Selfish people earn less money than generous people

Greedy people are not raking in the cash.
Greedy people are not raking in the cash.
Image: Unsplash/Sharon McCutcheon
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Conventional wisdom holds that to make it to the top, you need to be a bit greedy—that constantly focusing on other people compromises time spent on yourself and your own advancement.

But is selfishness really the key to high earnings? A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests otherwise.

Researchers at Stockholm University, the Institute for Futures Studies, and the University of South Carolina examined data on more than 60,000 people in the US and Europe to understand whether one’s “prosociality,” or interest and engagement in others’ wellbeing, is indicative of how much money the person makes and whether they have children.

While previous research suggests that prosocial behavior positively impacts psychological wellbeing, the authors of this study wanted to examine the effect on income and the number of children people have because, as the researchers write, “these are the currencies that matter most in theories that emphasize the power of self-interest, namely economics and evolutionary thinking.”

Their findings bode well for the future of humanity. Across all five studies they analyzed as part of their research, selfish people were not the highest earners. (They also had the fewest children.) But in four of the five studies, those who earned the highest salaries weren’t the most altruistic people either. Instead, they were “moderately prosocial,” meaning they were mostly unselfish, but not entirely. (In one study, the most prosocial people did in fact earn the highest salaries.)

The overall findings run counter to most peoples’ expectations: In a separate survey with participants not involved in the five studies, the researchers found that the vast majority of people expect selfish people to earn more money than prosocial people.

The high-earning potential of moderately prosocial people aligns well with Wharton psychologist Adam Grant’s research on “givers” and “takers,” presented in his 2013 book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. Through data analysis and interviews with highly successful people across industries, Grant learned that the most successful people (as defined by their wealth, happiness, and professional impact) are “unselfish givers”—people who are disposed toward helping others, without expecting favors in return. The key to unselfish givers’ success isn’t altruism, says Grant; it’s being generous without sacrificing yourself.

Being a giver “is not about donating money or volunteering necessarily, but looking to help others by making an introduction, giving advice, providing mentoring or sharing knowledge, without any strings attached,” he explains on the podcast Knowledge@Wharton. “These givers actually prefer to be on the contributing end of an interaction.”

Pure givers are rare, says Grant. The majority of us fall somewhere in between giver and taker. For example, it’s possible to be somewhat selfish in high-stress professional environments, while being extremely generous with your kids at home.

Importantly, our status on the giver-taker spectrum is not fixed; we all have the potential to become unselfish givers. The key to doing so, as Grant explains on Knowledge@Wharton, is identifying which types of giving energize you the most and align well with your skills:

“For some people, it’s making introductions. For others, it’s sharing credit. For others, it’s stepping up as a mentor. Finding your own giver style is really powerful. The real meaning and purpose associated with that is that even if givers don’t always do better than takers or matchers, they manage to succeed in ways that make others better and lift others up, instead of cutting them down. Looking for ways to do that is probably the most sustainable path to success in the long term, both for individuals and organizations.”