Why are people so selfish? 16 big reasons

I was recently flying somewhere and had an unexpected flight cancellation.

I was lined up for a new ticket and there were only minutes to spare before I would have to wait many hours more for the next flight.

I asked a man in front of me if I could go ahead because I had a travel emergency.

He scowled at me and said the line was back there, jerking his thumb over his shoulder.

“It’s not my problem,” he shrugged.

It may be a trivial example, but this got me thinking.

Why are people so selfish?

Why are people so selfish? The top 16 reasons we live in a me-first world

1) Because they are worried generosity will weaken them

One of the main reasons people are so selfish is that they believe it’s logical.

Putting yourself first whenever possible is a way to ensure your survival and thriving.

The basic idea is that generosity will weaken you or take away from what you need to make it in life.

If you give away too much of your time, energy, money, or attention you lose.

That’s the main philosophy.

It’s pretty much a zero-sum game.

While critics of generosity and selflessness often make great points about the excesses of helping others, they generally go way too far in advocating self-interest.

The political philosopher Ayn Rand is a perfect encapsulation of this transactional view of generosity.

As Rand puts it:

“The proper method of judging when or whether one should help another person is by reference to one’s own rational self-interest and one’s own hierarchy of values:

“The time, money or effort one gives or the risk one takes should be proportionate to the value of the person in relation to one’s own happiness.”

In other words, if helping someone else is too much trouble or makes you unhappy then don’t bother, because doing so will weaken you.

2) Because they have absorbed a hyper-capitalist mentality

Whether you love capitalism, hate it, or are indifferent, there’s no way to ignore its pervasive power.

The modern world, including communist and non-capitalist countries, are all under the overall sway of the capitalist financial and trade system.

From monetary systems to regulation and legal systems, capital acquisition and exchange form the ribs of our societies and international institutions.

At the local level, this can include a hyper-capitalist mentality of “getting mine,” where people believe that life is basically a giant competition to push out other weaker folks and make it to the top at all costs.

This toxic form of social Darwinism may have something to be said for it in terms of encouraging self-reliability and individualism.

But it’s also heartless and unipolar to look at life as if we’re all just animals fighting over resources.

Yes, that’s one option.

But are we absolutely sure that capitalism and resource competition is the only way forward?

“Capitalism as a system was created not by hard-working artisans but by rich merchants who found ways to increase their wealth and political power by taking over common lands, colonizing and enslaving people from less-developed countries, and using mechanization to drive artisans out of business,” explains Mike Wold.

“ In England, where modern capitalism got its strongest start, legal regimes were created to force people to work for subsistence wages (or less) rather than live off the land or by small-scale farming.”


3) Because they grew up in a toxic family environment

Never underestimate the ability of a toxic family environment to turn someone into a basket case for the rest of their lives.

The truth is that our personal power is within our grasp for all of us, and we should never buy into a victim mindset.

Nonetheless, acknowledging that your family background has fried your brain isn’t being a victim, it’s just being honest.

When we have our earliest memories in hot zones of conflict, resentment, and paranoia, it’s not exactly a recipe for being a giving and well-balanced person.

Many of the most selfish people I know grew up in households that were absolute minefields.

I’m talking about fighting parents, domestic abuse, alcoholism, drug abuse, neglect, and all the other horrible things which can occur in family life.

Left on their own from a young age, some of these people absorbed a mentality that they could only survive in life by always putting themselves first.

They’re not “bad” or stupid, they just learned instincts early on that left everyone else out of the equation.

Then, as they got older, they clung to the psychological safety of many of these earlier lessons.

Never rely on someone else, don’t trust others, always get more than the other guys, make sure you win at all costs…

4) Because they’re emotionally frail and insecure

Another one of the biggest reasons people are so selfish is that they’re insecure.

Many of the most insecure and miserable people on this planet are also the most selfish.

They can’t give or be happy for others because they’re not happy with themselves.

They grasp and grind for any scraps and seek advantages every minute, because deep down they feel insufficient, lacking, and low value.

It’s a common experience, one that I’ve had myself…This idea that I’m not enough and that I need to push others down to succeed in my own life.

So what can you do to change around this toxic zero-sum selfish mindset?

