What is Self-Centeredness?
Ourselves first, or others first? That question can reveal much about a person’s psychology and worldview; only because the majority of us at some time or another interact with others in our daily lives. So the priority we give to others or ourselves is rather revealing.
Before, however, I explain further the topic, we must distinguish what is meant by giving priority to others.
Some believe altruism is non-existent; that humans cannot perform a genuinely altruistic act, because we, by definition, behave in accordance to our own selfish wants. Which means, whenever we claim to have performed an altruistic act, such as taking a bullet meant for another, we had only done so because we wanted to. Not that we wanted to take a bullet, but that we wanted to aid or assist the person being targeted by the bullet. We behaved in accordance with our own selfish wants to help the person.
That view is called egoism, and we are going to ignore that viewpoint entirely; we are instead going to work within a framework of objects being considered.
To elaborate, consider the following: when, for instance, a gunshot is heard, do we consider our own safety first, as an object of attention, or do we consider the safety of others? What comes to awareness first? If the safety of ourselves is the first object before our attention, then we are, for the sake of this example, self-centred; and if the safety of others is the first object of our attention, then we are, again for the sake of example, other-centred: not self-centred. So, what determines self-centeredness and other-centeredness is whether the first object of attention is ourselves or others when an event or situation occurs, or when we spend more time on average placing emphasis on ourselves rather than others, assuming the opportunity to consider others is present.
Hence, why we are going to ignore the discussion about altruism and egoism. That discussion has no contribution to make when we are discussing self-centeredness and other-centeredness as a function of attention. Instead, what matters for us are the degrees, domains, and causes of self-centeredness and other-centeredness.
Degrees of Self-Centeredness
Self-centredness occurs in degrees, much like human traits in general. Some of us are more social than others by a large margin, and some of us are more social than others by a small margin. That is likewise the case for self-centeredness. Some of us are more self-centred by a large margin, and some of us are more self-centred by a small margin. And so, determining whether we are self-centred or not is a difficult thing to judge.
Some people are less severe in their self-centredness. To understand how, remember that self-centredness for us refers to the object of attention and whether said object is ourselves or others. In such a case, we can consider time spent focusing on ourselves or others, as well as the frequency at which we consider ourselves or others. And so when we more frequently consider ourselves more than others, even though we might at times consider others, we are more self-centred. Or even when we consider others at the same frequency as ourselves, yet spend for each instance of consideration a greater amount of time on ourselves rather than others, we are still self-centred.
So the time spent and the frequency of occurrence are both variables that can impact whether someone is self-centred or not, for us. The behavior of someone’s attention shall give us the answers we seek.
Self-Centeredness, Circumstance, and Causation
In addition to that, we must consider the domains of self-centeredness, as some domains are more justifiably selfish than others. For example, when we seek to improve our dietary habits or increase our own physical activity, so as to maintain a healthy lifestyle, we will inevitably spend more time and engage more frequently in self-consideration rather than consideration of others. Understandably so.
And furthermore, when a majority of our life is composed of domains wherein which we are left only to engage in self-consideration, we are then more likely to present as self-centred, despite our possibly being otherwise. It is foreseeable that someone who lives a solitary life, even if they are more willing to consider others, but simply do not as a result of circumstance, becomes mistakenly labelled as self-centred.
Phrased differently, some people are not necessarily self-centred, they just have a life which demands self-centredness.
Hence, we are wise to consider the different domains present in someone’s life, and ask ourselves what demands are made of a person by their circumstances. Just as we are to ensure no extenuating circumstances negate someone’s liability in a legal situation, we should likewise ensure no extenuating circumstances are present before we judge whether someone is self-centred or not.
Moreover, I think yet another important element in our considerations of self-centeredness is the cause. What caused some instance of self-centeredness or other-centeredness? And why does that matter?
Recall from above that we had explained someone’s self-centeredness by appealing to their circumstances. In some cases, people engage more frequently and for greater amounts of time in self-consideration because of their circumstances. Yet that is not always the case; and to understand why that is not always the case, we must consider the cause.
At times, people will indeed be surrounded by circumstances which demand self-consideration, but they might be surrounded by those circumstances as a result of being self-centred. And so, the true cause of their self-centred life is their own self-centeredness, not the circumstances.
Is Self-centeredness and Other-Centeredness Adaptive or Maladaptive?
We have made important comments about identifying self-centeredness, but why would we want to identify self-centeredness anyway?
We should be able to identify self-centeredness, as well as other-centeredness, because there are instances where either self-centeredness or other-ceteredness can be adaptive or maladaptive.
By adaptive I mean behaviour or characteristics which allow someone to live a healthy and meaningful life: i.e., getting along well with others, able to obtain goals and desire. By maladaptive, I mean precisely the opposite of adaptive behaviour or characteristics. Now how do these apply to self-centeredness and other-centeredness?
First, let us consider an extreme version of other-centeredness, as we rarely hear about the downfalls of considering others before ourselves. Suppose we have two and only two people interacting, person A and person B. And let us likewise suppose person A is self-centred and person B is other-centred, so much so that person A always takes and person B always gives. The nature of their interaction is to survive on a remote island, of which has limited food and drinkable water.
In such an idealized scenario, given that both parties want to survive, person A will survive longer. Why? Because person B, the one who is other-centred, will spend most of their time worrying about the well-being of person A; and person A, being self-centred, will worry about their own survival first and foremost. So person A will receive a majority of the limited resources.
Now of course, these idealized scenarios do not happen in ordinary life, but we can nonetheless extrapolate from our idealized scenario to a more realistic situation.
Consider an instance where there are a limited amount of promotions available at the workplace. If person A and person B had to compete, person B would be more than willing to give their promotion to person A because person B considers the needs and wants of others first. As a result, person B’s financial stability and career progression are slowed and delayed; and in some cases, a promotion might make the difference between paying a bill or gaining more debt. Thus, person B has engaged in a behaviour, as a result of their other-centeredness, which was maladaptive.
So consideration of others is not always a preferable thing, so long as we prefer an adaptive lifestyle.
The same holds true for person A. The obvious downfall to person A, in our idealized scenario, or even our realistic scenario, is the lack of friendship. Person A’s competitiveness and self-centeredness has, in both cases, harmed their friend, person B. Which means, person A will have a tough time, in general, getting along with others.
Therefore, person A’s self-centeredness can cause them to endure a maladaptive lifestyle, just as person B’s other-centeredness can cause them to endure a maladaptive lifestyle.
It is not obvious that being self-centred is entirely a bad thing, and it is not obvious that being other-centred is entirely a good thing.
So should we be self-centred? Probably, yes. Clearly being too focused on others leads to maladaptive outcomes, as does being too focused on ourselves. And so, we clearly need a healthy mix between both. Which means, we should be self-centred, to a degree.
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