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The Practical Effect of Cultivating Selflessness

A UCLA researcher argues that rather than assuming people are basically selfish, government could more profitably encourage pro-social behavior.

Most of our thinking about how to influence human behavior — how to get people to pay taxes, to obey laws, to not steal from each other — rests on the model of homo economicus.

This creature, first sketched by economists more than a century ago, is generally out for his own rational self-interest. He (or she) is, in short, selfish, and when we want him to do something, policymakers usually keep that in mind.

Lynn Stout, a professor of corporate law at UCLA, began to wonder about this deeply entrenched assumption, which leaves little room in human behavior for what we might call a “conscience.”

“The more I read, the more fascinated I became,” Stout said. “If you actually look at the data — the hard science on how people really behave — it becomes clear that the selfishness assumption is violated all the time. It is remarkably unusual for people to behave in a purely selfish fashion.”

More often than we think, people of all cultures — even children as young as 3, according to new research —  behave “pro-socially.” That is, they sacrifice their own self-interest, at least to some extent, to serve the larger group or an ethical ideal. Given the right social cues and situations, almost all of us will behave this way.

THE IDEA LOBBYMiller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

“This is an empirical fact of human behavior,” Stout said. “And it’s fascinating to me, because you saw almost no reference to it in economic or policy circles.”

She now believes pro-social behavior could be harnessed to shape all kinds of policies, a radical proposal she outlines in the new book Cultivating Conscience: How Good Laws Make Good People and in this abridged Brookings paper).

We associate conscience, Stout concedes, with religious leaders and populist politicos. But she wants to get government regulators, lawyers and businessmen thinking seriously about it, too. Most of our laws today are designed to influence behavior through carrots and sticks that appeal to selfishness. We motivate CEOs through material incentive in pay-for-performance schemes. We warn would-be tax cheats with the threat of an IRS audit.

If we want to appeal to conscience instead of greed — a potentially much cheaper strategy — we first have to recognize how common and powerful pro-social behavior already is.

“Once you become sensitive to this, it’s all around you,” Stout said. Evolution, however, has primed us not to notice it. Picture, Stout suggests, a homeless man passed out on the sidewalk by his daily dollar collection. If you watched 10 people walk by him without dropping a cent, would you consider those people selfish? Or would you recognize the decision each made not to steal the man’s money?

Likely, you picked the first option, because our survival rests on keeping an eye out for the cheaters and not the do-gooders. But we notice bad behavior precisely because we expect people to be good, a sign that pro-social behavior exists everywhere (and is taken for granted).

Laws, Stout says, could further encourage good behavior, and she focuses on three social cues that have been shown to trigger it. First, people need instructions from authority. If we don’t want people to do something, we have to communicate that to them. Insider trading, for example, takes place despite laws prohibiting it because the government doesn’t signal that it takes the crime all that seriously.

People also behave pro-socially when they think others do as well (just as we behave selfishly when we see selfishness around us). And we’re more likely to act pro-socially when we understand how it helps others (or when it’s explained to us how bad behavior harms others).

A campaign to encourage higher tax compliance, for example, might emphasize how many Americans do pay their taxes and why tax proceeds benefit us all. And crafting it would undoubtedly be cheaper than hiring more IRS agents.

“You’re leaving a bunch of tools in your toolkit unused,” Stout said, when we reach only for carrots and sticks. “Why should we focus only on material incentives — which by the way can be very expensive — when we have all these ways to encourage people to do a good job, tell the truth, obey the law, work hard and which cost us much less. Economists should be horrified that we’re behaving so inefficiently.”

Stout says she’s not trying to turn everyone into a Mother Theresa. Selfish behavior has its place; you should feel free to play the stock market to the fullest extent for your own personal gain. Government’s role, she says, is to recognize when we should be selfish and when we should not and, in the latter case, to crank up the social cues that encourage pro-social behavior.

If this sounds like sinister behavior modification — a concern to some any time social science informs public policy — Stout responds that we don’t really have a choice.

“No matter what government does, it’s sending signals that change behavior,” she said, “it’s making people more selfish or less selfish. Wouldn’t it be smart to recognize that reality, and to encourage [people] to be selfish when that’s efficient, and to encourage them to be pro-social when that’s efficient?”