Self-Interest doesn’t equal selfishness – The biological roots of “enlightened” self-interest

If you are like me, you probably have a list of things you think you ought to ‘do something about.’ I’’m not talking about the big things like world peace or eradicating hunger.  Maybe you’d just like contribute to creating a more human-friendly workplace or reduce the environmental impact of your business.

If you are like me, though, you may not have taken much action on these ‘ought to’ items because you are not confident that your actions will have enough impact to justify the effort. It isn’’t that hard to think of an action you personally could take. Still, if you wish to have a significant impact on the world you probably need to get others involved as well which seems to require a totally different level of commitment. Your choices look something like the following:

1) Take the action individually just for the sake of self-satisfaction and leave significant change leadership to your more charismatic peers.  On the plus side, you get to feel good about doing the right thing.  Still, isn’’t there a little voice in your head asking you if you really made a difference?

2) Take the action and simultaneously talk it up with your friends and colleagues. You get the self-satisfaction of being a righteous warrior. However, there’s no guarantee that others will follow in your righteous footsteps.  Some of your peers might even resent your attempts to role model virtue for them.

3) Promote the action without actually taking it yourself.  Requires less elbow grease. Still, the blatant mismatch between your words and actions might leave you feeling like a fraud. Moreover, when people notice you are not walking the talk, they’’ll probably agree with your self-assessment.

4) Give up, focus on the job you get paid to do or enjoy your well-earned leisure time and let someone else be the change they want to see in the world.  As they say, it is the thought that counts. Still, unless you’’ve just achieved nirvana, it may take more than a stiff drink to overcome that creeping sense of abdication.

I must admit I often take pass/go on options 1-3 and settle into option 4.  It leaves me with time to finish an expense report, play a set or two of tennis or watch anime with the family. What the low road lacks in inspiration it makes up for in immediate gratification.

Research on altruism and the brain is making me wonder if I ought to give options 1 and 2 another look.  It appears that acting on your ideals makes sense in terms of both personal satisfaction and interpersonal impact.

Our brains like doing good.  Brain imaging has begun to reveal the biological basis for all sorts of human behavior, and as it turns out, there is a biological basis for the urge to do good. Recent experiments reveal that when you do something that you feel will benefit others, your brain lights up with pleasure.  For those of us brought up in the age of ‘ME, ME and MORE ME’, this is a bit counter-intuitive.  For the past 40 years or so, based on extrapolations from liberal economics, most of us have reluctantly accepted the premise that people are driven solely by self-interest. I have even heard the “everything is based on self-interest” premise as grounds for impugning the intentions of those who claim to be doing something with “altruistic” intentions.

It turns out, however, that enlightened self-interest  – the kind that leads us to take care of others – has a basis in biology. Doing things with the intention of benefiting others yields a jolt of pleasurable brain activation. The areas of the brain that light up when we think about or take altruistic actions are the same areas that light up in relation to chocolate and sex.  It appears we are wired to get a kick out of doing things that benefit others.

The upshot of the neuroscience of altruism is that taking action to improve things for others is not a sacrifice at all. Many of the changes we would like to make in our workplaces or the world would benefit those around us as well as ourselves. Who wouldn’’t benefit from better communication and relationships at the office? And we all would benefit from a cleaner environment, wouldn’’t we? Although it can feel like self-sacrifice to act without a guarantee of immediate gratification, viewed in the context of the neuroscience of altruism, taking altruistic action starts to look more rational while doing nothing starts to look more like plain old inertia, laziness of selfishness, which is what we sort of suspected all along.

Still, there is that other problem:  if no one else takes action, my actions will not have a significant impact.  As it turns out, though, the neuroscience provides hope in this regard as well. It appears that our actions and feelings have a much more direct impact on those around us than we realize.

