Scientists say selfish people earn less money and have fewer children — but there’s a catch

Relationships with others are important. Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley/Shutterstock
  • Selfish people tend to earn less money and have fewer kids.
  • That’s according to a new study that looked at data on thousands of people across the globe.
  • The catch is that, in most experiments, the highest earners were only moderately altruistic, suggesting that a little selfishness might be beneficial – you do have to look out for yourself somewhat in order to get ahead in life.
  • Other researchers have found that being helpful in the workplace can pay off in the long run – as long as you don’t burn out.

If you’ve been thinking about becoming a selfish pig in the interest of getting ahead in life, we’ve got a PSA just for you.

A new study finds that selfish people – we’ll specify what that means in a bit – tend to make less money than their more giving peers. They also tend to have fewer kids. Depending on your personal preferences, neither of those things might be inherently negative, but they’re still interesting to note.

For the study, which was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers in Sweden and the US looked at survey data on roughly 60,000 people in the US and Europe. The researchers, Kimmo Eriksson; Irina Vartanova; Pontus Strimling; and Brent Simpson, wanted to know: How was prosociality – i.e. interest in other people, the opposite of selfishness- connected to both income and parenthood?

To measure prosociality, the researchers focused on prosocial motivations – for example, believing that people should be willing to help others who are less fortunate – as well as prosocial behaviour -for example, actually donating money to charity.

Results showed that the most prosocial/least selfish people had the most children. When it came to money, for the most part, people who were moderately prosocial – i.e. mostly unselfish – earned the highest income. (One piece of data yielded different results: The most prosocial/least selfish people earned the highest incomes.)

Two of the surveys the researchers analysed were conducted over an extended period of time. And while this doesn’t necessarily prove that prosociality directly causes you to earn more money or have more kids, they do seem to be related in some way.

Read more:

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Giving (some) of your time and energy can pay off in the long run

As for why less selfish people should earn more and have more kids, that’s beyond the scope of this study. Yet the researchers cite the work of Wharton professor Adam Grant, who has found that “givers” are generally more successful than “takers.”

Grant’s insights line up with the new finding that moderately prosocial people make more money. Grant has said that it’s important to be an effective giver, or else you run the risk of burning out. For example, Grant recommends grouping your favours and doing them all on a single day so they’re less likely to interfere with your personal work.

The researchers behind the new study also conducted an experiment to see if people are aware that prosociality pays off. Interestingly, people generally believed that selfishness was linked to more money (incorrect) and fewer children (correct).

To be sure, the study findings don’t suggest that people who opt not to have kids are egomaniacs. That’s hardly the case. Nor is a small paycheck evidence that you must be a self-absorbed jerk.

But, especially if you’re thinking about how to succeed in the workplace, it’s worth being aware of the importance of relationships with other people – how you can help them and how they can help you.