Behavioral and Brain Sciences



Altruism and selfishness


Howard Rachlin a1
a1 Psychology Department, State University of New York, Stony Brook, NY 11794-2500 howard.rachlin@sunysb.edu

Abstract

Many situations in human life present choices between (a) narrowly preferred particular alternatives and (b) narrowly less preferred (or aversive) particular alternatives that nevertheless form part of highly preferred abstract behavioral patterns. Such alternatives characterize problems of self-control. For example, at any given moment, a person may accept alcoholic drinks yet also prefer being sober to being drunk over the next few days. Other situations present choices between (a) alternatives beneficial to an individual and (b) alternatives that are less beneficial (or harmful) to the individual that would nevertheless be beneficial if chosen by many individuals. Such alternatives characterize problems of social cooperation; choices of the latter alternative are generally considered to be altruistic. Altruism, like self-control, is a valuable temporally-extended pattern of behavior. Like self-control, altruism may be learned and maintained over an individual's lifetime. It needs no special inherited mechanism. Individual acts of altruism, each of which may be of no benefit (or of possible harm) to the actor, may nevertheless be beneficial when repeated over time. However, because each selfish decision is individually preferred to each altruistic decision, people can benefit from altruistic behavior only when they are committed to an altruistic pattern of acts and refuse to make decisions on a case-by-case basis.


Key Words: addiction; altruism; commitment; cooperation; defection; egoism; impulsiveness; patterning; prisoner's dilemma; reciprocation; reinforcement; selfishness; self-control.


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