Challenging the Selfishness Paradigm




There is enough for everyone’s needs but not for everyone’s greed.


All human societies are built on a number of basic assumptions that determine the choices their people make and the systems they rely on to organise their life.

A fundamental of our scientific, profit driven, materialistic worldview says that we are selfish creatures randomly evolved from chaos through a competitive process of selection, struggling for survival and intrinsically concerned by self-interest. All our educational, social, economical, political, cultural as well as mental and emotional makeup are built on this assumption. What if it was flawed? What if it was wrong – dreadfully wrong?

This is the question Nipun Mettha, founder of Service Space and giftivism activist raises: “What designs, institutions, systems or projects would emerge if we assumed that people want to behave selflessly? If you look at economics, it is built on the premise that people want to maximize self-interest. It is the basic building block of economics – that people are selfish. What would happen if we turned that question on its head and say, actually, maybe people want to be selfless?”

Service Space runs a number of service projects that started as generosity experiments and ended up, not only generating value, but also bringing working answers to some of the most crucial problems of our modern societies – things like over consumption, social disparities, isolation, meaninglessness, scarcity, etc. Nipun argues that giftivism not only creates synergistic bonds based on kindness and generosity between individuals but also generates profit.

His Karma kitchen based on the principle of ‘pay it forward’ charges nothing for a meal. Someone has already paid for yours and you are offered the opportunity to make the gift of a free meal to the next customer. “You can imagine the business school folks scratching their head and asking, what is this about? You trust people? This is not what we taught in school!” Yet, the chain has continued unbroken for the last 4 years, 26.000 meals served and growing.

Intrigued by the Karma kitchen story, University of California Berkeley Pr Leif Nelson from the Haas School of Business conducted a similar experiment in a cartoon museum that led to the conclusions that the idea that people are motivated by generosity does work.

From an original price of a dollar per ticket, three successive experiments were conducted. The first one was to advertise a free entry and invite people to give something in a donation box. Average return per ticket rose to $1.23. The second step was to humanize the interaction with the donation being given to a cashier. People gave on average $2. The third one appealed to generosity and interconnection and suggested customers could pay for the entry of the next visitor. People gave on average $3.

Surprised? Maybe not so much but probably quite excited!

Watch Nipun’s Berkeley TEDx talk to hear the story first hand and confirm the findings with Pr Nelson’s interview.

In the same line of thought, I recently came across a very interesting article by Frances Moore Lappe on the ‘eco mind’ that further seems to disprove the selfishness myth.

The following are some excerpts from the article.

“Breakthroughs in a range of disciplines are confirming what we already know about ourselves, if we stop and think about it: That humans are complex creatures and what we do – from raising children to caring for elders to sharing with our neighbors – exhibits at least as much natural tendency to cooperate as to compete.”

Frances quotes archaeologist Jonathan Haas of the Field Museum in Chicago, “The view that our species is basically brutal defies the evidence: There is a very tiny handful of incidences of conflict and possible warfare before 10,000 years ago, and those are very much the exception.” Frances goes on mentioning revealing pieces of research:

“University of California anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy challenged the accepted belief that our penchant for cooperation emerged through bonding to fight our neighbors. Instead, our capacity for cooperation evolved in response to our unique breeding culture: While other primates generally don’t trust others to care for their infants, humans have long turned to aunties, grandmas, and friends to help care for their babies from birth. With these “helpers,” children have the “luxury of growing up slowly, building stronger bodies, better immune systems, and in some cases bigger brains.” It is this capacity for cooperation, honed through shared child rearing, that most distinguishes Homo sapiens, claims Hrdy.

 And there is a lot more but as we have taken too much time, I will only quote three more researches mentioned in Frances’ article:

  • Psychologists usually agree that, on average, more than 80 percent of the happiness we experience comes from relationships, health, spiritual life, friends, and work fulfillment whilst only 7 percent is about money.
  • A study in Science in 2008 reported that we actually get greater pleasure from giving than receiving. Neuroscience say that when human beings cooperate, our brains’ pleasure centers are as stimulated as when we eat chocolate!
  • Another study reported in Nature in 2010 tells the surprising story of how, when you ask a young man who has just been rewarded a $50 bonus to imagine how they would feel if they got another bonus, or if the next bonus went to their partners, it is the image of their partner’s happiness that lit up their brain’s pleasure centre.