Begin with yourself. Stop searching for external fixes to sort out your life, deep down, you know this isn’t working.

And that’s because until you look within and unleash your personal power, you’ll never find the satisfaction and fulfillment you’re searching for.

I learned this from the shaman Rudá Iandê. His life mission is to help people restore balance to their lives and unlock their creativity and potential. He has an incredible approach that combines ancient shamanic techniques with a modern-day twist.

In his excellent free video, Rudá explains effective methods to achieve what you want in life and love.

So if you want to build a better relationship with yourself, unlock your endless potential, and put passion at the heart of everything you do, start now by checking out his genuine advice.

Here’s a link to the free video again.

5) Because they are terrified of abandonment

If you put a selfish person in a lab and explore their core emotions you will often find a fear of abandonment in them.

This visceral fear, which often begins in childhood, can lead to intense self-absorption.

If you believed everyone would leave you behind and you would basically die or be forgotten, would you be thinking of others and how they’re doing?

Of course not.

That’s the whole problem.

When you have unresolved trauma around abandonment churning around inside of you, then you become naturally very focused on yourself.

You can’t see other people’s points of view or situations very clearly, because yours is blaring through your head and flashing a panic warning.

Your whole system is oriented to ensuring you don’t get abandoned or hard done by, so you forget to think about the interests and needs of others.

This doesn’t make people “bad,” it just makes them work in progress like all the rest of us.

6) Because they only want friends who are ‘useful’

In my view, there is nothing wrong with give and take between friends.

If I’m looking for a house and my friend in real estate knows a lot about the market right now, there’s nothing wrong with getting his advice!

And if he wants me to help edit a document due to my writing and editing experience I’m all too happy to help!

There is nothing wrong with this kind of self-interest and trading favors between friends if you ask me.

The problem comes when friends are not actually friends.

Instead, they’re just resumes and walking LinkedIn directories you can tap into when you need a new job or want to get a favor.

You don’t give a sh*t about their lives or anything else, you just occasionally stay in touch because you know they could come in handy one day.

We’ve all met “users” like this and we know their toothy smiles and fake friendliness.

It’s exhausting, and their shallow self-interest makes everyone around them lose respect.

If you’re wondering why people are so selfish, one of the reasons is that corporate culture has created some monsters of networking vampires who only collect friends in order to get the benefits.

“Selfish people cultivate a network of “friends” who can help them when they need it.

“To form a long-lasting, healthy friendship, you need to have a give and a take.

“Selfish people prefer instead to rely on a loose group of discardable contacts who are easily cultivated and won’t hurt their reputation,” writes Zulie Rane.

7) Because they push down their healthy human emotions

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Studies of selfish people have shown that their emotional area of the brain is being repressed.

More or less, one of the reasons that there are so many selfish people these days is that social values are encouraging people to push down their humanity.

It’s rough to say, but one of the top characteristics of selfish people is fakeness.

It’s not that they’re always malicious or horrible people, it’s that they often seem to be disconnected from themselves and their own authenticity.

They go through life with a kind of mask on – and I’m not talking about the COVID kind – and they can’t seem to be real to themselves or others.

They’re on this fake kind of grandstanding routine in which they only use emotions when they’re useful but push away normal feelings of sympathy, compassion or generosity as not being useful.

Like I mentioned, scientific studies have shown this.

As Tanya Lewis writes:

“Specifically, they had increased activity in two parts of their brain:

“The anterior dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region thought to be involved in suppressing emotional responses, and the inferior frontal gyrus, an area responsible for evaluating social behavior and cooperation, as shown below.”

8) Because they turned good selfishness bad

There’s a certain level of selfishness that’s good, even necessary.

This is rational self-interest in the sense of ensuring you have a roof over your head, food to eat, and a place in this world.

I don’t see anything wrong with that in any way.

Further, the desire to succeed and better yourself is natural, healthy, and admirable.

As therapist Diane Barth observes:

“Healthy selfishness not only reminds us to take care of ourselves; it makes it possible for us to take care of others.”

But one of the reasons people are so selfish is that they took the good level of selfishness and then overdosed on it.

