Presumed Selfish

Imagine that some person or organization is now a stranger, but you are considering forming a relation with them. Imagine further that they have one of two possible reputations: presumed selfish, or presumed pro-social. Assume also that the presumption about you is somewhere between these two extremes of selfish and pro-social.

In this situation you might think it obvious that you’d prefer to associate with the party that is presumed pro-social. After all, in this case social norms might push them to treat you nicer in many ways. However, there are other considerations. First, other forces, such as law and competition, might already push them to treat you pretty nicely. Second, social norms could also push you to treat them nicer, to a degree that law and competition might not push. And if you and they had a dispute, observers might be more tempted to blame you than them. Which could tempt them to demand more of you, knowing you’d fear an open dispute.

For example, consider which gas station you’d prefer, Selfish Sam’s or Nuns of Nantucket. If you buy gas from the nuns, social norms might push them to be less likely to sell you water instead of gas, and to offer you a lower price. But you might be pretty sure that laws already keep them from selling you water instead of gas, and their gas price visible from the road might already assure you of a low price. If you start buying gas from the nuns they might start to hit you up for donations to their convent. If you switched from them to another gas station they might suggest you are disloyal. You might have to dress and try to act extra nice there, such as by talking polite and not farting or dropping trash on the ground.

In contrast, if you buy gas from Selfish Sam’s, laws and competition could assure you that get the gas you wanted at a low price. And you could let yourself act selfish in your dealings with them. You could only buy gas when you felt like it, buy the type of gas best for you, and switch it all when convenient. You don’t have to dress or act especially nice when you are there, and you could buy a selfish snack if that was your mood. In any dispute between you and them most people are inclined to take your side, and that keeps Sam further in line.

This perspective helps make sense of some otherwise puzzling features of our world. First, we tend to presume that firms and bosses are selfish, and we often verbally criticize them for this (to others if not to their faces). Yet we are mostly comfortable relying on such firms for most of our goods and services, and on bosses for our jobs. There is little push to substitute non-profits who are more presumed to be pro-social. It seems we like the fact that most people will tend to take our side in a dispute with them, and we can feel more free to change suppliers and jobs when it seems convenient for us. Bosses are often criticized for disloyalty for firing an employee, while employees are less often criticized for disloyalty for quitting jobs.

Sometimes we feel especially vulnerable to being hurt by suppliers like doctors, hurt in ways that we fear law and competition won’t fix. In these cases we prefer such suppliers to have a stronger pro-social presumption, such as being bound by professional ethics and organized via non-profits. And we pay many prices for this, such as via acting nicer to them, avoiding disputes with them, and being reluctant to demand evaluations or to switch via competition. Similarly, the job of being a solider makes soldiers especially vulnerable to their bosses, and so soldier bosses are expected to be more pro-social.

As men tend to be presumed more selfish in our culture, this perspective also illuminates our male-female relations. Men commit more crime, women are favored in child custody disputes, and in dating men are more presumed to “only want one thing.” In he-said-she-said disputes, observers tend to believe the woman. Women tend more to initiate breakups, and find it easier to get trust-heavy jobs like nursing, teaching, and child-care, while men find it easier to get presumed-selfish jobs like investors and bosses. Female leaders are more easily criticized for selfish behavior, e.g., more easily seen as “bitchy”. Women tend to conform more, and to be punished more for nonconformity.

This all makes sense if men tend to feel more vulnerable to hidden betrayal by women, e.g. cuckoldry, while women can more use law and visible competition to keep men in line. In traditional gender roles, men more faced outsiders while women more faced inside the family. Thus men needed more to act “selfish” toward outsiders to help their families.

When those who are presumed selfish want to prove they are not selfish, they must sacrifice more to signal their pro-sociality. So men are expected to do more to signal devotion to women than vice versa. Conversely folks like doctors, teachers, or priests, who are presumed pro-social can often get away with actually acting quite selfishly, as long such choices are hard to document. Few with access to evidence are willing to directly challenge them.

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  • David Moss

    The observations about us holding firms to be selfish but being comfortable relying on them for good and services and not preferring non-profits; and preferring men for (challenging) jobs like investors and bosses and women for (caring, pro-social) work like teaching, childcare etc. fits perfectly with Cuddy, Fiske et al’s work on warmth and competence. For profits are judged to be less warm but more competent than non-profits and people prefer to buy from for-profits for this reason, as confirmed by Aaker, J. Vohs, K. D., & Mogilner, C. (2010) applying this framework. Likewise men are judged to be less warm, but more competent than women.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    Interesting insight. A corollary might explain the closeness of this election. We distrust female politicians who are saliently power-hungry because we (semi-reasonably) want to deny the most powerful the immunities of feminity.

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  • Sam Dangremond

    “There is little push to substitute non-profits…”

    Are we sure about this?

  • arch1

    You might want to qualify “relation” here. For example, much of this doesn’t seem to apply to the “consumes information from” relation.

    In what respects are soldier bosses expected to be more pro-social?

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      It should be obvious that I don’t mean relation is a math sense, such as “has same first name as”. I mean in our usual social sense, wherein others become aware of the relation and give it social weight.

  • JW Ogden

    You just described why my wife refuses to let me hire friends or buy through friends (i.e. buy insurance from a friend).

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