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Is Self-interest Really Our Basic Motivation?

Neuroscientists seem to have devised an experiment showing that honesty often wins in a head-to-head competition with self-interest. Yet we hear so often, especially in economic contexts, that self-interest is the primary motivation for human actions.

I recently wrote a commentary on this topic at the Huffington Post, What Would Adam Smith Say?, in which I pointed out that Adam Smith, often thought to have created the theory of pure economic self-interest, did not himself approve of that theory.

The new experiment just shows that humans have motivations that can and do override self-interest. That being the case, we would all be better off if we stopped believing that self-interest is our fundamental motivation—a notion that can end up, as we all know, justifying bad behavior. It is long past time to start demanding, as we used to do before the rise of self-interest theory, that we exert control over our self-interested impulses, both for the sake of others and for our own long-term benefit.