Please, make me be selfish
October 12th, 2012
07:39 AM ET

Please, make me be selfish

People are inherently selfish. Research shows we're happier and our lives improve when we focus on ourselves.

Makes sense, right?

So why does research also show that we often put others first and fail to choose what will make us happy?

The problem comes, researcher Jonathan Berman says, when we have to decide between spending the $20 we found on the ground on new shoes and donating it to charity.

If you're walking by a shopping center when you pick up the money, you're more likely to freely spend it on yourself. But if you're walking by a homeless shelter, "suddenly spending $20 on yourself feels so different," Berman says.

Ah, guilt.

Berman and his colleague Deborah Small at the University of Pennsylvania hypothesized that forcing a person to be selfish would be liberating - allowing them to enjoy their self-interest pursuit without feeling selfish.

Berman and Small conducted three separate studies with anywhere from 130 to 250 participants to test their theory. Their results were published this week in the journal Psychological Science.

The first study

In the first study, participants were told they either would receive $3 to spend on themselves or $3 to donate to the United Nations Children's Fund. One group was allowed to choose. Another group was given $3 to spend on themselves; a third group was simply given a receipt for their donation.

The participants were then asked to rate on a scale of 1-7 how much they enjoyed receiving or donating the money and how satisfied they were.

Approximately 40% chose to donate to charity. There was no difference in happiness between those who gave to charity and those who didn't.

But participants who were given $3 to spend on themselves were happier than those in the choice group and happier than those forced to donate to charity.

"People do enjoy receiving a lot," Berman says. "They enjoy it particularly because they have no choice."

The second study

In a following study, Berman and Small asked three groups to make a choice. One group had to choose between two gift cards to themselves, the other group had to choose between two gift cards for charity and the third had to choose between giving to themselves and giving to charity.

Again, approximately 40% of participants in the choice group gave to charity, and neither choice resulted in more satisfaction. The group that reported being the happiest was the group that had to decide between the two gift cards.

The third study

In the last study, the researchers asked participants their preference, whether they would like to donate to charity or keep the money. They were then told a computer would decide what would happen. In reality, all participants received their preference.

Once again, 40% donated to charity. Among those who kept the money, people who believed the computer had made the choice for them felt better about the outcome.


So what does all that show? "People gain happiness from doing what is in their self-interest," the study authors write. "Yet much research casts doubt on this basic assumption. We argue that one reason why people do not feel happier with self-interested behavior is that doing so sometimes involves sacrificing the well-being of others along the way, and individuals often feel uneasy about making this trade-off."

soundoff (81 Responses)
  1. MCR

    This article doesn't even support its own thesis – and I had to read it twice to be sure because it is so poorly structured.

    October 12, 2012 at 08:51 | Report abuse | Reply
    • share-n-share alike

      ayn randian bulls+/*x

      October 12, 2012 at 10:32 | Report abuse |
    • Vic

      Agreed! As I was reading this it seemed to veer more toward "people who can make a choice are happier" than having anything to do with selfishness. It seemed more that those who were given an actual choice in what to do felt more in control, and thus happier. But then, there really isn't enough info for any clear thesis to come out of the article, least of all th eone asserted in the beginning.

      October 12, 2012 at 16:19 | Report abuse |
    • Maria

      STOP Obama's terrorism against Medical Marijuana cancer patients. STOP this Pig, STOP this Jerk.

      October 13, 2012 at 20:56 | Report abuse |
    • Christopher

      I agree 100%. It was confusing. The first study I understood right off the bat. However, the second study I had to read three times before I understood it because of the way in which it was worded. I think the conclusion of this entire experiment is that people are most happy when they are acting in their own self-interest so long as they don't have to feel guilty about it.

      October 14, 2012 at 11:36 | Report abuse |
    • jill

      Thats why the bible says its better to "give" than to "receive". But it also says to give with a "cheerful" heart. So that means we enjoy getting and giving and giving is only better when its not forced but its what you want to do.

      October 15, 2012 at 08:52 | Report abuse |
    • Poltergiest

      Exactly. They don't even give the choice group a choice other than some faceless organization.

      October 15, 2012 at 09:41 | Report abuse |
  2. Huh?

    I agree with MCR. I too had to read twice lol!

    October 12, 2012 at 09:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. KJM

    Agreed.....please re-write.

