Are your coworkers mostly good or mostly evil?

Are your coworkers mostly good or mostly evil?

Inner Giver vs Inner Egotist

Except for extreme sociopaths, we’re all born with an inclination to contribute to the welfare of others without expectation of a reward (see evidence in prior posts). We have what I call an Inner Giver. And, yes, this includes your coworkers. Unless you recently ingested a hallucinogenic, however, you’re aware that people aren’t purely good. We also have an odious Inner Egotist who blithely tramples on others.

A debate has rung through the ages and continues to blare: Are we primarily Inner Giver or Inner Egotist? Economists, philosophers, spiritual leaders and Hollywood scriptwriters have not been able to agree on the answer. Advances in the natural and social sciences, however, are putting an end to the debate.

Nature promotes species survival by ensuring that evolutionarily productive acts feel good. This is why eating and having sex are pleasurable. It ensures we don’t die of hunger and our genes don’t peter out. Whether being selfless or selfish feels better, then, is evidence of which is the primary inclination. Using this test, the Inner Giver easily wins. We’ve scientifically proven that the actions of our Inner Givers literally reduce the stress hormone cortisol and boost the feel-good hormones dopamine and oxytocin (see prior post). Inner Egotists’ actions, on the other hand, don’t give us a natural high. In fact, hurting others is almost always unpleasant and can devolve into torment.

Additional evidence that our Inner Egotists are secondary to Inner Givers comes from our closest animal cousins, with whom we share 98 percent of genes. Thirty researchers studied 18 chimpanzee communities, which typically have between 15 and 150 members, for over five decades. How many chimpanzee murders were there? One hundred and fifty-two. Across thousands of animals over half a century, that isn’t much. As co-author, Michael Wilson, put it “aggression makes [up] a small percentage of their daily lives.” Another study conducted by the University of Michigan’s Department of Psychology and Harvard’s Center for Brain Science found that chimpanzees were faster to make cooperative decisions than selfish ones. The hesitation to be purely self-serving further supports the notion we primates are naturally biased toward giving behaviors.

It’s not just biology and evolutionary studies that find that the Inner Giver trumps the Inner Egotist. So does, for example, an examination of our values. Some societies emphasize family unity while others revere individual freedoms. Some discipline children in Cantonese, others in Finnish. Some are deeply religious while others are overwhelmingly secular. Yet, a comprehensive study across 82 countries found that every society has the same top value: Enhancing the welfare of others.

As primatologist Frans de Waal put it, “Robin Hood had it right. Humanity’s deepest wish is to spread the wealth.” If this is the case, you might wonder why we even have an Inner Egotist.


What’s the point of an Inner Egotist?

Our Inner Egotists appears to be our security departments. The above study found that the 152 acts of chimp violence were largely explained by intense competition for food or other vital resources. In other words, chimps typically appeal to their Inner Egotist only when threatened. Same with you. Your Inner Egotist lives on the sidelines brandishing its brawn while your Inner Giver holds the elevator for a colleague, moves a meeting to accommodate someone in another time zone and otherwise makes most decisions.

If, however, the colleague in the elevator is competing for the promotion you want or the individual in the other time zone insulted you last meeting, your Inner Egotist might take control away from your Inner Giver. Before you know it, you’re closing the elevator door on your competitor or smirking as you schedule a meeting that makes your denigrator wake up at 5:00 am. You might even enjoy these cut-throat acts, albeit briefly.

This division of responsibilities between Inner Giver and Inner Egotist has served humanity for hundreds of thousands of years. Imagine your ancestors enjoying an evening by the campfire 100,000 years ago. The scene is as drenched in as much civility as a Norman Rockwell painting. A woman gives a strung-out mother a moment to relax by watching her twin toddlers. Youth distribute juicy berries they collected that day. Two men happily tend the fire for all to enjoy. In this safe environment, Inner Givers run the show.

