Study finds benefits of being selfish

Correction: An earlier version of this article reported that the study claimed that individuals “who act in their own self-interest are more likely to gain prestige and leadership recognition”; in fact, the study concluded that individuals who act in their own self-interest are more likely to gain “dominance” and leadership recognition, not “prestige.” Also, the study concluded that individuals who show self-interest are more likely to be perceived as showing “dominance,” not exemplifying “prestige.”

Individuals who act in their own self-interest are more likely to gain dominance and leadership recognition than those who exhibit altruistic characteristics, according to a recent study.

Stanford’s Graduate School of Business (GSB) collaborated with Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business on the report, which was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Robert Livingston, co-author of the study and an assistant professor at Kellogg, wrote in an email to The Daily that the collaboration between these three business schools sprung out of personal friendships and similar academic interests. He said the researchers conducted all of their three experiments at the behavioral lab at Stanford’s GSB.

“One might think that generosity would be a virtue (and selfishness a bane) for people who are aspiring to be elevated to high positions of authority and power by others,” Livingston wrote. Instead, the study found the opposite was true.

According to Livingston, their research sought to explore how an individual’s contribution to a group would affect teammates’ perceptions of him or her. He said individuals who more frequently acted in their self-interest were perceived as having higher dominance within the group — even over those who contributed often to the team

The study also asked participants — called intergroup members — to choose a leader whom they felt would be best in one of two different situations. According to the report, the situations were designed to be either more “cooperative” or “competitive” in nature.

The “cooperative” test asked intergroup members to choose a leader who would allocate resources while the “competitive” test asked the members to choose a leader who would help them in competition against a rival out-group.

“These experiments demonstrate that the leaders that people want vary as a function of the intergroup situation,” wrote Nir Halevy, co-author of the study and GSB assistant professor, in an email to The Daily. He said that the qualities teammates seek in a leader change depending on the circumstance.

Halevy also said that these findings are universally applicable and could shine more light on how a system of leadership develops, whether in offices or on the reality show “Survivor.”

He said the study also explored the relationship between those who are in an in-group and those who are in an out-group within a society.

“One interesting finding was that generosity toward out-group members does not lead to respect and admiration in the eyes of others,” Halevy said. “In fact, it led to lower levels of prestige compared to showing generosity toward in-group members only.”

Halevy added that these findings should by no means discourage people in the process of climbing the ladder to show generosity — they simply explain the behavioral tendencies of individuals operating in a competitive atmosphere.

According to Halevy, the study’s co-authors have many ideas about where to take their research next. For instance, he said the study leaves areas open for examination, such as the extent to which “aspiring leaders strategically display behaviors that can boost their prestige or dominance, depending on the group context.”

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