Watch Out For Number One

It’s Good To Be Selfish

I’ve been reading more of Dawkins lately, namely “The Selfish Gene” and I’m astounded by it’s insights. The basic premise is that all behavior of all organisms is strictly rooted in pure selfishness of the individual organisms, be it the mold on the cheese in your refrigerator, a baby kangaroo, or you. Whenever there appears to be some kind of altruistic behavior, it can easily be explained in terms of selfishness of the individual. Evolution has filtered out the behaviors that aren’t the most beneficial to the survival of the individual.

One example is fighting among animals. Many male animals will fight to maintain dominance of the heard. Countless studies have shown that whoever is the top dog, or the head wolf, or the alpha chimp, will get most of the females (and most of the sex) and most of the food. Being on top is extremely important in the animal world. (And yes, humans are animals, in case you’re wondering.)

The interesting thing is that when animals fight, either over a woman, or a scrap of food, or a particularly valuable piece of real estate, they will rarely fight to the death. They usually spend lots of time posturing and staring each other down. And when they do get into it rarely do they fight to the death. As soon as one animal is down, the victor refrains from delivering the final deathblow, like in the gladiator movies.

Why is this? Wouldn’t it make sense just to kill your rival and be done with it, in case he returns later, stronger and more ready to kill you? Actually, no it doesn’t.

There is a complex mathematical model of inherent behavior that animals have when they get into a fight. And depending one how it works out over time, certain behaviors are more likely to survive, generation after generation. In a society filled with animals that fight to the death, the fights would be much more bloody and extended, and even the victor would have a large chance of sustaining bodily injury. So a gene that says, “fight your enemy to the death” wouldn’t be very popular. Consider a group of animals where every one had an instinct to “fight to the death.” Every time there was a fight, there would be one dead animal, and one seriously messed up animal. It wouldn’t take long for the population to diminish.

Now consider what would happen if in that, “fight to the death” society, came a mutant, who had an instinct that said, “when threatened, run away.” That animal would actually have a pretty good chance of mating, and making more copies of itself, as it would always be healthy, while most of the other animals would be busy fighting to the death.

Consider the opposite. Imagine a group of animals that had an instinct of “when provoked, run away.” Nobody would ever fight, and nobody would ever be injured. But all it would take would be one mutant that had the “fight to the death” gene, and he would pretty much clean house. He would scare away all the other males, and he’d get all the women to himself. Of course, in few generations, there would be lots of more fight to the deathers, until there would be equilibrium.

Of course, fight to the death, and run like the wind are not the only two possible strategies. Other strategies are “stare your opponent down for at least a minute,” or “never attack, but if attacked respond with force,” or “attack once, if there is a counter attack, run like the wind.” All these strategies, of course, are automatic and completely unconscious. The animals in question don’t learn from previous encounters. They just come with built in, pre programmed fighting strategies, and the law of averages takes care of the rest. Every animal is trying to get the most out of his environment, with the least amount of pain or effort. (Sounds like us.)

When watching a couple of tigers fighting, and seeing that the victor doesn’t quickly snap the neck of his opponent, it can seem like they have some pre arranged fighting rules, like MMA. They don’t. It’s just that successive generations have filtered out the strategies that don’t work well. And by not working well, that means living long enough to make more copies of yourself.

Luckily, even though humans are animals, we have conscious minds. We can learn from our mistakes, and plan for our future. We can either try and get the most out the situation right then and there, at the expense of whoever gets in our way, or we can take a longer look at things, and plant seeds that we can harvest later in life.

Robbing a bank can provide a large, quick sum of money. There are plenty of risks involved (I refer you to the recent Johnny Depp movie “Public Enemies,”) but can provide a quick payoff. The underlying intent is pure selfishness. I want money, I want it now, and I don’t care who gets hurt in the process. High potential payoff, high risk of negative failure (going to jail, or being shot.)

If you are a bank robber, you can learn from your mistakes. Plan your heists accordingly, so there is less risk each time, and more payoff.

Investing in the stock market over ten years can provide a large sum of money. There are plenty of risks involved, but can provide a large payoff. The underlying intent is pure selfishness. I want money, but I don’t plan on spending it until I’m ready to retire. The only person that stands to lose anything is me. High potential payoff, medium risk of neutral failure (all your invested money ends up being equal to zero.)

If you are long-term investor, you can study your trades, learn from your mistakes, and have a fair chance of having long-term success.

Sticking fifty bucks under your mattress every week can provide you with a tidy sum of money ten or twenty years in the future. The motive is pure selfishness. There is very low risk. There is a fairly even trade off. You don’t spend your money today, so you can spend it tomorrow. You know exactly what the cash amount will be in the future. There is very low risk of any loss, other than losing the value of your money due to inflation. You can’t really learn from your mistakes, unless you by a new mattress, or learn various stuffing under the mattress techniques.

You can bust into a bank, and steal other people’s money. You are selfish. You benefit, they suffer. Win lose.

Or you can “loan” you money to a company, through the purchase of their stocks. They get money to invest into their business. You get to be a part owner. They use your money, they grow their business, your shares grow, and you make money. You both benefit from each other’s selfishness. Win win.

Or you stick your money under a mattress. Nobody benefits but you, but nobody else benefits, and nobody else loses. Win.

Three strategies for making, with three different risk/reward ratios. But like I said early, we have conscious memories, and can visualize a reasonably good approximation of the future. You can look back into your past, see what strategies you implemented, and what results they’ve produced. You can then look into your future and see if these same strategies are likely to give you what you want a few years down the line. If not, you can easily change strategies.

Three different levels of selfishness. I suggest to you that the best and most lucrative selfishness is win win. It stands to reason that it would be a good idea then, to find as many other people that you can where your selfishness, and there selfishness will overlap in some mutually beneficial way.

No reason for stealing, no reason for fighting to the death. Respect your own selfish desires, respect other people’s selfish desires, find as many overlaps as possible, and everybody’s a winner.