We Are Not Born as Egoists

Friederike Habermann

A woman is writing a letter, and her pen drops to the floor. She leans across the desk and tries to pick it up, but she can’t reach it. A small boy realizes that he can help her. He walks over to the pen, picks it up and hands it to the woman.

This is an experiment with twenty-month-old children. In an initial phase, almost all of them are happy to help adults who drop objects and are seemingly unable to pick them up again. Then the children are randomly assigned to three groups. In the first one, the adult does not respond at all to the child’s assistance; in the second, the adult praises the child; and in the third, the adult rewards the child with a toy. The result: while the children in the first two groups continue to help as a matter of course, most of the children in the third group do so only if they are rewarded (Warneken/Tomasello 2008).

Philosopher Richard David Precht has a chapter entitled, “What Money Does to Morals,” in his book, The Art of Not Being an Egoist. He begins: “It is a touching scene,” initially referring to a very similar experiment with fourteen-month-old children who help adults open the door of a cupboard (Precht 2010: 314ff). These experiments, conducted by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, can be viewed on the Internet.1 Yet the scenes with the third group of children are not online, and to be honest, I would not want to see them. They would make me sad.

An article about the use of monetary incentives for employees, “The Gummy Bear Effect,” documents the perverse effects that external incentives can have on people’s motivations:

At a children’s birthday party, tell an exciting story about pirates, dragons and a sunken treasure. Then have the children draw pictures about the story. The children get to work eagerly and draw pirates’ coves, sea monsters and flotillas of pirate ships with many details. Then, the experiment is varied to include an incentive system. A child receives a gummy bear for every picture completed. At first, the children are delighted, but all of a sudden, it becomes apparent that there are two types of children: The “artists” continue to devote themselves to their works of art with as much verve as before and are happy to accept the reward as a positive side effect. The “businesspeople,” on the other hand, shift to mass production, churning out simple images with increasing speed and sloppiness, and pile up stacks of gummy bears to show off their success. Engrossed in their pictures, the “artists” take note of the “businesspeople’s” piles of gummy bears and slowly but surely lose interest in the details of their works [...] Then comes the last phase of the experiment: The rules of the game are changed yet again, with the explanation that the gummy bears are all gone. Suddenly, not only do the “businesspeople” lose their motivation, but so do the “artists.” Introducing and abolishing an incentive system has turned a highly motivated gang of little rascals into a mob in a foul mood.2

Experiments with adults yield similar results. For example, economist Uri Gneezy noticed that when his three-year-old daughter’s kindergarten introduced a penalty for parents who were late picking up their children, it did not have the desired effect. So he and his colleague Aldo Rustichini looked into how many parents were late in ten other kindergartens in Haifa, Israel. Then, a penalty of ten shekels (roughly three US dollars) was introduced for parents who were at least ten minutes late. The result: On average, more than twice as many parents were late. And that did not change even when the penalty was abolished. What had previously been a social quality – not making the kindergarten teachers wait – had now been degraded to a quantity that spoke even less to the parents’ sense of responsibility. To the parents, the fact that “being late” was available “for free” again may have seemed like an added bargain (Gneezy and Rustichini 2000).

Precht speaks of the “strange power of money,” as it destroys our “sense of ... individual qualities, of what is rare and ephemeral, of the moment, of intimacy and so on. Where money rules, everything seems drab and indifferent. Life seems completely objectified – to such an extent that everything besides money becomes irrelevant” (Precht 2010: 319).

Games of cooperation that economists conduct with adults also initially contradict the image of humanity as Homo economicus that is so fundamental to their discipline. Instead of showing that people always pursue their own self-interest, the games bear witness to people’s tendency to be fair – but only until the first egoist steps in (Precht 2010: 394f).3 And it is no surprise that when compared with other students, business and economics students are the first to abandon cooperation and adopt uncooperative strategies: after all, they learn about Homo economicus day in and day out.

We are all part of the largest experiment of this kind: the modern monetary economy. It, too, is founded on Homo economicus,who is defined in the Duden Dictionary of Foreign Words (2005) as “a person guided exclusively by economic considerations of expedience.” A second definition describes the term as signifying “current-day man per se” – which implies, as mentioned above, egoism, com­petitiveness and a habit of reducing life to utility.

