. What can I do?
Dr Nick Haslam: I think the best way to become less selfish is to experience how good it is to do things for others. People often find it a surprise to discover how enjoyable it is to look after others. I think compliments are a great place to start—and maybe you do this already—but simply commending people or recognising them for when they do good things, that's good. Small steps is the way to start any new behaviour.
See, I do already sort of do that. And I'm not sure if I've seen too many psychological thrillers but I worry that sometimes I do those things because I know that's what's expected of me. Like that's just "what we do" in order to be a "nice person." I think that if I didn't know I had to do those things in order to be considered a decent person, I wouldn't do them.
Do you really believe that?
…Yes. I care quite a lot about what people think of me, and I don't want to be thought of as mean. But also, if I am thought of as mean or thoughtless, I can compartmentalise that quite easily. Which feels sociopathic.
Desiring someone else's approval isn't the same thing as being selfish. It just means that other people's opinions matter to you, and I think that's actually a sign of not being selfish. It's a sign of caring about your own wellbeing and material happiness. So I think you have to distinguish wanting other people's approval and only caring about what's good for you. They're rather different things.
I guess then my question is: Is it normal to care a whole lot more about yourself than you do about other people?
Yes. It certainly is. You can think about "what we care about" like concentric circles. Most people care more about themselves than they care about their immediate family, and they care more about their immediate family than their peer group. And then there's a range of acquaintances who you probably care more about than the average person, and then there's concentric circles of people in your city and state and country compared to people elsewhere. The closer you get to the self, the more you care about things. Ultimately that makes sense—if everyone was completely unselfish, society wouldn't function because people wouldn't look after themselves. Also, no one wants to be surrounded by good samaritans. They can be a bit dull… The question is: do you feel that your concern is so much less for others than it is for yourself, that it might be pathological?
Not really. Maybe. Probably only because I would like to think that I'm emotionally intelligent enough to recognise a dangerous kind of selfish…
Look, I think the best guide is other people. If you get the sense from other people that you're not pulling your weight in social situations, or that you don't love them or recognise them, or notice when they're sick or unwell—if you get feedback that you aren't being socially responsive—then you've got a problem. If you're not getting that feedback, then it's probably not true. That being said, it's entirely possible to be emotionally intelligent and an evil person.
It's been argued that psychopathic people are very emotionally intelligent; they understand how it works but they just don't care about it. They're calculating it, they're just not necessarily acting on it in a way that takes other people's welfare seriously. Look, you've got to ask yourself: Do you care when your friends are unhappy or in pain? If you do, and if you show it in your behaviour, then you're okay.
Okay. How selfish is too selfish then?
If you're acting on your own interests in a way that actively harms other people's interests, then that's obviously too selfish. If you're acting in a way that's endangering your friendships and relationships, then that's a problem. You want to be selfish enough that you can assert your interests and rights and get what you deserve, but you don't want to be so selfish that you alienate people because they feel they can't rely on you or trust you. Getting the right balance is always a challenge, but if your friends aren't deserting you then you're probably doing alright.
I'm not a lot worried... but I'm a small amount worried.
I think a small amount of worry is a good sign. I actually like when people worry about whether they're good or not because it suggests that they are good enough to think about it.
What a paradox.
A little bit. I mean, do you think Donald Trump worries whether people think he's selfish? I think the really selfish people don't even care about it, it doesn't register. They're so selfish that they know they are number one and everyone else is a distant third.
I'm going to have to think about this a bit more. Apart from complimenting people, what else can I do to make sure I become less selfish?
It starts with your closest relationships. If you do spontaneous things for others—not reciprocating nice gestures but initiating them—I think that will help. You can also do volunteer work and pro bono work, work for a good social cause that helps people that are less well off than you are.
Do you think that those small behaviours will eventually change the way that I think and feel?
Yes, absolutely. Changing your behaviour does ultimately change the way you are. I think we've got to get around this idea that we have a personality and that we either act with it or against it. How you act becomes part of your personality. You know, if you behave in a certain way, you will most likely come to do it as a habit and it will become more of who you are. Also, there's a lot of good evidence that people become more friendly, helpful, and cooperative in their 20s and 30s. So there is hope for young people. Basically when you're forging a space for yourself and figuring out who you are, you do need to care a little bit less about other people, but as you get older there is objectively, on average, a lot of growth in concern for others.
What about having children or becoming a parent? Do you think that might make me less selfish?
Yes and no. This is one of the explanations that someone has given for why you tend to see rises in the personality characteristic called "agreeableness" in late-20s and 30s: because you become parents. I think having something that depends on you makes you less selfish for yourself but perhaps more selfish for your family or your child. But you certainly wouldn't want to have a child just to become less selfish.
Sounds a bit selfish when you say it like that.
Yes it could be.