When Is It Best To Help Others Instead Of Ourselves?

Sheffield University's Ryan Byerly discusses his new research on others-centeredness.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | December 28, 2021

A new paper published in the academic journal Personality and Individual Differences offers a new lens through which to understand cooperative behavior — something the researchers refer to as others-centeredness.

I recently spoke with Dr. Ryan Byerly of the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom to learn more about others-centeredness and how it informs our understanding of personality and prosocial behavior. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of others-centeredness and what did you find?

I became interested in others-centeredness because I was wondering if there are any unambiguously positive tendencies to put others' interests ahead of one's own.

On the one hand, it's tempting to think there's something valuable about such tendencies since we often praise people for putting others first — we've seen this kind of language applied to medical professionals during the pandemic, for instance.

Yet, on the other hand, there is a persistent concern that by putting others first, one puts oneself last to a damaging degree. I wondered if there was a tendency to put others first that would deservedly garner the praise without assuming as much risk.

What our research suggests is that others-centeredness is such a tendency. Others-centeredness is positively related to satisfaction with life, presence of meaning in life, and virtues such as forgiveness, fairness, and kindness. It also predicts whether a person will divide five $2 bills between themselves and another person in a way that favors the other person.

But, its unique positivity is most clearly seen when we compare it to other tendencies which also involve putting others' interests ahead of one's own, such as unmitigated communion and high other-focus. If we control for the latter, others-centeredness continues to predict the positive outcomes just noted.

On the other hand, if we control for others-centeredness, the latter traits are significantly related to neuroticism, stress, and lack of self-differentiation, and are not predictive of satisfaction with life or presence of meaning. This suggests that others-centeredness effectively retains the positive features associated with "putting others first" but may avoid key negative features associated with it.

What is others-centeredness, and can you give an overview of where others-centeredness fits within the catalog of pro-social personality traits?

Others-centeredness is a tendency to put others' interests ahead of one's own that is based on a specific way of thinking. The others-centered person thinks that their own interests are just as important in the grand scheme of things as any other person's interests. But, they also place a high value on interpersonal relationships; they value cooperation, mutual understanding, and so on. Because of this, they will tend to prioritize promoting others' interests when they can't equally promote their own interests and another person's interests. This is because when they promote the other person's interests, they promote not just those interests but the interpersonal relationship with the other, whereas when they promote their own interests they may promote only these interests and not the interpersonal relationship.

As a simple illustration, you might imagine someone who would prefer to give the last cookie on the plate to their co-worker rather than take it for themself, even though both would enjoy it equally.

It's clear that others-centeredness, so understood, is a highly prosocial trait. As such, we might expect it to be related to other prosocial features of personality, such as agreeableness, altruism, and empathy, as well as virtues like kindness and fairness. This is indeed what we find.

Yet, it also stands out as somewhat unique in relation to these traits because of its specific focus on putting others' interests ahead of one own. In this latter respect, it is more similar to certain other highly other-oriented tendencies like unmitigated communion and high other-focus, which also involve focusing more on others than on the self.

Where others-centeredness differs from these latter tendencies, though, is in the specific way of thinking, noted above, which leads the others-centered person to put others first. Someone high in unmitigated communion or high other-focus may put others first because they worry that others cannot get along without them, or because they cannot manage to be happy unless another person is happy. These are signs of a lack of self-differentiation, an underdeveloped sense of individuality — which isn't associated with others-centeredness.

The reasons why the others-centered person puts others' interests first are different from the reasons why those high in unmitigated communion or high other-focus put others' interests first.

What percentage of people exhibit high others-centeredness?

We didn't really approach our research with the aim of clarifying what percentage of people exhibit 'high' versus 'low' others-centeredness. But I can share a couple of data points that are relevant for the question.

First, in general, people do tend to report that the features that are characteristic of others-centeredness are more like them than unlike them. This isn't all that surprising, if you think about it, because important parts of what make up others-centeredness are tendencies to think that one's own interests and others' interests are just as important in the grand scheme of things, and tendencies to value interpersonal relationships — and these tendencies aren't that rare among human beings.

What probably makes more of a difference is whether people allow these tendencies to influence them toward exhibiting behavior that involves prioritizing others. Here our experiment with the $2 bills is relevant. In one condition, we had participants divide four $2 bills between themselves and another participant, and in the other condition we had them divide five $2 bills. In the four $2 bill condition, an overwhelming majority, 74%, divided the bills equally. In the five $2 bill condition, 32% gave three to the other and two to the self, while 42% gave two to the other and three to the self. This is only a one-off experiment, but it might give a rough idea of what percentage of people are, at least on occasion, inclined to exhibit the sort of behavior you might expect from others-centeredness.

What advice might your research hold for someone questioning whether they might be too selfish ... or selfless?

One of the key takeaways, I think, is that it matters not just whether we exhibit selfless behaviors, but what psychological features lead us to behave selflessly. The way of thinking characteristic of others-centeredness can lead us to put others' interests first for reasons that appear to be largely psychologically healthy.

But there are other reasons to put others' interests first, such as those more characteristic of unmitigated communion, which can be psychological liabilities. So it's important to attend to what motivates our more self-sacrificial behaviors, and whether this motivation is healthy.

It's also worth pointing out that the sort of prioritizing of others that we are talking about with others-centeredness is relatively small. Because the others-centered person thinks their own interests matter just as much as others' interests in the grand scheme of things, we wouldn't expect them to be habitually sacrificing very important interests of their own to promote minor interests of others. What we should expect is a pattern of small differences like what we see in the experiment with the $2 bills. Promoting others' interests matters more to the others-centered person than promoting their own interests does, but it doesn't matter so much more as to silence all legitimate concerns for the self. Far from it.

Did you find any gender differences or other demographic differences?

This is a great question and one we don't talk about in the article itself. Part of the interest that psychologists had in studying unmitigated communion in the 90s was that they thought that this kind of extreme tendency to put others ahead of oneself might help to account for why depression is more common in women than men. Research on unmitigated communion has confirmed this hypothesis; there are indeed gender differences in unmitigated communion, with women scoring higher than men. We saw this in our research, too. Women scored higher on both unmitigated communion and high other-focus. By contrast, others-centeredness did not have a significant relationship to gender.

How might your research inform clinical efforts to improve perspective taking, prosociality, or other things related to maintaining positive social relationships?

Again, I think that one important takeaway is that we should consider what motivates some parties in a relationship to put the other party's interests ahead of their own. Are they doing for reasons more characteristic of others-centeredness, which may be largely healthy, or for reasons more characteristic of unmitigated communion, which may be of therapeutic concern?

There's another aspect of our research that I haven't mentioned yet that may be of interest to clinicians. We did a second simple experiment to test how much participants experience change in affect after first imagining a close other in a neutral state and then imagining them in a positive state. Low self-differentiation, unmitigated communion, and high other-focus were all significantly predictive of greater change in affect in this experiment, whereas others-centeredness was not. This simple experiment might be useful for clinical purposes, for trying to identify when someone is inclined to exhibit behaviors reflective of low self-differentiation.

Do you have plans for follow-up research?

Yes! Megan Haggard (Francis Marion University) and I have been looking into the potential civic significance of others-centeredness. Are others-centered people more civically active online and in person? Do they volunteer more? Are they more honest? Our early indications are that the answers to these questions are 'yes', although others-centeredness may not predict all of these behaviors beyond what is predicted by other prosocial traits.