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The egocentric, the altruist and the everyday hero

Posted 22nd April 2020

(3 min read)

“This hybrid engine of self-interest and concern for others serves a much wider circle of people than can be reached by self-interest or caring alone.” Bill Gates

As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, reports of selfish behaviours decrease and altruist behaviour increases. Our change of perception regarding this virus could explain this shift.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 crises, the media talked about the need for individual responsibility (self-imposed isolation). However, some of us didn’t comply with voluntary responsibility as cooperation didn’t align with our self interest (we didn’t want to change our daily lives and stop sports and socialising). As the pandemic became more virulent and mortalities increased, suddenly we were told and perhaps understood that we had a collective responsibility – a moral duty to comply with the rules. 

Then, all over Europe, we observed an increase of altruist behaviour. Non-compliance, with rules imposed by governments, was not perceived as freedom of choice but as antisocial behaviour with dire consequences. Individuals disrespecting rules were seen as pariahs and even criminals. They were shunned and shamed by their community and seen as irresponsible and dangerous. The fear of sanctions could also have motivated this decrease of selfish behaviour.


But are people entirely selfish or entirely selfless?

Research shows us that purely selfish behaviour is motivated by self-interest, but also by social recognition, reputation and immediate reward. Selfish behaviour can often also cause inertia (as we don’t want to change what works for us).

Purely selfless behaviour is motivated by putting other people’s needs before one’s own, the protection of those around, the positive performance of a team and the ability to see long-time benefits.  Selfless behaviour can often lead to self-sacrifice and exhaustion.

Very few of us are always selfless or selfish.  Most of us are selfish in some situations and selfless in other situations. Doctors volunteering to leave their family and travel to areas rife with COVID-19 choose to risk their lives to save more patients every day. Their behaviour may appear incredibly generous and brave from an outsider point of view but from their own family perspective, their behaviour is selfish.    


The importance of looking good when you do some good.

In these troubled times, we can be stuck in a social dilemma; “Should we do what is best for ourselves and hope that others compensate for our selfishness?” or should we do what’s best for the group, hoping others won’t take advantage of us?

As David Mayer writes, a combination of self-interest and altruism drives us to be our best -most of us care about “doing good” (altruistic behaviour) whilst “looking good” (selfish motive)-.

Religious traditions have conveyed the idea that helping others is a very commendable act that our society values. As part of this we are taught to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. This empathy leads to prosocial behaviour.  However, what we aren’t told is that often the motives that underpin our altruist impulse are selfish.

Jonathan Haidt, professor of ethical leadership, got infected by COVID 19. He confessed “As someone who studies moral psychology, I can say we all do care about the welfare of other people – although inconsistently. We also all care about our reputationsvery consistently

Both David Mayer and Jonathan Haidt state that civic courage is motivated by “social glory”, so doing good is only valuable for us if it makes us look good.


Why is social glory important?

Recognizing that innate desire for social recognition motivates prosocial actions brings heroes back down from their pedestals. It makes them more vulnerable, more human, more like us. It also means that “taking a risk to help others” is not an innate quality reflecting bravery but an attitude that one can choose to emulate


The quiet force of  the ‘everyday hero’ compared to the ‘big hero’.

The dedication, the endurance and the bravery of doctors and nurses are truly awe-inspiring. However, it doesn’t necessarily motivate us (the medically uneducated or unskilled) to take initiative to “to do some good” in this time of crisis.

Research from Keczer et al. underlines the difference between the big hero and the small hero. The first one, refers to doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers. They can affect a large number of people, they harness a lot of publicity, they take life-threatening risks, they shine in unusual circumstances and they have specific abilities. In contrast, everyday heroes or transparent heroes refer to conscientious janitors in hospitals, street cleaners, thoughtful neighbours who clap every night to express their gratitude to healthcare workers or delivery men. Everyday heroes affect a small number of people, they often go unnoticed by the public, they tackle social challenges and display courage and heroism in common situations and they don’t have specific abilities.

Keczer et al. states that displaying concrete examples of everyday heroism would be a more efficient way to encourage individuals to behave heroically in their everyday lives. Behaving heroically can be defined as acting as a life-saviour. Everyday small initiatives such as singing happy birthday from your balcony to an 80 year old neighbour or disinfecting hospital beds can save lives by fostering connection and emotional support or keeping the environment clean of viruses

The efforts of everyday heroes are rarely recognized.Whilst everyday heroes don’t do good to look good – their motivations can also be self-centered. In cleaning beds, the hospital janitors benefit themselves as much as the patients – as they may be the next patient. The balcony clappers want to express their gratitude to the health workers but also secretly hope that their action will be rewarded in case they need medical help. 

Each of us can relate to gestures of kindness (and selfish motives) as kindness is within everyone’s reach and ability. The actions of everyday heroes will help our community as much as those of big heroes by providing emotional support, by offering creative solutions to maintain connections and finally by embodying what it is to be human

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