I’m a lover when it comes to humanity. But a blind love is a foolish love, so it’s important to know that humans came with an ugly side:
We are selfish by nature.
Of course you never hear a political candidate saying, “Vote for me so I’ll have power over you,” or a friend telling, “Let me help you so you’ll help me back in the future,” — selfish motives are tucked away on the back of the mind, waiting to make a move whenever needed.
And it’s not limited only to “bad” people after all, this is the game which all people play.
Pieces of evidence from evolutionary psychologists have made it even clearer that we all strive after social status, sexual competition, and try to win others’ minds for power. These are selfish, but in the past, selfishness means survival.
Without further ado, here are the unpleasant — yet crucial — attributes behind our behavior.
No-one Likes a Hypocrite — Yet We All Are
If there’s a reason why you’re here, it would be because your ancestors are hypocrites to some extent.
Don’t get me wrong. Of course early sapiens are “genuinely” cooperative. They hunt together, jointly defending their territories, many else. But foods were limited back then; not every member would get the best — fertile — spouse either. So they compete with the other members within the tribe, not necessarily by killing one another — but by using social status.
And succeeding in the status game is the matter of two crucial points. First, it’s essential to gather the best allies possible; you also need to show that you are classified on becoming one. This holds the reason why:
- We’re very interested in others’ flaws, ultimately when there are signs of hypocrisy. We want to know whether or not they’ll make good friends, allies, lovers, or leaders.
- Since others are also judging us, we eager to look good. We only show the best version of ourselves, thus, downplaying the ugly ones. It’s in our vein to conceal any flaws from the open public.
It’s easy to find people posting popular opinions on the media. But when it comes to the truth that might damage our social standing — shut comes more often. We all are — in part — a hypocrite.
We Deceive Others by First Deceiving Ourselves
Winning at the game of life requires the ability to convince others one’s way of thinking. Oftentimes this would mean cherry-picking facts, sweet lying, and the act of deceiving.
But deception is hard work. Besides making things up, you also need to overcome the fear of getting caught. This is why evolution equipped us with the weapon of self-deception. As Robert Trivers once stated that the better we deceive ourselves, the better also we deceive others.
Take the example of athletes competing with each other.
As we have known already, being a winner is more about the mentality than the skill. And developing a good mentality requires some level of self-deception. The better a boxer deceives himself against signs of tiredness or fear, the harder will the opponents see a chance to succeed.
Well, nothing wrong with it, right?
Sure, until you find the very same pattern with those opportunistic leaders, co-workers, or politicians who firmly believe in goodness out of their dishonorable intention.
People are Loyal and Altruist — But There’s a Catch
Let me hit the brake for a sec. Humans are not purely selfish; they can be loyal, sacrifice for others, many else. We are great team players — P.S. only to our groups.
Jonathan Haidt explained it best in his book The Righteous Mind:
Individuals compete with individuals, and that competition rewards selfishness…But at the same time, groups compete with groups, and that competition favors groups composed of true team players — those who are willing to cooperate and work for the good of the group.
In other words, we are the descendants of successful tribalists.
But don’t get me wrong, we can be polite and helpful even to strangers. But nothing sparks “our altruistic nature” better than attachment to a group.
Call it “Chelsea vs. Arsenal,” “Bulls vs. Lakers,” “Left-Wing vs. Right-Wing,” “Conformist vs. Innovators,” or “Humanity vs. COVID-19,”
Loyalty is about picking a side. Love and hate are two facets of the same coin.
Our Rationality Masked our Selfish Motives
We are the champion in our ability to make “reasons”. And as we’ll see, it doesn’t matter much whether it is true or half-true reasons — as long as they sound perfectly rational.
To illustrate, examine the last time you said “I’m too busy” or “I’m not feeling well today” as a reason to decline unwanted meetings or other social encounters.
While there’s a grain of truth to these reasons, oftentimes, they don’t recount the wholeness of the story. There’s another motive below the iceberg — translated into words: “I simply don’t want to go”.
The same usually occurs with students rationalizing their mistakes, companies accentuating their pretty motives, or the government clarifying their policies.
The point is, we have many reasons for our behaviors, but we habitually accentuate and exaggerate our pretty, prosocial motives and downplay our ugly, selfish ones. — Simler & Hanson, from “The Elephant in the Brain”.
How to not Fall For it
To understand the motives of others is surely not an easy task. It takes a lot of observation as well as growing one’s own experiences over time.
But if there’s one key takeaway from this article, it would be represented in the dictum:
Actions speak louder than words
Honest signals are more expensive to be done.
For example, non-verbal cues are more reliable than verbal cues. That because it would be harder for someone to conceal her body language (gestures, facial expression, or nervousness) than modifying the content of her speech.
Indeed, you can differentiate which friend is reliable — and which is not — by the way they show a helping hand. As every wise person would propose: a loyal friend is the one who’s there even in the worst times.