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What’s the Difference Between Selfishness and Self-Interest?

By Andrew McNaughton, LCSW, CADC

In my work with individuals, I frequently will hear folks say, “This may sound selfish, but” and

far more often than not, they are expressing a desire to prioritize their self-interest, not selfishness. I am always quick to point out to them that identifying and prioritizing their preferences is not an act of selfishness, but rather they are acting in their own self-interest.

What’s the difference? My go-to example of selfishness comes from a classic episode of the show South Park. In this episode, the kids decide to ignore Eric Cartman, who then goes on to think he has died and is a ghost. The precipitating event occurs when Stan’s mother brings a bucket of fried chicken for the four boys to eat, asking that they help her take the groceries from her car before they dig in. Cartman encourages his friends to help out so they can eat sooner, then hangs back, and while the other three kids are helping Stan’s mom, he proceeds to tear off and scarf down the skins off of every piece of fried chicken in the bucket. When Stan and Kyle protest, Cartman tells them he did this for their benefit by saving all the chicken for them. Now, this is selfishness! Cartman satisfies his own instant gratification that deliberately comes at the expense of his three friends, who are understandably upset.

So then what is self-interest? There are varying views of what self-interest is and is not, but let’s look at it purely from a motivational perspective. With little exception, none of us choose to do anything we do not anticipate will be beneficial, whether it be a long-term benefit or more immediate gratification. This opens up a larger philosophical question about whether there are ever truly any selfless acts, but to keep things relatively simple here, even extreme acts of self-sacrifice are still determined based on the individual identifying benefits versus costs in their decision to act selflessly. Self-interest can mean prioritizing one’s own self-care, to make sure we take care of ourselves first before we attempt to help others.

A common analogy for self-interest is the airplane oxygen mask. What do flight attendants tell everyone before the plane takes off? They tell passengers, if there is depressurization in the cabin, oxygen masks will deploy from above. They say, make sure to put on ours first before aiding anyone else. This is not suggested to be something done at the expense of another passenger in need, but to make sure we are in the best possible position to help ourselves and then help others. Struggling to help someone else with the oxygen mask while gasping for air ourselves does not put us in the most favorable conditions to help anyone, up to and including us!

Selfishness, by contrast, is behavior that elevates our wants over and at the expense of other people. If Cartman had asked and paid for extra fried chicken so he could eat the skins while leaving the rest untouched, it may have seemed glutinous but it ultimately does not harm anyone else and is therefore acting in his own self-interest. By tricking his friends into helping with groceries while he tampers with all of their food, he is not only satisfying his own desires

but also actively harming and inconveniencing his three friends. Selfishness does not always have to be deliberate, but even if done in ignorance of how it will impact others, there is almost always callous indifference added to this mix of motivation. This is all to say that prioritizing yourself is not unhealthy or selfish as long as you are aware of and care about how it might impact others. So remember, if your behavior would seem acceptable to Eric Cartman on South Park, it is almost certainly a selfish and harmful act.

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