Instead of stopping at healthy self-interest and caring about their own well-being, they decided to have tunnel vision and forget anyone else exists.

Like anything else in life, taking things to extremes leads to unfortunate and disturbing consequences.

Being a bit selfish is a good thing. But being too selfish makes our world a worse place.

In the case of selfishness, we can see the kind of inequality, conflict, and bitterness that it leads to and how many people’s hearts go cold as a result of feeling like they live in a world where all that matters is money.

9) Because they’re brainwashed by our selfish culture

Another reason people are so selfish is that they are brainwashed by our selfish culture.

From India to America and Australia to China, materialism has us in an iron grip, teaching that material success is all that matters.

We look up to celebrities who are full of arrogance and entitlement, and we watch television shows full of wealth, crime and glitz.

Our culture is selfish and entitled and it makes many people turn into self-interested husks of themselves.

Brainwashing isn’t just about forcing everyone to believe the same specific thing.

It’s also about suffusing the atmosphere with so much confusion and general nonsense that people end up blinded and compliant.

Selfishness becomes like an instinct.

People begin to take the selfish choice whenever an option comes up.

They believe that this is what society requires and that doing so will keep them safe and prosperous.

10) Because they’ve bought into a binary view of morality

Another reason that so many people are so selfish these days is that they’ve bought into a binary view of morality.

They believe that life is basically divided into good people and bad people.

Then, when they fail to be “good” they begin to feel like a failure.

Option two is that they consider themselves “good” and then begin to justify every selfish and bad action under the excuse that overall they’re still just trying to do the right thing.

This way of looking at the world puts us in warring camps within ourselves and leads to thinking that we’re either selfish or generous.

The truth is that all of us are a mixture of selfishness and generosity.

When we try to become or embody one “good” thing like being generous we end up rejecting the helpful and sometimes necessary selfish parts of ourselves.

As Justin Brown has observed, giving up on the idea of being a “good person” is actually one of the most important steps to actually becoming a person who makes a positive impact on the world.


Many people are still trapped in a binary worldview in which being selfish is “bad.” When they feel this guilt they may become locked in a negative view of themselves…

And then just keep going with it.

After all, if you’re already “bad,” why not just embrace it?

Hannan Parvez writes well about this, noting:

“The main reason why selfishness has befuddled many is the dualistic nature of the human mind i.e. the tendency to think only in terms of opposites.

“Good and bad, virtue and vice, up and down, far and near, big and small, and so on.

“Selfishness, like many other concepts, is way too broad to be fitted into two extremes.”

11) Because they have a bad relationship with money

Money is a tool. It can be used for many things.

There’s nothing wrong with money or wanting it. In fact, that’s entirely natural and can be a very proactive and empowering desire.

The issue arises in our relationship with money. Learning to improve our relationship with money is key to obtaining prosperity and wealth without becoming grasping, selfish or obsessive.

Unfortunately, money can become a fixation for selfish people in a way that’s ultimately destructive to themselves and others.

It’s not just that money can become a way for powerful people to abuse their influence and manipulate people.

It’s also that they can get so addicted to keeping score with dollar signs that they end up alone in a mansion with a bottle of booze, a list of divorces, and a depression so deep that no guru can fill it.

Money can be an enormous benefit and blessing, but being extremely selfish with money is hated for a reason.

It’s an extremely toxic trait to always put money first and try to influence and control others with money.

Half of the population are stuck in jobs where they feel like money is being dangled over their head and justifying their poor treatment at work.

It’s not a good situation at all.

12) Because they have learned to get their way through manipulation

Human beings are creatures who form knowledge based on experience. When something works, we tend to do it again.

Here’s the truth about manipulation: it can work.

Sometimes it can work really well.

When somebody who is ambitious or finding their way in life sees how well manipulation can work, it often sends their brain the wrong message.

That message is that being a selfish manipulator is more or less good business.

Sure, many people may end up thinking you’re a terrible person, but you win.

This fixation on coming out on top often leads to a method of navigating life that’s all about having the upper hand and manipulating others like pawns on the chessboard.

Those pawns tend not to respond too nicely when they find out they’ve just been played as pieces in someone else’s game.

But by then it’s usually too late.