    October 12, 2012 at 10:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. ConA

    These are poorly-designed experiments. Selfishness should not be gauged by whether or not someone would donate to charity or not. In this recession, people have family members who could use money so if I have an extra $20 and can afford my health insurance and the roof over my head, I would donate it to my family next. Am I selfish?

    October 12, 2012 at 10:21 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Primal 4 Life

      Nope, not a bit.

      October 12, 2012 at 13:05 | Report abuse |
    • Christopher

      Yes, and truthfully one doesn't always know how money given to charity is going to be spent. One might just as easily decide to give it instead to one's own church. Or use the gift card to buy one's children clothing.

      October 14, 2012 at 11:42 | Report abuse |
  5. vichara

    The main idea opened a door for examination, discussion and hopefully moving out of where you are to a healthier place with your awareness and then your body. Take it to deeper / higher levels and never get stuck in the obvious. Choose Awareness.

    October 12, 2012 at 11:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. cgire

    Oh, my. So, I should give in to my inner barbarian and take what I want, no matter the impact on the remainder of society?

    Perhaps that will encourage some to release their inner barbarian and steal a few bucks from the till, or push an old lady off a bridge (after relieving her of her much-needed purse).

    Sure, we can go with our most primitive impulses and be selfish – or we can try to make the world into a more civilized place.

    A previous writer mentioned that this seemed to be an Ayn Rand-ish article. And I'd say that being selfish may also be the new tenet of the Republican Party. Too bad that many more moderate Republicans I know would totally disagree with this mindless reversion to impulse gratification.

    October 12, 2012 at 11:35 | Report abuse | Reply
    • vichara

      whatever you say reveals alot about you take care

      October 12, 2012 at 11:44 | Report abuse |
    • Primal 4 Life

      Way to miss the point of the article by thousands of miles.

      October 12, 2012 at 13:05 | Report abuse |
    • adh1729

      cgire got the point of the article just fine. Well stated, cgire.

      October 12, 2012 at 23:58 | Report abuse |
    • Primal 4 Life

      Nope, he missed it entirely. My comment stands.

      October 15, 2012 at 15:12 | Report abuse |
  7. Sean

    Is this another one of those academic studies where the group(s) surveyed consist of young students, only? Any attempt to generalize findings with any confidence from such a "sample" to the heterogeneous, general population is simply ludicrous, and this happens all the time...

    October 12, 2012 at 11:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. FiveLIters

    They aren't taking into account that society tries to teach people to feel guilty about not giving to charity and the like. I say,give to what YOU want to,IF you want to,and feel no shame about the rest. Someone is always collecting for this or that at our office,and it just gets ridiculous at times. But I will tell people straight up "thanks,but I'm not interested" if it really isn't something I wish to support. I don't go around collecting for this or that,so I'm not overly enthusiastic when other people do.

    October 12, 2012 at 12:15 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Primal 4 Life

      Liberals try and make people feel guilty, conservatives prefer people make their own choices. It's the main reason I have no respect for liberals.

      October 12, 2012 at 12:51 | Report abuse |
    • Poltergiest

      No one can make you feel guilty. If you felt guilty that's all you. Someone else might not. Some people feel guilt for murder, others do not. In the end, it's all just your feeling.

      October 15, 2012 at 10:06 | Report abuse |
    • Primal 4 Life

      Of course nobody can make me feel guilty, that does not stop liberals from trying to make people feel that way. It cannot be denied, there is evidence everywhere and weak minded people who fall for it.

      October 15, 2012 at 15:11 | Report abuse |
    • Cora Grace

      Just taking a dollar and putting it in the offering plate, or giving a lost dollar to a shelter doesn't really bring about much satisfaction. But seeing where the dollar goes does contribute to a sense of wellbeing and meaningfulness. Organizations quite often take the money and spend it on themselves...so..the donation of time and things rather than just money is the key to happiness. The giver needs to be more involved and see results.

      October 17, 2012 at 13:19 | Report abuse |
  9. Sunny

    I do not agree with this author. You get real happiness and satisfaction whenever you are not selfish. Main goal of life is to do something for the society. Otherwise, life itself is useless.

    October 12, 2012 at 12:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Primal 4 Life

      Sorry 100% wrong, there is no main goal to life, period.