In his book Homo Oeconomicus, economist Gebhard Kirchgässner defends him as “not all that dislikable,” because he acts just as “disinterested and reasonable” as the priest and the Levite in the parable of the good Samaritan who saw the man who had fallen among robbers and walked past. Provided that he did not have a particular relationship to him, it made no difference to him whether his neighbor was all right or not (Kirchgässner 2000: 47). This is precisely the advantage of modern economic theory: “It assumes a realistic image of humanity and….does not claim that people become ‘better’ under different circumstances” (2000: 27). Precht comes to a different conclusion: “Strict and tough calculation of utility, ruthlessness and greed are not man’s main driving forces, but the result of targeted breeding. One could call this process ‘the origin of egoism by capitalist selection,’ following Charles Darwin’s famous principal work” (Precht 2010: 394).

For more than two decades, feminists have been discussing a poststructuralist approach that attempts to conceive in theoretical terms both of people’s deep integration with their social context and their constant construction of themselves, thereby changing that very context. For this reason, our bodies and our emotions and empathy can only be imagined together with everything that leaves its mark on us; we are nonetheless more than a blank page that is an entirely passive object, inscribed by the societal discourse. We are surely not individuals who think and feel auto­nomously, but rather members of society with all our being (Habermann 2008).

Where, however, should empathy come from, if not from us as people? Insights from epigenetics demonstrate how our biology, including our genes, cannot be conceived of without environmental influences.4 Canadian physician and author Gabor Maté emphasizes that nobody can be separated from the surroundings he or she grew up in. The genetic argument permits one to refrain from calling the social, political or economic conditions into question by instead referring to a fundamental and unchangeable concept of human nature. Accordingly, our society, which is based on competition, falls victim to the myth that people are competitive, individualistic and self-interested by nature. On the contrary: only in a single respect should we speak of human nature, and that is the existence of certain human needs. “As human beings, we have a need for company and close contact; a need to be loved, connected, accepted and seen; to be accepted for what we are. If this need is fulfilled, we develop and become compassionate and cooperative individuals who have empathy for others.”5 But in our society, the opposite is frequently to be observed – which results in different traits of character.

Without presupposing such needs as essential and ahistorical, poststructuralist feminism also implies that if these needs are not fulfilled, they will manifest themselves in a subject’s psyche in the form of melancholy. Hanna Meissner speaks of a “loss that cannot be mourned because one is not aware of it being a loss, as the life option that is lost or from which one is excluded cannot even be imagined as a potential option in the framework of the symbolic order” (Meißner 2008: 30).

What this means for the quest for a happier society is obvious. Every time someone claims that there cannot be a better society or an economic model less strongly founded on self-interest because “that’s how people are, after all,” we can counter with Richard David Precht’s words, “We are not born as egoists, we are made into them” (Precht 2010: 316).

According to Precht, the insight that material rewards spoil people’s character has a deeply disturbing aspect. After all, our entire economic system is based on such exchanges. And if economics is the continuation of ethics by other means, as economist Karl Homann and others claim – what kind of ethics is it that causes tens of thousands of people to starve to death every day? They are the ones who did not have enough to offer in market exchanges.

Accordingly, the question arises how people might withdraw from this peculiar power of money without a “fundamental criticism of our entire economic system,” which Precht, too, presents as illusory. Social psychologist Harald Welzer rightly deems so-called Realpolitik as a “politics of illusion,” if we consider the extent to which people have closed their eyes on the global societal catastrophes. In this respect, he contends, only utopian politics are realistic.

