Are There Advantages To Being A Selfish And Risk-Seeking Person?

Researcher Martina Testori discusses the possible upsides of selfish and risk-seeking actions.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | March 9, 2022

A recent study examines how potentially problematic personality traits, such as selfishness, greed, and risk-taking, take hold in a society. To understand this better, I recently spoke to researcher Martina Testori from the University of Southhampton, the lead author of the research. Here is a summary of our conversation

What inspired you to investigate the topic of selfish risk-seeking and its possible impacts on societal evolution, how did you study it, and what did you find?

Selfish and risk-seeking attitudes are widely observed in our everyday encounters. While evolutionary theories usually favor an individualistic point of view, that is, the strongest survives while the weaker perishes, we were interested in a more collective point of view.

While selfish traits have been shown to be beneficial to the survival and the evolution of individuals, how are societies affected by the presence of such individuals?

Selfish, self-enhancing traits are usually detrimental for the growth of the community as a whole, while both empirical and theoretical work has demonstrated that cooperative behavior can evolve and be sustained in communities through mechanisms such as reciprocity, network structures, reputation systems, gossip, and both peer and institutional punishment, or through kin or group selection (Nowak, 2006, Wu, Balliet & van Lange, 2016).

Thus, selfishness in the social context may be selected against.

Given the controversy, we decided to investigate the community dynamics when selfish and risk-seeking individuals were present.

We employed an agent-based model to investigate whether selfish and risk-seeking traits could be beneficial not only to the individual but also to the community. This model is a computational model used to simulate the actions and interactions of individual agents to understand the behavior of the group and the emerging properties of the group (Railsback & Grimm, 2019).

In our model, there were two types of agents: selfish risk-seekers and generous risk-averse. We adopted a computational model to systematically investigate the impact of factors such as environmental conditions, mortality rates, and individual and communal costs in a controlled environment in which potential confounding factors are ruled out.

Our simulations suggest that selfish risk-seeking behaviors can be favored over generous risk-averse attitudes in some scenarios. Our results point towards an evolutionarily adaptive role of selfishness and risk-seeking behaviors, while also marginally supporting the adaptive theory that psychopathic traits may not be a dysfunction but rather an adaptive consequence of human evolution.

Can you give a brief description of selfishness and risk-seeking as psychopathic traits?

The psychopathic construct is characterized by a constellation of personality traits, including lack of remorse, guilt and fear, poor impulse control, sensation-seeking, emotional detachment and impairment in building stable relationships, as well as high levels of manipulativeness, selfishness, low empathy and callousness, that can be expressed on a continuous scale (Cleckley, 1951). Selfishness (defined as the gain of one's fitness at the cost of others') and risk-seeking behavior are two core characteristics of psychopathy.

Your research talks about selfish risk-seekers and generous risk averse agents? Is one inherently better than the other?

Yes, our research talks about selfish risk-seekers and generous risk-averse agents. Selfishness and risk-seeking attitudes have been shown to provide high individual fitness, thus suggesting their evolutionarily predominance. Nevertheless, risk-aversion has also been found to be an evolutionarily stable strategy to adopt when faced with uncertainty and risky decisions.

Further, cooperative behaviors have been shown to sustain communities and evolve over time.

Based on evidence, it is hard to establish which one of the two combination of traits is inherently better than the other, and several exogenous factors might play a role to establish which behavior is better in which condition.

Our results point toward a similar outcome: both selfish risk-seekers and generous risk-averse agents can enable long-term population survival, and in some circumstances selfish risk-seekers can comprise the majority of the population without leading to its extinction. Selfish risk-seekers outperform generous risk-averse agents when social and environmental conditions are moderately (but not extremely) unfavorable.

Did something unexpected emerge from your research? Something beyond the hypothesis?

While we expected that the environmental condition (abundance or scarcity of resources) would be more influential on the community dynamics, we noticed that other factors, such as the chances of perishing that selfish risk-seeking agents experienced while attempting to accumulate resources, or the community and individual costs imposed, had a stronger impact on the evolution of the community. Thus, harsh conditions were not limited to the availability of resources but also to human costs and danger during the different phases of the simulation.

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on traits of risk-seeking and generous risk aversion go in the future?

An aspect that would be of interest for future research is to allow the individual personality traits of selfishness and risk-seeking to evolve separately, thus allowing more complex behavioral combinations to arise.

In this paper, we considered selfish and risk-seeking attitudes as one unified behavioral profile that evolved as a single personality trait. However, an individual could express generous attitudes and at the same time be prone to engage in risky actions.

By modeling each behavioral component separately, it might be possible to observe whether it is the combination of selfish and risk-seeking behaviors (that has been strongly correlated with psychopathy) that is evolutionarily adaptive or whether the evolution is driven by the dynamics of individual traits, similar to cross-sectional findings on professional success.