      October 12, 2012 at 12:49 | Report abuse |
    • alex

      To Primal For Life....get back on your medication....ok?

      October 12, 2012 at 13:18 | Report abuse |
    • Primal 4 Life

      LMAO at poor, ignorant, alex.

      October 12, 2012 at 15:13 | Report abuse |
    • Poltergiest

      It's your life primal, it can be as meaningless as you want it to be.

      October 15, 2012 at 09:44 | Report abuse |
    • Primal 4 Life

      It is my life, and it's far from meaningless. Best part, I am the only one who gets to decide. Everyone else has nothing to say to me that matters.

      October 15, 2012 at 15:10 | Report abuse |
  10. Jorge

    I got over the guilt thing one day when I discovered that the American Cancer Society, for which I had hit the pavement in the hot sun so many times collecting donations as a teenager, had "administrative costs" of over 70% and a reputation for embezzlement (!!!!) and at one time had been associated with a psychopathic bigot who performed Mengele-style cancer experiments on Puerto Ricans like my mother and father (!!!!!!!!!) I was so p!ssed and felt so stupid that I bit my lip bloody and punched through the wall, but I've been cured of naive and selfless ever since...

    October 12, 2012 at 12:28 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ceilo


      October 12, 2012 at 15:53 | Report abuse |
    • peridot2

      Different charities have different admin costs. Look them up, their information is all on public record. Choose the charity you prefer which doesn't waste a lot of its income.

      According to charitynavigator dot org, the American Cancer Society spends 7.2% of its costs on admin expenses. Jorge, I must call BS on your post. It would seem that you prefer not to give and you use a lame@$$ claim to support your desire not to give.

      October 14, 2012 at 18:03 | Report abuse |
  11. Primal 4 Life

    Guilt, LMAO I don't even know the meaning of the word.

    You get one life and one life only people, you cannot save the world, don't waste it trying.

    October 12, 2012 at 12:47 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Poltergiest

      And no doubt people treat you with the same regard once they realize youre just out for yourself anyways.

      October 15, 2012 at 09:53 | Report abuse |
    • Primal 4 Life

      Nope, I have many great friends who I always stand by.

      October 15, 2012 at 15:13 | Report abuse |
  12. kay

    Article desperately needs an editor.

    As to "found money", I always donate it - it wasn't mine to begin with, it was someone else's. If I can't find the owner, then it goes to the universe of "someone else". - often a local food bank or library.

    October 12, 2012 at 12:52 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ceilo

      Lol I love finding money... found a $20 once... but I've never donated it and never felt guilty about it lol.. It wasn't mine to begin with but... finders keepers!

      October 12, 2012 at 15:55 | Report abuse |
  13. alex

    Article must have been written by a CNN intern or someone in a high school english class. This is what we have come to accept from CNN...Like Ted Turner said when they asked him how he felt about CNN these days...he responded...."They destroyed my baby...look what they have done to my baby."

    October 12, 2012 at 13:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. NanH

    "Studies" like this make me crazy. Where are the controls? What is happy? Does the amount of money involved make a difference? Who exactly were the participants (rich, poor, black, white, educated, and so on)? And how can blanket statements be made about the entire human population based on 30 people? I am sure I could go on but I couldn't bring myself to read the article twice!!

    October 12, 2012 at 13:41 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ceilo

      doesn't matter as long as it's in the news 😉

      October 12, 2012 at 16:02 | Report abuse |
  15. Mark

    Giving to yourself without guilt, that sounds great. Too bad that we rarely get that opportunity. We are bombarded with guilt from a very early age. From religion to relatives, we are guilted into doing things we would rather not do. Sure, some of it is in our best interest in the long haul, but really, we are set up for a life where we do nothing but sacrifice.

    October 12, 2012 at 14:35 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Primal 4 Life

      You do not have to accept that, I don't.

      October 12, 2012 at 15:14 | Report abuse |
    • Poltergiest

      Yeah, there is sacrifice involved in maintaining the society we enjoy. And hearing an American saying anything about a "life of sacrifice" is pretty dumbfounding.

      October 15, 2012 at 09:50 | Report abuse |
  16. Natalie

    There are plenty of selfish people in the world already. We don't need to promote it.

    October 12, 2012 at 15:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Olaf Big

    Please make her speak English. That would be a start...