That’s the thing with manipulation is that you don’t realize it’s happened until it’s had its way with you.

As Jude Paler writes, manipulation is a common behavior among selfish people.

If we could make the world a better place then maybe this wouldn’t be our reality, but as things stand manipulation still has pretty good street cred for getting results.

13) Because they think breaking boundaries is OK

Another bad talent that selfish people learn is breaking boundaries.

Somewhere along the path of life, they learned that breaking boundaries is fine and gets results.

The most common place this is learned first is in family environments.

“Boundaries are often most challenging when it comes to family, and your resentment is likely intertwined with a long interpersonal history.

“If you find yourself feeling guilty, remember that “no” is a complete sentence,” writes Samantha Vincenty.

The reason family is such a common place for boundary-crossing and boundary-blurring is that when you mix love and obligations it’s easy to make excuses for unacceptable behavior.

You can hold family relationships and responsibilities up as evidence of why it’s OK to do X, Y, or Z.

The point is that selfish people often emerge from systems which don’t clearly define roles and leave boundaries open to be pressured and changed.

Their disrespect and disinterest in following any limits contributes to their overall behavior of being selfish and self-interested.

14) Because they work in a high-pressure, self-absorbed industry

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A big factor that makes many people become selfish is the type of work they do.

All trades and professions have pleasant and unpleasant people in them, but there are certain types of work which can lend themselves more strongly to a selfish mindset.

We can debate all day about which industries and jobs tend to produce more selfish people, but I will say this:

Jobs which involve teamwork and a group environment like construction, working in retail or a supermarket, and as part of a busy office or team tend to discourage selfishness.

Jobs which are very individualistic and involve more isolated work like law, banking, and many white-collar professions tend to produce more selfish people.

It’s not that white-collar folks are maligned in some way, it’s that their jobs often tend to prioritize the kind of more self-interested and self-absorbed mindset that characterizes selfish people.

When you work in more selfish and individualist professions it tends to make you a bit less aware of the broader group.

That’s just the way it goes.

But it doesn’t mean you can’t start spreading your wings.

15) Because they don’t feel a sense of belonging

One of the saddest things about selfishness is that it’s actually a very weak sentiment.

What I mean is that truly successful people who invent technologies, improve the world, and make their mark in history aren’t “selfish.”

They want to spread their ideas and designs on the world, not sit and hoard gold or fame in a house somewhere.

One of the top reasons that people get selfish is that they don’t feel a sense of belonging.

They then begin to cling to possessions and material happiness as a way to feel a sense of security.

They hope that the empty void they feel inside can somehow be filled by buying enough things, having enough degrees after their name, or knowing enough famous people.

It definitely can’t.

You’re still you whether you’re staying in a homeless shelter or living in an exclusive chalet in the Swiss Alps.

Don’t get me wrong:

I’d rather be the guy living in the Alps.

But the point is that when you don’t feel like you belong you try to find outside possessions and titles to fill the hole.

But it just keeps growing.

16) Because they’re just plain lazy

Last but not least, let’s never forget that many selfish people are just extremely lazy.

Many situations are complicated and it’s often easiest to just think of yourself and let the rest slide.

It can save time mentally, physically, and emotionally.

Selfishness is, ultimately, easy.

You just think of yourself and leave it at that.

As Jack Nollan says:

“Sometimes people are just selfish because it’s the easier thing to do.

“Being kind, unselfish, and understanding requires emotional labor that some people don’t want to put forward for whatever reason makes sense to them.

“Sometimes they don’t see a benefit, think it’s unnecessary, or may not care.”

When you’re dealing with a selfish person, remember that there may be no deep or structural reason why they’re selfish.

There’s a good chance they’re just a very lazy person.

They don’t want to bother looking at anyone else’s point of view or thinking about what’s going on.

They just want to take the easy way out and have as little stress as possible.

Going with the flow might sound noble on paper, but in real life, it can look a lot like not giving a sh*t about anyone else but yourself.

Building a less selfish world

There are all sorts of organizations and ideas about building a utopian world.

One thing they consistently seem to fail to address is something which all major world religions have always addressed: life is finite, suffering is inevitable and hardship is part of survival.

