Abstractly Ideal, Concretely Selfish

A new JPSP paper confirms that we are idealistic in far mode, and selfish in near mode. If you ask people for short abstract descriptions of their goals, they’ll say they have ideal goals. But if you ask them to describe in details what is it like to be them pursuing their goals, their selfishness shines clearly through. Details:

Completing an inventory asks the respondent to take an observer’s perspective upon the self, effectively asking, “What do you look like to others?” Imagining watching a video of oneself driving a car, playing basketball, or speaking to a friend is an experience as the self-as-actor. Rating the importance of various goals also recruits the self-as-actor. Motivated to maintain a moral reputation, the self-as-actor is infused with prosocial, culturally vetted scripts.

Another way of accessing motivation is by asking people questions about their lives. Open-ended verbal responses (e.g., narratives or implicit measures) require the respondent to produce ideas, recall details, reflect upon the significance of concrete events, imagine a future, and narrate a coherent story. In effect, prompts to narrate ask respondents, “What is it like to be you?” Imagining actually driving a car, playing basketball, or speaking to a friend is an experience as the self-as-agent (McAdams, 2013). Asking people to tell about their lives also recruits the self-as-agent. Motivated by survival, the self-as-agent is selfish in nature. …

Taken together, this leads to the prediction that frames the current research: Inventory ratings, which recruit the self-as-actor, will yield moral impressions, whereas narrated descriptions, which recruit the self-as-agent, will yield the impression of selfishness. …

The motivation to behave selfishly while appearing moral gave rise to two, divergently motivated selves. The actor—the watched self— tends to be moral; the agent—the self as executor—tends to be selfish. Each self serves its own adaptive function: The actor helps people maintain inclusion in groups, whereas the agent attends to basic survival needs. Three studies support the thesis that the actor is moral and the agent is selfish. In Study 1, actors claimed their goals were equally about helping the self and others (viz., moral); agents claimed their goals were primarily about helping the self (viz., selfish). This disparity was evident in both individualist and collectivist cultures, albeit more so among individualists. Study 2 compared actors and agents’ motives to those of people role-playing highly prosocial or selfish exemplars. In content and in the impression they made upon an outside observer, actors’ motives were similar to those of the prosocial role-players, whereas agents’ motives were similar to those of the selfish role-players. In Study 3, participants claimed that their agent’s motives were the more realistic and their actor’s motives the more idealistic of the two. When asked to take on an idealistic mindset, agents became more moral; a realistic mindset made the actor more selfish. (more)

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