I teach my students at Berkeley and Stanford that the foundation of marketing is psychology. Marketing is manipulating people to do what we want, so to get people to do what we want, we have to understand how they think, what they feel, and why.
I also teach that the foundation of psychology, what motivates all of us to do whatever we do, is self-interest. I explain that even soon-to-be saints, like Mother Teresa, who spent her life feeding the poor, caring for the sick, did so out of self-interest. Mother Teresa was not altruistic. There is no such thing as Altruism. It is a religious construct to motivate good deeds, to get people out of our own heads, even for a moment, to consider others.
Many students, especially believers of religion, have a problem with this lecture. And, no doubt, many reading this blog are bridling right now. “Of course Altruism is REAL. It’s what we strive for, our highest attainment— to give selflessly, because we are fundamentally caring, loving beings.”
Not so much. We are fundamentally self-serving.
And this is NOT a judgment call. This is a fact of human nature. What can be judged is what we DO with this fact of our nature.
I teach self-interest religiously with every Marketing lecture I give. As Mother Teresa spread the word of Christ around the world with every sick child she fed, she was fulfilling her function as a nun. And her brain rewarded her efforts with Dopamine, Serotonin, Oxytocin— ‘happiness’ hormones that made her feel good. In the face of that kind of poverty, I’d be crying daily. I don’t do what she did because it would not make me feel good in any way. I’d be profoundly sad, every day, knowing Christ will never save these children. People are going to have to do that. We ALL act in self-interest. We scoff at Chevron fracking as the height of corruption, yet we blithely ignore our roles in global warming by driving SUVs we don’t need, or leaving lights or electronics on all the time because we’re too distracted to turn them off. Or we drive while on our cellphones, and cause over 1.5 MILLION accidents annually, and KILL, murder, 9 or more people A DAY so we can check our Instagram or Tiktok feeds. I teach Marketing, not Morality, I tell students who balk at my contention our motivation, without exception, is self-interest. It is important to tell them this fact about us, this truth, giving them the ability to produce effective advertising down the line when they begin marketing their startups. To get people to buy into your product, service or message, you must understand their psychology— what they think they need or want, and why, then offer them solutions to their issues and desires.
Bernie Madoff did it to a lot of greedy people. He fulfilled their desire to get rich quick without effort when he convinced them to invest with him. Purdue Pharma fulfilled the desire of people in temporary and chronic pain, while simultaneously fulfilling the greed of medical professionals with kick-back payments that turned doctors into drug pushers.
Humans are self-interested beings. What we do with this fact is what matters, NOT that we ARE.
On the other end of the spectrum, Toyota fulfilled the desire of people interested in preserving our planet when they invented the Prius. And Tesla and other car makers have done the same with their all electric vehicles. Toyota and Tesla produce the cars they do to make money. And while serving themselves, they are moving closer to serving the greater good, by producing cars that have low emissions. Even better than electric cars, is solar and wind to power them, since over 60% of our electricity still comes from burning coal and other fossil fuels, which continues to do immeasurable damage to our planet.
Martin Andrew Green is an Australian professor at the University of New South Wales who’s dedicated his career to developing solar cells. Mr. Green’s self-interest is scratching a mental itch. He’s curious about light energy, and in learning how to manipulate it, his brain rewards him, makes him feel powerful, smart, valuable, serving his emotional needs.
Self-interest is NOT a curse. It is simply a state of being… human, in our case, but self-interest seemingly dictates the behavior of everything else that lives on Earth. Survival of the fittest is how species last over millennium. Not survival of the kindest, whatever ‘kind’ means. With every mouthful of food, every article of clothing, every vaccination Mother Teresa provided the sick and poor, she also fed them Christianity. She was not kind in spreading gospel that Jesus saves their souls. Instead of teaching the value and necessity of socially responsible behavior, which would have served the greater good, preaching rewards in the afterlife does not serve the living or their future.
There is no need to fear the fact that human behavior is driven by self-interest. Regardless of the religious allegory that Altruism is not only real, but mandatory for society to function, self-interest does NOT need to manifest as narcissism. Green, or Toyota, or the parents who work to provide for their kids, or helping a friend in need, most of us contribute to supporting our society or there would be no human race at all. We have no great physical strength or stealth prowess. Building communities, exchanging ideas and skill sets, being here for each other is all we have to sustain us.
We all have the capacity to be giving, generous, thoughtful beings. Our motivation is irrelevant. It is our ACTIONS that determine our morality, whether we are contributing to creating a society that thrives, or participating it our own demise.
Self-interest is encoded in our DNA, and is not a threat to humanity, but a valuable characteristic, a useful asset. We just need to lengthen our time horizon beyond our own lifetime, broaden our self-absorbed view. We must learn that acting 'altruistically' means recognizing our impact on each other and this planet, and that accounting for the needs of others as well as our own IS in all of our self-interest.