Given the wealth and depth of the evidence that refutes the model of self-interested rationality, why does it still dominate? Four reasons account for its persistence.
The myth of universal selfishness endures in part because it isn’t entirely wrong—only mostly so. We all have experienced moments when we have been torn between what is good for us and for others, and many of us have, on occasion, caved in to self-interest even when other values demanded something else. We can recognize ourselves in the story of rational self-interest. However, it’s a problem when we take a partial truth and treat it as though it were the whole. We then build systems, like the Wall Street Game, that drive almost everyone to act in a self-interested way instead of the Community Game, where the self-interested are a minority.
The roots of the assumption about universal selfishness are probably as old as human culture. Nonetheless, it gained prominence from the 1950s to the 1980s, becoming dominant in public discourse around the world during the Cold War, when the global power struggle between the United States and former Soviet Union was couched as an ideological battle between capitalism and free enterprise, on the one hand, and socialism and collectivism on the other. Nothing is more seductive than seeing our moral and political views vindicated as those that scientifically reflect human nature. The end of the Cold War era has made it possible to see new scientific observations for what they are: progress rather than a threat to capitalism.
Human beings tend to seek simple and neat explanations for a complex world. Coherent stories help organize different facts, ideas, and insights, and help predict what will happen if we do X or what we will find if we look under Y. In psychology, that’s called cognitive fluency: the tendency to hold on to things that are simple to understand and remember. A straightforward, uncomplicated theory of human nature that reduces our actions to simple, predictable responses to rewards and punishments is appealing to the human mind. But our experiences are more complex.
Almost two generations of human beings have been educated and socialized to think in terms of universal selfishness. “We need to get the incentives right” has been the watchword for anyone engaged in designing any kind of interaction, organization, or law. “What’s in it for him/her/us?” is the question we have trained ourselves to ask first. Once we get in the habit of thinking of ourselves in a particular way, we tend to interpret all the evidence we encounter to fit our preconceptions and assumptions.
When we see acts of generosity or cooperation, for example, we tend to interpret them through the lens of self-interest. The first generation of economic scholarship on open source software analyzed the voluntary contributions of participants as an attempt to improve their reputations and long-term employment prospects—interpretations that were refuted by the decade of empirical research that followed. Through sheer force of habit, our erroneous beliefs and ways of thinking about human nature are interpreted as evidence and become entrenched. New insights need to overcome substantial barriers before they are accepted.
In today’s world, adaptability, creativity, and innovativeness appear to be preconditions for organizations and individuals to thrive. These qualities don’t fit well with the industrial business model; they aren’t amenable to monitoring and pricing. We need people who aren’t focused only on payoffs but do the best they can to learn, adapt, improve, and deliver results for the organization. Being internally motivated to bring these qualities to bear in a world where insight, creativity, and innovation can come from anyone, anywhere, at any time is more important than being able to calculate the costs, benefits, risks, and rewards of well-understood actions in well-specified contexts. Alongside creativity, drive, flexibility, and diversity, we must include social conscience and authentic humanity when trying to design cooperative systems.
Yochai Benkler ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) is the Jack N. and Lillian R. Berkman Professor for Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School and the codirector of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. He is the author of The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs over Self-Interest (Crown Business, August 2011).