Has Society Swung Too Far Towards Self-Interest?

Psychologist Paul Gilbert postulates that the sharp increase of competition in our society might be a sign of regression.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | August 14, 2022

A new study published in Frontiers in Psychology describes how modern day abundance has led us, counterintuitively, to a culture of territorialism, competition, class parity, and a severe lack of compassion.

I recently spoke to psychologist Paul Gilbert of the University of Derby to understand the premises behind his argument. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of caring and compassion as well as control and holding?

It was a basic fascination but also sends a personal urgency to try to understand how humans came into existence and of course that includes oneself. How to come to terms with the fact that we are all evolved short-lived disease-vulnerable beings?

Freud and Jung rooted their understanding of mental processes in the immediate post Darwinian era. Freud's concept of instinctive drives and Jung's concept of archetypes are rooted in the idea that we inherit a range of dispositions for motives, emotions, and so on. I was always fascinated by the concept of archetypes.

Much later came an area called evolutionary psychology that emerged really from study of biological differences within populations, which again (but by a very different route) was trying to understand the evolved mechanisms behind motivated behaviors such as sex, attachment, competitive behavior, group belonging and so on.

In 1989 I wrote a book called Human Nature and Suffering which looked at a number of evolved motivational systems and how they link to mental health problems and prosocial and antisocial behavior.

The reason that motives are important is because they evolved with physiological underpinnings that organize a range of psychological processes.

For example, you can consider the differences between a sexual motive and a feeding motive and how each of them is rooted in different physiological systems triggered by different stimuli and generate very different behaviors.

However, these motives are rooted in strategies. Now, a strategy is basically a species-typical way of doing things. For example, some species are omnivores and some species are carnivores; different feeding.

Turtles lay hundreds of eggs and leave them to it whereas mammals have very few offspring but have attachment caring and higher survival rates. These are regarded as very different reproductive strategies.

So, there is a link between basic species-typical strategies and the motives that emerge from them. I became fascinated by the idea that social context could prime ancient resource regulation strategies and, in doing so, impact people's motivational systems and physiological organization.

Consider, for example, how social values can change from carnivores to omnivores. Consider how culture also can impact on the regulation of sexual behaviours; what is acceptable and what is shamed or even punished with stoning!

The more the elites want to control certain behaviors the more they will feed threat into the culture and sometimes even extraordinarily vicious punishments.

Brought down to basics, DNA builds organisms that can pursue strategies that are linked to survival and reproduction; that's it really.

Now in many group living species, the regulation of resource control is primarily through aggression where the more dominant individuals intimidate the less powerful. Sharing does take place in groups but in a somewhat limited way and the dominant always takes and tries to hold onto the greatest share of resources.

So, for example, territorial animals will try to grab the best territories and defend them. Females are attracted to the more dominant males and also the more dominant males can impose sexual access as well. So, basically, when it comes to survival and reproduction and getting access to resources, that's all related to control and hold and often inhibiting competitors. And certainly not supporting them in their own struggle for resource control.

However, sharing does occur, particularly where there are cooperative alliances. In the transition from aggressive hierarchies to hunter gatherer societies these coalitions and cooperative alliances became increasingly important because they basically ganged up on and disposed aggressive dominant males, protected females, and shared the spoils between them.

This is obviously simplistic with many 'yes buts' variations and qualifiers. But as a general theme, over time, competitive behavior became much more to do with the ability to contribute to relationships and have status bestowed through altruism. Being wanted and desired as a helpful being. So one would be chosen as a colleague, collaborator, sexual partner, and so on because one was perceived to be able to share and care.

Forming sharing-caring relationships became incredibly essential for the survival of individuals in groups and the groups themselves. Humans are very attracted to caring and sharing. This is when we are psychologically and physiologically at our healthiest.

The slight problem, however, is that this psychology evolved in conditions of relative resource scarcity. With the advent of agriculture, the ability to store and accumulate resources increased, and basically triggered much older strategies of control and hold.

Today, neoliberalism overstimulates South-focused competitive behavior in individuals.

It entices and stimulates groups into thinking of themselves in terms of comparison to others and often have a fear of inferiority and of not being good enough or missing out. We've done quite a lot of research on this. There is now increasing evidence that neoliberal societies tend to create cultures where individuals are much more competitive, personally self-focused, but also in regard to their own tribes. They are basically selfish with very little interest in sharing resources.

Again let me note how culture can influence this. After the war, for example, there was a huge movement of care-and-share psychology because we wanted to rebuild our societies and we dreamed of creating a fair-sharing world at peace. There was common agreement that we should have a progressive tax economy and we used the money to build health and education services, railways, water, electricity services that were the envy of the world.

But it wasn't long before the control and hold strategies moved us away from responsibility or interest in caring and sharing. The disaster for that switching psychology is all around us with the super rich and run down services.

Wherever you look, there has been serious underinvestment for many years now. There is absolutely no evidence that private companies can provide national services more efficiently. There is no evidence that low tax economies are more efficient than high tax economies or are better places to live in.