Could it be that Darwin, Freud and Adam Smith got it wrong? The only thing we know for sure is that, from where we stand today, both cooperation and competition can explain our evolutionary success. So is it, once more, coming down to a question of choice about the point of view we adopt on reality?

Imagine what would happen if we were reconsidering our assumptions, not for the ‘scientific truth’ they represent but for the practical effects they produce? Could we even imagine another way of gauging a nation’s or a people’s relative prosperity than the GDP and get out of the oppressive tyranny of economics? Could we come back to a more realistic understanding of what it means to be alive, healthy and successful? Some are already seriously talking about it and develop the idea of a GHI – a global Happiness index.

Want even more? Read, watch, listen ~

Is GDP An Obsolete Measure of Progress? Judith D. Schwartz  in Time Online

Measuring Real Progress by Ron Colman published in the Oxford leadership journal

Nic Marks: The Happy Planet Index on TED talk


13 thoughts on “Challenging the Selfishness Paradigm

  1. Utterly amazing. There has been much pondering of the same exact principles in my circle as well. I think we’ve moved beyond the ‘What if’s’ .. everything is dreadfully broken, and I think things are going to have to become even MORE broken before change – REAL change – can be accepted and welcomed. We’re on the cusp of a very exciting time, I think, but I find myself gravitating more and more toward those who share my views…it’s like we’re swimming upstream in a very strong current, but the current is polluted and poisonous and I can no longer live with my eyes closed – thank you! ❤

  2. I think the only thing I can reply to that Mama is: YES. Yes, we have already moved beyond the tipping point; yes, we are coming together like never before (or like a long time ago), pulled along a resonance that is the new vibration; yes, we are swimming upstream, both in terms of the old social order but also spiritually toward our perfect selves and our common home; and yes, the current is badly polluted and we need open, sharp and focused eyes and also a strong backup of pure spiritual power and a heart filled with love. The new is definitely coming; it is here already: you and I and so many others are here – many thanks for your sharing,

  3. This was a great read,not only well written but really engaging and thought provoking
    i was pleasantly surprised when i read about The Karma kitchen and i just loved the very idea..that study done to see how much people contribute was mindblowing.
    you are right people( humans ) do have a kind heart but to succeed/survive in this competetive world they bury it deep.
    whole survival pattern is based of selfishness,predator feeds on preys to survive and how the whole food chain works.,but what was supposed to end with the food chain seeped in every aspect of our life.
    today i see an accident victim lying on the road and the first reaction is,great today i had such an important meeting and today this one had to die or meet an accident…… and the traffic movies on( they have to) but the ones in bigger cars have the smallest hearts..often find rikshaw walas,those on cycles and the pedestrians coming forward but those who actually can,do not cos all have a meeting,an appointment…
    more the gap between supply and demand, more will be corruption at all levels,more people will think about themselves first.

  4. Dear Soma, Always happy to see your gravatar appear here! It creates like a sense of security and ‘sense’ that the world is still in order! Yes, thought provoking. You know, I really think this whole business of chain food – I used to deeply hate this concept before I came to term with the idea that loves kills demons more effectively than anger … – so this whole idea of the chain food is mental conditioning. It has little to do with our real nature but it is a belief ingrained in our brains and education systems for the sake of dividing us and disempowering our spirits. And yes, we see in the little ones, the poor ones, all those who haven’t had the chance to grow their arrogance, we see in those people that generosity and sharing are instinctive things. Now for the rests, for those big cars – I still dislike them so much also, so arrogant they are – the ego has built its kingdom on this belief in competition and exploitation and there is nothing left to check it – except the inevitable failure at the end of the road, at the time when the spirit cannot go any further because it doesn’t run on gazoline, cash or junk food and because you cannot lobby God and the law of karma. BUt you know Soma, there is one thing I am now very convinced of – and not always succeeding in doing it – that one of the most effective weapons of the forces of the ego is to make us upset and disgusted at the injustice and pain. It does that so it can assert its power. But we must not give them access to our heart and, however hard that is, keep feelings of peace, benevolence and joy … this is the real challenge of our time I believe: being awake, having open eyes but having a heart so strong that no shadow can reduce its light. Easy to say but the only real answer to me … thanks for triggering this flow of thoughts.

