Political economist Elinor Ostrom posed the question, “Fundamentally, are people motivated by self-interest or concern for others?”
Please take a moment and think about the question. What do you think? I mean, what do you really think?
When I think about that question, I feel like I’m supposed to say that people are motivated by concern for others – I mean we’re not all terrible, right? But that answer feels pretty naive and idealistic – in a though situation, when the chips are down and you’re acting on instinct, are you really going to act from concern for others or will self-interest kick in?
I remember clearly being an angsty teen, disillusioned with the world, and arguing strongly that even altruistic acts were ultimately motivated by self-interest – such as wanting to feel good about yourself. I could hardly conceive of a world where people fundamentally acted from concern for others, and it seemed childish that I had ever thought such a thing.
In Nina Eliasoph’s Avoiding Politics, she reflects on her experience embedded with a variety of community groups. In private settings, she finds, activists talk about the effect of the issue on others in their community. They talk about the structural inequities and the injustice of the situtation.
Then they have a public action and talk to reporters.
“I’m just a mom,” they say. “I want to protect my kids.”
Their concern for others vanishes and they self-promote as individualistic, average people.
Yesterday, Boston Mayor Tom Menino touted the value of his summer job program for teens. “Summer jobs help us reduce violence in the city,” he said, citing a new study from Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies.
From the TV news coverage this morning, it was clear that they wanted me to know that giving teens summer jobs was ultimately good for me – that it made me safer and protected my interests.
But isn’t it also just good for teens to have summer jobs? Isn’t that enough?
Are people really self-interested, or do we just act that way because we expect them to be self-interested?
There seems to be some evidence that people do, or can, act from concern for others.
But in my world, as a marketer, perception is everything. It almost doesn’t matter what is true – we act and react based on our perceptions and that shapes the world around us, often reinforcing our initial perceptions.
So the next question becomes, how do we change the expectation that people are self interested? How do we make it the norm that people care about others? And of course, how do we avoid losing everything when we start looking out for others and they keep looking out for themselves?
And there I go again – assuming everyone else is acting from self interest.