When you promise people a world free of struggle and hardship you are a liar.

Building a less selfish world starts with realism.

We all live in this world and struggle through our trials and triumphs. Let’s start there.

We live in various nations and situations which are – for better or worse – challenging, confusing, or incomplete.

We all want lives that are meaningful and have love of some kind.

Building a less selfish world isn’t about building a utopia.

It’s about helping to construct a future that has more opportunities for everyone, more individual empowerment.

Building a less selfish world is about being honest.

It’s being honest that all of us are a bit selfish in some ways and that that’s OK.

It’s being honest that helping others doesn’t have to be some grand idealistic thing, it can just be a way of waking up slightly to the fact that other people have needs and problems too, not just us.

Small steps lead to great journeys.

Three ways to be less selfish

1) Try on another pair of shoes

One good way to become less selfish is to try your best to see things from someone else’s perspective.

Walking in someone else’s shoes is a way to humble yourself and to change your point of view.

What I recommend is not just thinking about what things might be like for someone else in a certain situation.

Instead, actually, visualize and imagine that you are them.

This exercise will massively boost your ability to empathize.

Think of getting up in the morning. Picture feeling like you’re this other person: their size, shape, color, and personality. Imagine going through their average day.

What’s it like? What’s great about it? What’s bad about it?

As Art Markman writes:

“Trying to imagine what the world would look like from another person’s vantage point also help you to connect with that person better and even to understand the world a bit more like that person.”

2) Find role models to lead the way

Finding role models who show how to give back to others is one of the best ways to be less selfish.

Seeing how rewarding it is to give back serves as both a how-to manual and an inspiration.

It’s not only possible to help others and be there for them, it’s also rewarding.

“My mother is my role model for how to treat people. She knew everyone’s name at her workplace and spoke in the same way to the janitor as the head of the organization.

“And my father is my role model for getting respect without needing to raise your voice,” writes May Busch.

That’s exactly it…

Role models don’t need to be Gandhi or Abraham Lincoln.

They can be your own mom.

3) Identify needs and fill them

Lastly and importantly, part of being a less selfish person is just being observant.

Many times people are selfish because they’ve instinctively and habitually learned to narrow their cone of observation to just themselves and their world.

Becoming less selfish is all about learning to notice the needs around you.

It could start with just opening a door and extend to tutoring a student in need or volunteering some time at a homeless shelter.

You’ll be surprised at how many ways there are to help out when you start looking around.

As William Barker advises:

“Prioritize spending time with others.

“Maybe that means arranging a regular coffee get-together in your home.

“Or can you mentor someone in your field or do volunteer work for people less fortunate than yourself?

“Can you check in on an elderly neighbor?”

Back to basics

Being less selfish doesn’t have to mean a revolution.

It’s just about getting back to basics and seeing the world in a way that once again includes community and the group experience.

Going back to basics in terms of generosity isn’t about money, it’s about time and energy.

What you choose to do with your time and energy has a big impact on your life and the lives of others.

We’re all interconnected and if we can come together in positive and proactive ways there’s no saying just how far we can get!

Being selfish in a good way

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Being too selfless and generous is irresponsible.

There’s no merit to washing away your own home’s foundation in order to fix a window in someone else’s home next door.

You have to take care of your own business before trying to aid someone else’s.

Being selfish in a good way is absolutely necessary.

Only worrying about others can become a toxic and bizarre trait that destroys your own well-being.

But if you go too far into Randian self-interest and rational dismissal of generosity you can become something of a cyborg.

We all live in society and we all depend on one another to one extent or another.

The government’s not going to do it.

But the irony is that one of the main groups that really need social help today is selfish people addicted to likes, status, and new cars.

From the outside, they look blessed beyond belief, but under the surface, many are sad and lonely people.

We have to remember that selfish people in many ways are the weakest among us.

They themselves need the help of everyone else to open their eyes and see a bigger world outside the prison bars of their own materialism and narrow self-interest.

Picture of Paul Brian

Paul Brian

Paul R. Brian is a freelance journalist and writer who has reported from around the world, focusing on religion, culture and geopolitics. Follow him on www.twitter.com/paulrbrian and visit his website at www.paulrbrian.com

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