Fetishizing and sacralizing growth and other such concepts, actually pseudo-concepts, from the past result in illusory realities – just as Realpolitik is in reality only the creation of an illusion of a status quo that no longer exists. That means that Realpolitik is currently politics of illusion, and that utopianism is realism – because utopian action/utopian maxims of action are, after all, realistic inasmuch as they assume that we cannot simply go on as before, and there must be a very fundamental transformation, in fact not a trans­formation.... in the context of existing practices, but of the framework itself, of the practices themselves. 6

Welzer responds to Precht’s question as to radical social and ecological renewal by democratic means with a plea for changing “cultural practice” – as it is necessary to consider it political. 7

For decades, feminists have identified local starting points for a different kind of economic system in the “dissident practices” (Carola Moeller) of everyday life. This does not mean that other spaces of political life are meaningless, yet it does mean that a cornerstone of this process is changing our daily practices in a way that is able to alter the specific framework for these practices. If we have understood that we humans exist only if we are interwoven with our environment, then we also understand that new horizons for thinking and acting emerge only in interplay with the changed environment, that is: with an altered material-economic way of life.

“We are amply shaped by society,” says Robert Maurice Sapolsky, professor of neurology at Stanford University. “[...D]ifferent large societies could be termed as individualistic or collectivist, and you get very different people in different mind sets [...] coming along with that.” And he warns: “[...T]he more stratified a society is the fewer people you have as peers, the fewer people with whom you have symmetrical reciprocal relationships. Instead, all you have [...] is a world with a lot less altruism.” 8

Sapolsky uses the term peers. Commons-based peer production is the term that Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler uses to describe the way in which free software is generated – a phenomenon that the theory based on Homo economicus cannot explain. 9

Only when reflecting later on my book Halbinseln gegen den Strom. Anders leben und wirtschaften (2009), in which I explore alternative ways of conducting economic activities in German-speaking countries, did it become clear to me that these are basically also the principles that can be detected in the more recent initiatives as well. I use the somewhat less cumbersome term Ecommony, yet Sapolsky’s idea makes me wonder whether peer might not be too important to be left out. For – and this is the decisive point – “structural communality” (Stefan Meretz) emerges from these principles. It supports cooperation instead of competition and opens up different ways for people to develop. 10

These “peninsulas” (German: Halbinseln) are spaces (actual territorial ones or merely social ones) where, to a certain extent, people create a different reality for themselves and try to experiment where such a road could lead them. They are spaces that permit people to develop in a different way because a different set of things are taken for granted there. 11 However, in our current state of being, we cannot know what a society inspired by such principles could look like. Exchange, competition and having to assert ourselves have left their mark on us. We need new experiences during which we change and with which we can gain new insights. In this sense the most realistic and feasible truth at the moment seems to be: the world shapes us, and we shape the world.


  • Gneezy, Uri and Aldo Rustichini. 2000. “A Fine is a Price,” Journal of Legal Studies (29)1:17.
  • Habermann, Friederike. 2008. Der Homo Oeconomicus und das Andere. Hegemonie, Identität und Emanzipation, Baden-Baden.
  • Habermann, Friederike. 2009. Halbinseln gegen den Strom. Anders leben und wirtschaften im Alltag, Königstein.
  • Habermann, Friederike. 2011. Solidarität wär´ eine prima Alternative. Oder: Brot, Schoki und Freiheit für alle, rls-paper.
  • Kersting, Wolfgang u.a. 1998. “Grenzen des ökonomischen Imperialismus?” Norbert Brieskorn/Johannes Wallacher (eds.), Homo Oeconomicus: Der Mensch der Zukunft?, Stuttgart/ Berlin/Köln, 33–37.
  • Kirchgässner, Gebhard (2000): Homo Oeconomicus. Das ökonomische Modell individuellen Verhaltens und seine Anwendung in den Wirtschafts- und Sozialwissenschaften, 2., erg. u. erw. Aufl., Tübingen.
  • Meißner, Hanna. 2008. “Die gesellschaftliche Form des Subjekts. Judith Butlers Theorie der Subjektivität,” Zeitschrift für Frauenforschung & Geschlechterstudien, (26)3+4:23-37.
  • Precht, Richard David. 2010. Die Kunst, kein Egoist zu sein. Warum wir gerne gut sein wollen, und was uns davon abhält, München.
  • Warneken, Felix/Tomasello, Michael. 2008. “Extrinsic Rewards Undermine Altruistic Tendencies in 20-Month-Olds,” Developmental Psychology, (44) 6: 1785–1788.