Research on the brain has revealed the role of mirror neurons in empathy. Mirror neurons are brain cells that enable us to ‘guess’ what is going on in the interior worlds of the people around us.  When we interact with others, our mirror neurons are constantly detecting cues about their’ feelings and intentions.  The interesting part is the mechanism by which mirror neurons alert us to other people’’s feelings. Mirror neurons send signals that trigger physiological changes inside our bodies and brains which simulate what our peers might be feeling.  Rather than intellectually analyzing and guessing what other people’ feel (which is what philosophers used to think we did), it turns out we are infected by those feelings.  When we are with someone who feels positive and passionate, our mirror neurons infect us with symptoms of their passion.  When we are with someone who is nervous or arrogant, our mirror neurons trigger physical symptoms of those as well.

The discovery of mirror neurons has interesting implications for the ‘”ought to”’ dilemma.  In leadership theory, there is a source of influence known as referent power. Referent power is the ability to attract others or induce them (often subconsciously) to aspire to be like oneself.  Mirror neurons seem to be a plausible mechanism by which one gains referent power in relation to others.  Let’’s say I choose to take some virtuous action, such as working at a food bank, but I choose not to talk about it too much. If I do so with a feeling of excited expectation or calm purpose, I may benefit from a boost in my referent power. The positive signals I send out may be picked up by other people’s mirror neurons making them more amenable to spending time with me. It might even cue them to copy my virtuous actions, so that they may start emulating me without either of us even noticing it.

On the other hand, what happens if I carry out my ‘ought to actions while harboring feelings of superiority or resentment of my less virtuous peers? These feelings are also passed along to the people around me and may even drive people away from me or my cause. I will have lost the battle even before those people have had a chance to consider whether or not it might be worth joining my war.

Much of our culture nudges us toward taking actions that align with option 4.  We do our work, we hang out with our kids or friends, we buy this and that.  We constantly flood each other with feelings that support the pursuit of immediate gratification or fulfillment of immediate obligations. By taking the immediate route, though, we may be overwhelming our natural altruistic impulses and depriving ourselves and each other of the hedonic rewards of enlightened self-interest.

Considered together, though, the neurological connection between altruistic action and pleasure combined with the surprisingly networked nature of our inner worlds suggest that we can often expect a solid return on energy we invest in ‘ought to’ items. It may still take a little extra effort to take initiative on them, but it is nice to know that we seem to be wired to receive a hedonic reward for doing so. It’s even more encouraging to think that we come equipped with biological networking mechanisms that facilitate positive influence if we choose to stand up and take positive action.

Incidentally, research on network dynamics suggests our actions sometimes travel through networks much more broadly and deeply than we expect.  A butterfly flapping its wings in Chicago may not cause a tropical storm off the coast of China, but an individual taking a positive action in Chicago may start a wave that wends its way through social networks triggering similar actions by others almost anywhere else on the globe.


For a discussion of the concept of “effective altruism” see this interview with Peter Singer, professor of philosophy at Princeton University on the Ted radio hour:

For a discussion of how to construct a narrative that uses altruism to inspire change see this interview with George Monbiot on the Ted Radio Hour:

For an exploration on how our ability access other human beings’ minds is a key ingredient to the success of the human species, see: TED talk – Yuval Noah Harari: “Why human run the world”

For an exploration of loneliness, social isolation, their impacts and what to do bout them, see:

“If It Feels Good to Be Good, It Might Be Only Natural”, Shankar Vedantam, Washington Post, Monday, May 28, 2007, Page A01

“The Bases of Social Power”, John R. P. French, Jr. and Bertram Raven. In Studies in Social Power, edited by Dorwin Cartwright

The Neuroscience of Fair Play: Why We (Usually) Follow the Golden Rule, Donald W. Pfaff, Ph.D.

Social Intelligence, Daniel Goleman

Stop Trying to Raise Successful Kids and Start Raising Kind Ones, Atlantic Online, Adam Grant and Allison Sweet Grant, December 2019 issue. Find article at:

For a couple of inspiring illustrations of “enlightened self-interest” see:–coronavirus/#47d36a0037e9

© Dana Cogan 2009 and 2017-2020, all rights reserved.

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