    October 12, 2012 at 15:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. randy

    total ayn randian garbage. this kind of thinking is what the devil would sell....if there were such a thing.

    October 12, 2012 at 16:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. sto

    “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

    “Jesus replied, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

    October 12, 2012 at 16:46 | Report abuse | Reply
    • dbg

      Bold move sto...i like it. Our generation has become so blinded by pride, greed, and selfishness that we believe we can mold reality into our desired selfish lifestyle rather than conforming our desires to fit reality.

      October 13, 2012 at 03:27 | Report abuse |
  20. lindaluttrell

    I read the article because I thought it might mean to be "selfish" when it comes to your health. While guilt" can be damaging, so can risky behavior. One thing I can say is: I used to be one of those who put everyone else first. Now, that I'm older and live alone, I've learned to put MY needs first if I want to continue to do so. Necessity can override guilt!

    October 12, 2012 at 16:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Fred

    This is an interesting study, but it does not seem to differentiate between short-term happiness (i.e., instant gratification) and long-term happiness. Even if short-term happiness is greater in those who are "forced" to be selfish for an immediate reward, I wonder if that really equates to long-term happiness with one's life choices. People may misread this study into suggesting that they should always be selfish, and that this will lead to long-term contentment.

    October 12, 2012 at 19:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Shellie

    Troll science.

    October 12, 2012 at 20:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. What if

    Interesting study but incomplete
    The reality is we are individually selfish as evolution dictates
    The stickler is it doesn't work well and doesn't most of the time
    Because we all belong to the BIG FAMILY that cares about each and everyone of us . Not always evident though
    Watch a flock of birds, they fly as a unit , individually are Vulnerable as a unit they seem daunting to predators . Price equated it perfectly.

    October 12, 2012 at 21:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Benny

    Money is an object of impermanance and cannot be linked to happiness.

    October 13, 2012 at 00:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. jesuguru

    Some in the 1st group may have been unhappy not because the money went to charity in general, but specifically because it went to anything run by the United Nations.

    October 13, 2012 at 01:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Julio

    I am selfish, does that mean I am happier than most? no I may not be but I don't care. I choose how I want to feel.
    FYI my statement is deeper than you think, It was double meaning. Study that!

    October 13, 2012 at 04:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Katherine

    I disagree completely with the first point the article tries to make. I'm so much happier when I am in the service of others. That doesn't mean I neglect myself at all but that I remember that to make my life fulfilling I have to think of the true needs of those around me and not just my own. I teach third grade and wouldn't do this job if I didn't believe this way of thinking. When I become obsessed with my own wants I become depressed. Then I look at how much I am able to help people around me and life doesn't seem so bad.

    October 13, 2012 at 07:57 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Peter O'Hannigan

      Very true

      October 13, 2012 at 16:54 | Report abuse |
  28. skeptical

    As someone else mentioned, the very concept of found money probably skews the outcome of the study. Further, there is no third option of what to do with the money. I would probably put an extra $20 in savings!

    As for selfishness and giving, I think there's a gray area in the middle that is not discussed. What if you spent that $20 on something that was renewing, something that gave you more energy to give to others? For example, you spend the $20 on a yoga session, consequently going home with more energy and enthusiasm for helping your child through their homework. Even though you've spent the money on yourself, doing something for yourself that makes you MORE able to give to others isn't a selfish act in my book. I find it unfortunate that the concept of giving vs. selfishness is limited to the material nature of money. Many of the best ways of giving selflessly have nothing to do with money.

    October 13, 2012 at 08:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Nicole

    And this is why I believe happiness is over rated. Pain, sadness, and sacrifice are part of what makes us human, and part of what makes those moments of happiness feel all the sweeter.

    October 13, 2012 at 11:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Larry

    Beyond basic needs gaining possessions for yourself brings much smaller increments of happiness.
    Do what evolution designed us to do, contribute part of what you have to help pull others up.

    October 13, 2012 at 14:11 | Report abuse | Reply
    • rh

      As long as it is not mandated, it is fine to give to charity.

      It thoroughly disgusts me that I pay more in taxes because religious organizations have exemptions. There is NO inherent benefit from a religiously-affiliated organization "doing good works" versus a non-religious organization "doing good works". Tax breaks should be EXACTLY the same regardless of whether religion is involved – zero unless you CLEARLY can show that profit is NOT being made.

