Selfish Altruism: A Symbiotic Relationship

Is there such a thing as selfish altruism? Is this a bad thing? It matters not. As designers, we are asking the wrong questions. Our cohort just spent the first portion of Theory of Interaction Design and Social Entrepreneurship reading articles and posts loosely grouped into the theme of “With the Best Intentions” and being asked whether or not the content discussed in each piece could be labeled as selfish altruism.

With a background in nonprofits and volunteerism, I’m intimately familiar with the concept of altruism. Merriam-Webster defines altruism as “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others”. In contrast, selfish is defined as “concern with one’s own welfare or advantage in disregard of others”. By definition alone, the concepts seem in direct opposition… but is it possible that altruism is inherently selfish?

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The concept of selfish altruism was most directly introduced to us in Richard Anderson‘s “Reflections on gratitude” post where he referenced a blog post by Scott Henderson who expressed regret for a philanthropic donation and posited that humans are inherently selfishly altruistic. Anderson reflected that many interactions are designed around platforms that facilitate “reciprocal exchange”, e.g. Kickstarter perks, for supporting a cause. Another such example could be Lauren Frayer‘s segment describing Spain’s “Robin Hood” restaurant that “charges the rich and feeds the poor”.

Sometimes, however, these perks are intangible and manifest as an internal benefit or reaction to the interaction. Alex Holder‘s piece references the rise of corporate social responsibility and, similarly, Cindy Phu recaps the “commodification” of Gap’s (RED) campaign. Consumers of these businesses may not be receiving any particular tangible benefit (beyond the product being purchased) but one could argue that these trends exist because consumers are drawn to companies that enable a sense of “doing good” in the world.

Anyone who works in development could argue that fundraising is best nurtured when donors feel good about supporting their nonprofit cause. Fundraising is both an art and a science, and it flourishes when the donation interaction is designed to maximize the personal “kickback” that results from donors feeling good about acting in devotion to the welfare of others. Does this make the donor “selfish” for experiencing an internal benefit when externally helping others? I would argue that it doesn’t matter because the point is moot.

As designers concurrently studying social entrepreneurship, we are learning to design interactions that maximize social good. If in studying human behavior, we first a) recognize that humans are inherently selfish yet still capable of acting altruistically, and b) acknowledge that the outcome of this juxtaposition is maximized when we can let these two qualities coexist symbiotically in our own headspace, then c) we will be well-poised to design for maximum social impact.