Selfishness is defined as being concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself. It involves having little to no regard for the needs or feelings of others. Selfishness can manifest in different ways, such as being unwilling to share material possessions, being self-absorbed and unable to empathize with others, or doing things only for one’s own benefit without consideration for how it impacts others. Understanding the potential causes behind selfish attitudes and behaviors can provide insight into how to address this trait effectively in oneself or others.
Personality and Temperament
An individual’s innate personality and temperament can play a role in selfish tendencies. Some personality types are more prone to self-centered thinking and behaviors. For example, narcissistic personality disorder is characterized by an exaggerated sense of self-importance, lack of empathy, and a need for excessive admiration. Those with narcissistic tendencies are inherently self-focused and may act selfishly with little regard for others. Similarly, those prone to sociopathic traits like lack of empathy, manipulation, and antisocial behaviors are more likely to act in self-serving ways. Inherent personality factors that lead to lack of concern for others can increase selfish behaviors.
Insecurity and Low Self-Esteem
Ironically, selfishness can also stem from deep down insecurity and low self-esteem in some individuals. Those who feel insecure may compensate by putting themselves first at all times and overvaluing their own needs and desires compared to others. Acting selfishly can be an attempt to protect a fragile ego or feel special and entitled. Similarly, those with low self-esteem may overcompensate by establishing rigid boundaries, demonstrating selfish behaviors, and demanding attention or validation from others. In this way, insecurity can manifest as selfishness.
How someone is raised plays a significant role in shaping their personality and behaviors. Children who grow up with parental neglect, lack of affection, or abuse are more likely to develop insecure attachments styles that can lean toward selfish tendencies in adulthood. Similarly, children who are raised by permissive parents with few boundaries and limits can develop an inflated sense of self and entitlement that lends itself to self-centered thinking and actions. Being spoiled or overindulged as a child can lead to assumptions that one’s own needs should come first. On the other hand, children who grow up in very harsh, critical, or judgmental environments may become selfish as a form of self-protection. Overall, childhood experiences establish foundations for self-concept that can contribute to selfishness if care and concern for a child’s emotional needs are not prioritized.
In some cases, selfishness is a learned behavior that develops over time. Those who grow up around role models who display selfish habits are more likely to mirror those behaviors. For example, children with selfish parents may normalize self-centered actions and attitudes. Additionally, cultural or workplace environments that reinforce looking out for one’s own interests first can socialize selfish conduct over time. Selfishness can also become a survival mechanism when living in very competitive environments. In these cases, selfishness is a consequence of modeling observed behaviors or adapting to cultural norms. It is not inherent, but a learned response. With learned behaviors there is greater possibility for change.
Lack of Perspective Taking
A natural capability for perspective taking – the ability to perceive a situation from another person’s point of view – helps foster empathy and concern for others. Those who lack perspective taking skills, whether due to innate personality traits or underdevelopment, are more likely to act out of self-interest. Without the ability to imagine how one’s actions impact others there is little motivation to put others first. Development of perspective taking begins in early childhood and some are naturally more adept than others. But overall, limited perspective taking correlates with selfish mindsets.
Values and Priorities
Self-absorbed values and life priorities can lead to selfish behaviors. Those who highly value status, wealth accumulation, winning, achievement, independence and freedom over other goals like family, community, and collaboration are prone to be more self-focused. Not all ambitions lead to selfishness – a strong work ethic and desire to succeed, for example, are not inherently selfish. But certain highly individualistic values can promote self-interest and insensitivity to others’ needs. Additionally, those who prioritize responsibilities like providing for their family may come across as selfish in their desire to fulfill their perceived duties. Values and priorities centered on the self can therefore contribute to selfishness.
Lack of Self-Awareness
At times selfishness stems from a sheer lack of self-awareness – an inability to recognize one’s own selfish behaviors or impact on others. Deliberate selfishness clearly demonstrates an awareness of self-interest. But many act selfishly due to blind spots in self-perception. For example, someone may share exciting news before asking how the other person’s important meeting went. They may interrupt frequently or steer conversations back to themselves without awareness of how frustrating or hurtful those habits can feel. Boosting self-awareness around subtle selfish habits through introspection, input from others, or professional help can be an important first step in addressing selfish tendencies.
Mental Health Factors
In some cases, underlying mental health conditions can contribute to struggles with selfish attitudes or behaviors. For example, those with narcissistic personality disorder or sociopathic traits that stem from these conditions demonstrate consistent self-centeredness. Additionally, conditions like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia may involve phases where a person’s ability to consider others’ feelings and needs becomes compromised, even if temporarily. Trauma and significant life stressors can also lead to more survival-focused mindsets. While mental health issues do not always cause selfishness, they can be an important factor in some cases. Assessing and addressing any underlying conditions is key.
Lack of Meaningful Connections
Meaningful human connection helps instill concern for others and reminder of mutual interdependence. Those who lack close personal relationships and connection may default to more self-focused thinking and behaviors. Loneliness in particular can reinforce neglecting the needs of others. On the other hand, developing genuine care and intimacy for friends and family often amplifies empathy and consideration. Investing in meaningful relationships and community combats self-absorption. Disconnection from others facilitates selfish attitudes, while closeness typically mitigates them.
Habit or Temporary State
Occasional selfish behaviors or attitudes do not necessarily indicate an ingrained personality flaw. Selfishness can become a bad habit developed over time or a temporary state in response to life circumstances. Stress, survival fears, lack of sleep, illness, or feeling overwhelmed can all impact a person’s ability to extend care and consideration beyond themselves in a given moment. And habits like incessant interrupting or expecting favors without reciprocity can develop without awareness. So while selfishness can certainly be a lasting personality feature, it can also be a changeable state. Therefore, it is important not to label someone categorically selfish without considering other contexts.
Research suggests possible biological and neurological correlates of selfish tendencies as well. For example, abnormalities or dysfunctions in parts of the brain associated with empathy, moral reasoning, and emotion regulation are more common among those prone to narcissism, sociopathy, and psychopathy – all linked to selfish traits. Genetics likely play a role in innate personality tendencies including selfishness as well. The neurotransmitter serotonin is thought to influence social behaviors and selfish inclinations. While more research is needed, initial studies reveal biological and neurological foundations of selfish tendencies in some individuals.
Selfishness has complex, multi-factorial causes. Personality clearly plays a role, but many other factors like childhood experiences, mental health, modeling, habits, awareness, values, and biology intersect to shape selfish behaviors. There is no single cause that leads to selfishness in every case. Some people demonstrate innate selfish personality traits present from a very early age. In others, situational variables and learned behaviors perpetuate self-centeredness. Recognizing the nuanced, individualistic forces that may be driving selfishness is an important starting point for effectively addressing it, whether in oneself or others. With insight, understanding, and compassion, ingrained selfishness can often be overcome.