      My dad's priest drives a Land Rover and a Beemer. Is that what religious tax breaks do for us?

      October 13, 2012 at 22:25 | Report abuse |
  31. Dirk the Daring

    Maybe the author has been listening to the Smiths song "Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want."

    October 13, 2012 at 17:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Dirk the Daring

    Good times for a change
    see, the luck I've had
    can make a good man
    turn bad

    So please please please
    let me, let me, let me
    let me get what I want
    this time

    Haven't had a dream in a long time
    see, the life I've had
    can make a good man bad

    So for once in my life
    let me get what I want
    Lord knows it would be the first time
    Lord knows it would be the first time

    October 13, 2012 at 17:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Deb

    Selfishness is OK to a certain point, but pure selfishness is not conducive to civilization. That said, the research cited is completely useless.

    October 13, 2012 at 19:17 | Report abuse | Reply
    • rh

      In order to be purely selfish and NOT a bane to civilization, you have to be educated.

      A baby is purely selfish, but it also has NO idea what is in its best interest. It would crap on the floor, eat it, bite the b00b that feeds it, etc. etc. etc.

      The only way selfishness becomes a virtue is through enough education to realize that a) yes, you are the most important person to please on this planet, but also b) taking care of your progeny and your loved ones IS in your best interest because they either did or do or will take care of you, and finally c) taking care of your fellow man IS in your best interest (for example, offering health care and education for illegal immigrants) because YOU are protecting yourself from them in terms of avoiding THEM infringing on you.

      Anyone who says "I am an altruist" is clearly a liar, because there is no such thing. It is NOT in anyone's best interest to do things without any hope or thought of recompense, even Mother Theresa and various martyrs of various religions "did it" because THEY felt it was important – it was not about the people they were saving or dying for, it was about THEIR feelings.

      October 13, 2012 at 22:23 | Report abuse |
  34. Minnie Mouse

    It doesn't pay to be selfish. It doesn't pay to be greedy. It does pay to be giving and as it does pay to be forgiving.

    With that said, don't be selfish and don't be greedy. Give the most that you can, and it has nothing to do with money and give people a second chance.

    If anyone thinks they are destined to be selfish, think again because that's why the word options is in the dictionary.

    October 14, 2012 at 06:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. jill

    Thats why the bible says its better to "give" than to "receive". But it also says to give with a "cheerful" heart. So that means we enjoy getting and giving and giving is only better when its not forced but its what you want to do

    October 15, 2012 at 08:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Polly

    This assumes no one gets joy out of giving. We don't need to change from being selfish. We just need to change what makes us feel good. I feel good when I do ethical things.

    October 15, 2012 at 13:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. mark

    The researchers missed a very important point....the main point of giving to others isn't to feel good about our selves and our own happiness but to help those in need simply because it is the right thing to do. Think where we would be if all those who fought to free others in WWII would have first asked them selves "is this going to make me happier?"

    October 15, 2012 at 14:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. grinch

    Selfishness & benevolence are learned behaviors. A selfish person will be happier when he does something selfish. A benevolent person will be happier when he does something for others.

    October 15, 2012 at 16:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. Really?

    I'll stick to the understanding of an actual anthropological researcher who used multiple data sets from numerous different world populations and social structures to come up with his understanding of altruism vs. selfishness and what about this understanding could be considered a human universal and what isn't...

    His name to his students at UCSB was Chag... And just the fact that most of his colegues hated his guts but could never prove him wrong made me listen VERY carefully at his lectures... This "Study" is garbage... Like most of the "Studies" that actually make news these days. sheesh.

    October 15, 2012 at 18:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. t-bird

    Some people get a good feeling from helping others- which is "selfish" too. If you're doing something that makes YOU feel good, then you're being "Selfish". There's no such thing as "happy altruism". Our society determines social power by how much guilt someone can incur in another.

    October 16, 2012 at 07:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. Jeff

    There's something very wrong with the first study... "But participants who were given $3 to spend on themselves were happier than those in the choice group and happier than those forced to donate to charity."
    So you called someone in, used your own funds to donate to charity, and gave them a receipt for it. And they're supposed to care why?

    October 23, 2012 at 22:31 | Report abuse | Reply
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