A new paper published in the academic journal Personality and Individual Differences offers a new lens through which to understand cooperative behavior — something the researchers refer to as others-centeredness.
“Others-centeredness is a tendency to put others’ interests ahead of one’s own that is based on a specific way of thinking,” says Ryan Byerly, a researcher at Sheffield University in the United Kingdom and lead author of the paper. “The others-centered person thinks that their own interests are just as important in the grand scheme of things as any other person’s interests. But, they also place a high value on interpersonal relationships. Because of this, they tend to prioritize promoting others’ interests when they can’t equally promote their own interests and another person’s interests. This is because when they promote the other person’s interests, they promote not just those interests but the interpersonal relationship as well.”
An example of others-centeredness, according to the researchers, would be electing to give the last cookie to a coworker instead of keeping it for yourself. Even though you both would enjoy eating the cookie, the benefit you get from strengthening the interpersonal relationship by acting generously outweighs the benefit you would get from eating the cookie yourself.
The concept of others-centeredness relates to other traits that promote cooperative behavior such as agreeableness, altruism, empathy, and unmitigated communion. It also relates to virtues like kindness and fairness.
But there is one key difference. Unlike unmitigated communion, for instance, which is portrayed as a way of being concerned with others to an excessive degree, others-centeredness denotes a more mutually-beneficial and psychologically healthy way of acting in the interests of others.
“Others-centeredness differs in the specific way of thinking which leads the others-centered person to put others first,” says Byerly. “Someone high in unmitigated communion or high other-focus may put others first because they worry that others cannot get along without them or because they cannot manage to be happy unless another person is happy. These are signs of a lack of self-differentiation — an underdeveloped sense of individuality — which is not associated with others-centeredness.”
One study administered by the researchers gives a sense of how many people exhibit others-centeredness. In this experiment, they asked participants to divide five $2 bills between themselves and another participant. Thirty-two percent of participants acted in a manner consistent with other-centeredness, giving three to the other and two to the self, while 42% gave two to the other and three to the self.
“This is only a one-off experiment, but it might give a rough idea of what percentage of people are, at least on occasion, inclined to exhibit the sort of behavior you might expect from others-centeredness,” says Byerly.
A full interview with Dr. Ryan Byerly discussing his new research can be found here: When is it best to help others instead of ourselves?