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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?
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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.

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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.

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