List of Human Characteristics of Selfishness

by Matthew Giobbi, Ph.D.
Some evolutionary psychologists argue that human beings are primarily self-serving.

Some evolutionary psychologists argue that human beings are primarily self-serving.

Selfishness is a term used to describe an individual who orients his behaviors, feelings and thoughts around his own self-fulfillment, while disregarding the impact of his actions on others. Selfishness has been criticized as a vice and celebrated as a virtue by different cultures and thinkers.

Historical Origins

Linguists propose that English Presbyterians coined the word "selfish" in the 1630s. The etymology suggests "selfish" means "about the self" in the same way that "noonish" denotes "around noon." In its etymological and historical origins, "selfish" is a pejorative term used to describe someone who disregards the needs and interests of others.

Common Usage

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the contemporary use of the word denotes two characteristics:

  1. Concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself: seeking or concentrating on one's own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others.

  2. Arising from concern with one's own welfare or advantage in disregard of others (a selfish act).

Psychological Characteristics

An assessment of "selfishness" based on the 16 Personality Factors Theory of the renowned British psychologist Raymond Cattell reveals that some characteristics of selfishness can include the following:

A low score on the Warmth scale, indicating traits such as being impersonal, distant, cool, reserved, detached, formal and aloof.

A high score on the Dominance scale, indicating traits such as being dominant, forceful, assertive, aggressive, competitive, stubborn and bossy.

A low score on the Liveliness scale, indicating traits such as being serious, restrained, prudent, taciturn, introspective and silent.

A low score on the Social Conscientiousness scale, indicating traits such as being expedient, nonconforming, self-indulgent and disregarding of rules.

A high score on the Vigilance scale, indicating traits such as being vigilant, suspicious, skeptical, distrustful and oppositional.

A high score on the Privateness scale, indicating traits such as being private, discreet, nondisclosing, shrewd, polished, worldly, astute and diplomatic.

A high score on the Self-Reliance scale, indicating traits such as being self-reliant, solitary, resourceful, individualistic and self-sufficient.

A high score on the Perfectionism scale, indicating traits such as being perfectionist, organized, compulsive, self-disciplined, socially precise and self-sentimental, and exercising will power and control.

Evolutionary Concept of Selfishness

According to evolutionary psychologists, self-serving interests in survivability and reproduction primarily drive organisms. In social dynamics with other organisms, selfishness is often seen as a quality that is damaging for the group. Evolutionary psychologist Nicholas Humphrey has proposed that social animals, including humans, demonstrate "Machiavellian Intelligence" that masks selfishness as altruism. For example, the act of helping another person appears to be altruistic, but it is actually an act of self-interest. By helping others in a group, the individual increases their chances of being helped by the group. The apparent act of altruism is actually an act of selfishness known as reciprocal altruism.


About the Author

Matthew Giobbi describes himself as an interdisciplinary scholar. His interest in neuroscience, psychoanalysis, critical theory, semiology, and media has taken him off the well-trodden paths of psychology, media studies, and continental philosophy, and into the thicket and brush that typically separates these paths. An avid reader of Heidegger, Fromm, Freud, Lacan, and Arnhiem, Matthew enjoys the swirling waters of convergence, finding unique analogical discourse between fields that can be, at times, hostile towards one another. Matthew's graduate education is in media studies, psychology, and music. He earned his doctorate in media studies from the EGS in Switzerland, his masters in psychology at The New School for Social Research, in New York City, and professional studies in music at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels, Belgium. He also held undergraduate studies in music and psychology at The New School and East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania. Matthew is an award winning educator in college and university departments of psychology and media studies. His teaching ranges from mass media, social science literature, psychopathology, media psychology, personality and social psychology, and critical theory/critical media theory . He has also served on two doctoral dissertation committees since 2009.

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