Opinion Blog

Ask a Psychologist

Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. To submit questions, use this form or #helpstudentsthrive. Read more from this blog.

Student Well-Being Opinion

It’s OK to Be Selfish at Certain Times. Here’s When and Why

What research on the most moral people in the world reveals
By William Fleeson — August 31, 2022 1 min read
How do I help students think about being selfish versus helping others?
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

This is the first in a two-part series on morals.

How do I help students think about being selfish versus helping others?

I’ve had many conversations with students who feel confused about how to do the right thing—for themselves and for others. Here’s something I wrote about the topic for Character Lab as a Tip of the Week:

A student once told me he wanted to be a doctor so that he could help others. But getting into medical school meant being ultracompetitive in college, and he didn’t want to hurt others in the process.

How could he become a generous doctor without first being a selfish careerist, he wondered.

You might expect that the most moral people in the world (think Gandhi or Mother Teresa) are strongly motivated by helping others and not at all self-serving. Such a lopsided motivational profile is what makes them moral, right?

Not so, it turns out. A study of the most influential people of the 20th century found that the most moral people have an integrated motivational profile.

An integrated motivational profile is one that includes both self-serving and other-serving impulses. Neither is dominant nor atrophied. People with an integrated profile are highly motivated to take care of others, but they are also highly motivated to acquire power and resources.

In an integrated profile, these two motives work together in a particular way: The self-advancing ones help the person get power and resources, so that the power and resources can be used to help others. The ultimate goal is to serve a larger purpose, but the person recognizes that they can better help others by getting power first and then applying that power in the service of others.

When I explained this to my student, his shoulders relaxed with relief and his face brightened with excitement. He realized at that moment that pushing hard to succeed in medical school was not antithetical to doing good, but perhaps even essential to his higher purpose in life.

Don’t believe that doing things that make you happy is always a bad thing.

Do pursue self-advancing goals so you can use your power to help others. When the larger purpose is the benefit of all, what’s good for you is good for everyone.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Professional Development Webinar
Strategies for Improving Student Outcomes with Teacher-Student Relationships
Explore strategies for strengthening teacher-student relationships and hear how districts are putting these methods into practice to support positive student outcomes.
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Webinar
Transform Teaching and Learning with AI
Increase productivity and support innovative teaching with AI in the classroom.
Content provided by Promethean
Curriculum Webinar Computer Science Education Movement Gathers Momentum. How Should Schools React?
Discover how schools can expand opportunities for students to study computer science education.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being School Sports Participation Drops, Raising Concern About 'Physical Learning Loss'
But interest in e-sports and inclusive teams is rising.
5 min read
The Michigan City High School Girls Varsity Basketball team hosted a Future Wolves basketball camp for elementary and middle school girls on Saturday, March 5, 2022 at the high school.
The varsity girls basketball team at Michigan City High School in Michigan City, Ind., hosted a basketball camp for elementary and middle school girls last spring.
Kelley Smith/The News Dispatch via AP
Student Well-Being Biden's National Strategy on Hunger: What It Means for Schools
The administration seeks more access to free school meals and nutritious foods. But a universal free meals bill is stalled in Congress.
4 min read
President Joe Biden speaks during the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, at the Ronald Reagan Building, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, in Washington.
President Joe Biden speaks during the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health in Washington on Sept. 28.
Evan Vucci/AP
Student Well-Being Explainer The School Year Is Getting Hotter. How Does Heat Affect Student Learning and Well-Being?
Climate change will lead to more hot school days, and experts say schools are not prepared.
10 min read
With only open windows and fans to cool the room down, students enter their non-air-conditioned classroom at Campbell High School in Ewa, Hawaii, on Aug. 3, 2015. Most of Hawaii's public schools don't have air conditioning, and record-high temperatures have left teachers and students saying they can't focus because of the heat. Hawaii lawmakers are saying it's time to cool Hawaii's public schools. A proposal being considered by the House Committee of Finance would fund air conditioning for Hawaii Department of Education schools and expedite the process to get cooling systems installed in classrooms.
Only open windows and fans cooled the room as students arrived at Campbell High School in Ewa, Hawaii, in August, 2015. Most of Hawaii's public schools don't have air conditioning, even as research shows that heat can depress student learning.
Marco Garcia/AP
Student Well-Being 3 Ways to Avoid Hurdles for Social-Emotional Learning
Clarifying misconceptions, communicating with parents, and supporting teachers are key.
4 min read
Second grader Tiffinie Tillis works with dean of students Andrea Keck while visiting a sensory room at Quincy Elementary School, Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021, in Topeka, Kan. The rooms are designed to relieve stresses faced by students as they return to classrooms amid the ongoing pandemic.
Second grader Tiffinie Tillis works with dean of students Andrea Keck while visiting a sensory room at Quincy Elementary School, Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021, in Topeka, Kan. The rooms are designed to relieve stresses faced by students as they return to classrooms amid the ongoing pandemic.
Charlie Riedel/AP