  5. Good morning dear Soma, I thought before going to bed last night that there was a typing mistake in my reply to you and I should correct it. It is not ‘… love which kills demons …’ – you are going to think of me as a kind of hippy! – but it is a light shining from inside which is cultivated and brought forth by a non compromising integrity which is the root of power; a joy of living that doesn’t care a bit about wasting time with unworthy things; a passion that loves life more than death; a creative optimism that knows everything is possible and that no wound cannot heal; and a compassion that sees the world as oneself … ouf! That was a bit loooong like usual but this is what I meant by ‘love’. Love. f

    1. You Sir are a gem of a person,and i hope people read your beautiful write ups, they are not just thought provoking but also very motivational. even though we know a lot of things we need to be told certain things time and got to thank you for that 🙂

    1. Dear Paul, warmest greetings and sorry for such a slow reply – I have been offline for a few days. Many thanks for this award. It is extremely kind of you to share it here. I am trying to find the time to visit more blogs, including yours, and get to discover and learn but there is so much out there! I was really not expecting to find such a community of spirits when I joined WP! Many thanks again and all best wishes for your work!

  6. Sorry it’s taken me so long to make my way here Frederic! But I’m glad that today I managed to come and take my time to read and capture what motivates your soul.

    It especially thrills me to see that all over the world, sparks of fire are being lighted not only as ideals but the translation of ideals into everyday living practice. People committed and dedicated to building a new world and challenging the current system of the way things have been. Most of all questioning the status quo of what we have come to accept of our world, others and ourselves.

    How spectacular the originality and excellence of thoughts and service which flow from this one single desire to bring change!

    I found the additional reading of Measuring Real Progress by Ron Coleman to be of special interest and significance. Again, challenging the human metering of well-being, progress and happiness based on GDP charts. It surely is an illusion that equates economic growth alone to the prosperity of mankind.

    I was especially grateful to read of women’s contribution in the home as a value that has far-reaching impact. How very short-sighted indeed this current system that actually works against what keeps a society thriving – volunteer work, leisure, spiritual and mental development of the individual and family life.

    So much to say (I’m beginning to think I’m a sure match to your talkativeness! :D) My warmest greetings to you on beautiful Mount Abu, Sharon

    1. And it also took me a long time to come back to you Sharon … the last days have been busy as will be the next few centuries! So many things to do, see, learn, share, love … Yes, I have read several studies that states that women have a key role to play in terms of development – and we all know that – because they are concerned, care for ‘little’ things and know how to grow things and sustain. This is the foundation of life and what really produces healthy growth and success in the sense of happiness, not the ‘big’ plans or ideas. I won’t be too talkative tonight … a bit tired … Smile (sorry, I havent’ found the emoticons yet!) With pure lfove,

      1. Please do not apologise and rest easy in the knowledge that as much as I cherish our long discourse, I value more your rest and well-being as you undertake other important tasks! Blogging can be intense too sometimes! Take care and until the next time, quiet days of fruitfulness. Sharon

  7. If we could just convince ourselves that we really don’t need to keep up with the Jonese. I left a life in Texas in 1993 and suddenly and unexpectedly (over night) moved to San Diego just to get away from the expectations there that I should try to keep up with the Joneses. With a new start, I got to decide how I wanted my life to be rather than how others wanted my life to me. It did result in me being estranged from both sides of my family. Oh, well.

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