Politicians simply spout these ideas with no evidence at all. If you compare high tax economies or say the Scandinavian countries with countries like the U.K. or America, you find that the Scandinavian countries are fairer, offer high levels of justice, better services, are happier, more pro-social, and so on and so forth.

Once we have insight into these deep underlying evolved strategies that are regulating our minds in our cultures in ways that we are completely unconscious of, unless we pay attention, we might have some opportunity to decide if we want to continue down this road of allowing ourselves to constantly undermine social responsibility as they are right now.

The big question for people like me, however, is how do you influence cultures and cultural values? It is all very well being able to help people become individually compassionate, but how do you help societies become compassionate?

The answers to those questions are still being formulated particularly, given the capacity for wealthy people to control information flow through the press and so on – something that Einstein warned about 80 years ago.

Could you explain what up-rank and low-rank strategies are? Why do people from low-care contexts undertake these strategies?

Basically, up-rank strategies are designed to get ahead of others and gain control over as many resource portfolios as possible. Individuals compete and once they win the resources they want , they hold onto them and do not share them with anybody other than with close kin or friends.

Up-rank strategies are risky to the extent that individuals will run into other up-rank strategists who will try to suppress their competitive behaviors – hence bullying and so on.

Down-rank strategies are those life strategies that are basically defensive and trying to avoid being bullied or exploited but at the same time tending to take submissive and appeasing approaches to people around them and in authority.

This makes them more vulnerable to being bullied and exploited actually. Some forms are linked to social withdrawal and some forms are linked to problems with assertive behavior and these individuals can be easily exploited and manipulated, unfortunately.

You state that control and hold strategies result from the competitive nature of our society. Could you elaborate on this?

Evolved strategies are very sensitive to social and cultural contexts. For example, there's been quite a lot of research now looking at how male values are shaped by context. In groups which are situated in threatening environments, there is a tendency for males to compete with each other to show their fierceness, fearlessness, and aggressiveness.

To some extent in threatening territories, the group needs this. There was a great book called The Making of Manhood by David Gilmour that highlighted these differences. Whereas male psychology in benign environments is different.

Consider testosterone, which is linked to competitive behavior and how that is expressed – be it through aggressiveness or altruism. It is very dependant on the social context and culture and sometimes the emotional early learning of the person.

We live in increasingly competitive societies and therefore we constantly feed competitive psychology through the media and through our entertainment. A lot of our video games are about hostile aggression and competitiveness; a lot of our television entertainment is basically male-on- male violence where the bad guys do bad things and then the good guys (increasingly women too, these days) come in and punish them by killing them in horrible ways.

The superhero stuff is all feeding the idea that in order for us to protect ourselves, we need super powers and that the world is basically one where it's a constant fight to compete and protect ourselves. Politicians thrive on this because they constantly present the world as full of threats from immigrants or whoever and themselves as our protectors. It's basically peddling callousness in the service of protection and entitling the group to control resources sometimes on an international scale.

So the bottom line always is the degree to which we live in cultures that stimulate self-competitiveness versus a sense of social responsibility for caring and sharing with others who are less fortunate than ourselves.

Part of our problem is that our caring and sharing psychology evolved in small hunter-gatherer groups and is not well adapted to working in large groups and tribes with strangers who we can't form reciprocal relationships with.

Basically, we have created mega groups that we're not really adapted for and the consequences have been horrific. For example, the way the elites have basically operated as terrorist groups and oppressed and persecuted the poor and the subordinates.

It wasn't so long ago that you could be hung for stealing the loaf of bread in England, or for poaching on the Lord's huge estates. Many of the empires of the world have had a huge underclass and slavery. The history of humanity is also history of extraordinary viciousness in terms of our tortures, atrocities, slavery, treatment of women and children – you name it we've done it!

What are the main takeaways of your research for people who are looking to contribute to the world in a caring and compassionate way?

The main takeaway really is to understand that we've all simply arrived here because DNA built us the way we are with a set of motives and dispositions that we had no choice to inherit or experience – but we have to try to work out how they function in different contexts.

We are a plastic species even down to the level of how our genes are turned on and off and we need to really study how we can create family, community, and cultural contexts that stimulate the caring and sharing strategies within us and be very cautious indeed about overstimulating self-interesedt competitiveness because that leads to the dark side. If we look at human history we can see that we have proved ourselves to be capable of being the most vicious, sadistic, cruel, and nasty species that has ever existed.

It's really important not to get carried away with the idea that we're basically compassionate beings full of love and so on because that simply is not true. Buddhists talk about our true nature as one of compassion but they're not talking about evolved minds. They're talking about something completely different which is to do with the nature of consciousness or the nature of mind itself.

That's a whole different ball game. We are an adaptive species and in order for us to stimulate the compassion within us, we have to feed it. So, as they say in Star wars, "Beware the power of the dark side" – it's a very old insight but as true today as ever.