Suddenly, someone announces that the man scheduled to guard against external threats, Zog, is not at his post. It’s the third time that season that Zog fails to show up for the job he volunteered to do. Tribal members suddenly feel vulnerable to tigers and whatever else lurks beyond the light of the fire. They’re scared and angry. Their Inner Egotists take control and their brains secrete cortisol and adrenaline to prepare for a fight or flight response. Women gather their young. A group of men drag Zog from his cave, beat him up and expel him from the tribe.

Our Inner Givers and Egotists are the complementary forces that drove human survival over hundreds of thousands of years. We needed to care for one another and we need to disable threats. Both our Inner Givers and Egotists have mighty roles, but the Inner Giver is the everyday captain. Our natural default is peace, not strife. Why, then, you might wonder do I see more evil than good?


Why, then, do I see more evil than good?

A steady stream of unconscionable acts, from Wall Street embezzlement to double murders, dominates our daily news feed. It might feel like unbridled Inner Egotists run the world.

They don’t.

By definition, what’s newsworthy is anomalous. Would you tune into a narrated video of your pudgy neighbor eating oatmeal, sponging down the counter, backing his truck out of garage and proceeding with his day? Of course not. We notice, remember and retell the adventures of Inner Egotists precisely because they are exceptions.

Pillaging, injuring and killing are riveting compared to the steady stream of kind Inner Giver acts like listening, assisting and respecting. You’ve likely heard of Bernie Maddoff but not Nicolas Winton. You’ve heard of the white-collar criminal but not of the savior of 600 war-torn children. I rest my case.

It’s not just media that favors the negative. You do. Consider your drive to work. One jerk cutting you off inspires the “can-you-believe-it?” story you tell coworkers. Do you ever tell the story of the other 80 drivers who could have cut you off but, instead, were considerate? I didn’t think so. The excessive attention we give jerky behavior works as grey-colored glasses. We believe that we are among nasty brutish people even when we’re not, which is most of the time.

Don’t feel bad for focusing on the bad. It’s not a conscious choice. Because it’s evolutionarily more important to avoid death than to relish the benign, we’re imbued with what psychologists call “negativity bias.” That is, we give greater weight to negative acts than to positive acts. For example, we notice pain but not painlessness. As psychologist Paul Rozin puts it, we allow a single bug to make a bowl of cherries repulsive, but no number of cherries can make a bowl of bugs appetizing.

As if negativity bias didn’t darken our outlook enough, we also have what Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky call the Availability Heuristic. This cognitive snag confuses the strength of a memory with the frequency of an occurrence. Anything gory or shocking is so seared into our minds that we think it’s more common than it is.

In other words, the stories we repeat to each other disproportionately draw from the antics of Inner Egotists. In reality, though, Inner Givers call most of the shots.

The company that sells iced tea and other beverages, Honest Tea, set up unmanned Honest Tea beverage kiosks for a week in 24 American cities. Buyers were asked to contribute $1 for the beverage. Which cities are overwhelmingly honest? All of them! The most crooked city turned out to be Denver. Yet, 83 percent of beverage drinkers in the mile-high city paid for their drink. The national average is 93 percent.

Admittedly, Honest Tea’s marketing ploy can hardly be considered rigorous research. Academic studies, however, yield the same result. For example, one study across 68 cities in the United Kingdom, Poland, and the United States found that 72% of those who ended up with deliberately “lost” wallets containing $94 in local currency returned the wallets. If you think that people would have kept wallets with more money, the exact opposite is true. The more cash in the wallet, the more likely the finder was to return it. As outlandish as it might sound to our cynical minds, most people are more interested in minimizing a stranger’s loss than in maximizing their gain.

The bottom line? Selfish behavior is the exception. We will, however, harm others to eliminate what we perceive as a threat. If you think your co-workers are thoughtless egomaniacs, don’t assume they are. Chances are something about your workplace is frightening their Inner Egotist into overperforming.

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