Radical Psychology
Spring 2002.

The Neo-Liberal Ideology and the Self-Interest Paradigm as Resistance to Change.

Hilde Eileen Nafstad

Institute of Psychology
University of Oslo


The article shows that research within psychology and the social sciences over the past 50 years has produced a large body of evidence of humankind as asocial consumers of their social and material world. The author raises the question of whether we have to accept this understanding of human beings as only egoists; this understanding or ideal in the Western culture which people in general as well as the mainstream research community share of the individual only as a calculating being, steered by cost-benefit analyses and calculations of what gives positive and negative consequences for oneself and one's own welfare. The author further claims that the 21th century society does not need more psychological and social science based on this predominant core assumption: Quite to the contrary, to attack the pressing problems of our civilization with knowledge based on this prevailing position of the individual as an asocial egoist, is totally insufficient. To fight inequality and dehumanization by means of a psychology based on this predominant outlook on human beings is bound to fail.


Predominant parts of contemporary psychology give analyses of its metatheoretical level low priority. Critical psychology, however, can be seen as a movement attempting systematically to analyze values and underlying presuppositions taken for granted within mainstream psychology. Thus critical psychology in consequence discusses mainstream psychology's concrete research agendas and practices (Austin & Prilleltensky, 2001; Cushman, 1990; Gergen, 1989; Hare-Mustin, 1991; Ibanez & Iniques, 1997; Prilleltensky & Fox, 1997).

This article will show how mainstream psychology and the other social sciences alike are predominated by the presumption of the individual as born as an egoistic or self-absorbed consumer only rationally calculating own well-being and given no or little potential to be motivated by another individual's sorrow and suffering. The article claims that more and more psychology and the social sciences only produce and reproduce a description (in practice a prescription) of humans as individuals concerned with own benefits and consumption, an individuality or a self less and less concerned with the collective and the welfare of others. Further, the article discusses the interplay between the western culture's ideologies on the one hand and this taken-for-granted value or self-evident truth or underlying basis concerning human nature ) within psychology and the social sciences on the other.

Scientific theories and empirical research by generating self-knowledge and self-images are always at risk of becoming self-fulfilling within society. Nowhere would this risk seem greater today than in the case of this self-interest assumption. Psychological theories and empirical studies then constitute tools that may enrich and elaborate our understanding of what humans are and what they might be. However, psychology will deceive humankind if it continues to pretend that nothing is denied of our humanity as long as psychology adopts this outlook on human beings as self-interested individuals only concerned with calculating and evaluating material and social advantages (Nafstad, 2002; Hundeide, 2000).

On ideologies in society and presumptions in psychology and the social sciences.

Prilleltensky (1989) states, on the relationship of psychology to and its influence on society: "There is little doubt that psychology has left its imprint on 20th century society." (p.795). But at the same time: outside factors - cultural, political and socio-economic factors - form in turn psychology's frames of understanding, the implicit frames of understanding, and thus concrete psychological research and the establishment of knowledge. Prilleltensky (1989) therefore makes clear, about this interaction between science and society: There should also be little doubt that socio-economic, cultural, and political trends have shaped the methods and content of the discipline to a large extent." (p.795). Consequently, the analysis of aspects and characteristics of the metatheoretical level within science then should constantly be closely tied to the society, with its culture and its ideologies, of which science is an integral part (Krasner & Houts, 1984).

Although the concept of ideology might be questioned (Parker, 1999), I will nevertheless now use this concept to illuminate the value situation within today's Western World, and the interplay between society's values and worldviews on the one hand and the predominant idea within psychology and the social sciences of human beings as asocial egoists on the other.

On the concept of ideology

Studying ideologies entails logically analysing the ideas and thoughts which an individual has, the content of human thought itself. The approach to the theme of ideologies, which most researchers today endorse, however, considers ideology as a group phenomenon rather than an intrapsychic phenomenon. This entails that one is concerned with studying value systems, worldviews or the ideas of groups, various social institutions or societies. The concept of ideology may then refer to the systematic and integrated ideas and worldviews which different groups and subgroups have developed (Billig, 1996). Used in this way, the concept of ideology often refers to what one may term a false picture of reality: that is, the picture of reality created by one group in order to gain advantages and power for itself over other groups (Adorno et al., 1950). The concept of ideology then refers to the phenomenon which one may term a "reality veil." The oppressed are not to understand that they are exploited (Adorno et al., 1950; Billig, 1996; Blakar, 1973, 1979).

The concept of ideology is however also used in another way about phenomena on the aggregate level. The concept of ideology refers to those values, the world of thought or understanding of the world which the majority share, in most cases the worldview of a particular time and historical period. In practice, then, the concept of ideology refers to worldviews and structures of meaning in a certain socio-cultural context, as to what is considered to be important or make up correct descriptions and standards for collective and/or individual actions (Sampson, 1981, 1985, 1988; Williams, 1968, 1979). The single individual's frames of understanding and value systems for the social world are thus considered to be the result of mirroring the frames of understanding and values which dominate on the collective level. The concept of ideology refers then to how society, the collective level, understands, conceptualizes or describes the material and social world. This collective level is then laid down or mirrored in the individual's consciousness (Sampson, 1981, 1985, 1988).

It is in this way I now shall use the ideology concept to analyze the problem of how the position of egoism in contemporary psychology has gained an almost absolute status as the definitional truth or a priori taken for granted assumption on human social motivation and social life in psychology and the other social sciences.

Characteristics of ideologies in contemporary Western culture

Which values and ideologies exist within the Western culture and dominate on the different social levels and form and direct social life, including the social activities of science and the establishment of knowledge? The sociologist Bourdieu (1998) concludes categorically with regard to the situation of ideology in contemporary Western society: "... it is taken for granted that maximum growth, and therefore productivity and competitiveness, are the ultimate and sole goal of human actions; or that economic forces cannot be resisted." (p.30-1). And Bourdieu (1998) states that the dissemination of this value in the Western world today is great: "Everywhere we hear it said, all day long - and this is what gives the dominant discourse its strength - that there is nothing to put forward in opposition to the neo-liberal view, that it has succeeded in presenting itself as self-evident, that there is no alternative." (p.29). Probably then the neo-liberal view contributes more and more to the strengthening within psychology and the social sciences of this idea of humankind as basically an egoistic and self-interested individuality.

In 1996 the American economist Thurow put forth a description that laid claim of being the inclusive general empirical status quo report on the contemporary ideology situation in Western culture. On the basis of extensive empirical analyses of economic actions and priorities, primarily on macro level, both on the private and on the public level, Thurow (1996) concludes: The Western world seems to be moving in the direction of an ideology termed "the new American form of capitalism." Under the influence of this new capitalism ideology version, the public sectors during the last twenty years have as a consequence stagnated and have disappeared more and more in many Western countries. A smaller and smaller part of society's total economic resources are then today allocated to general welfare schemes in the health, welfare and social sectors, to education, to the environment, etc.

Furthermore, public administration also gives higher priority to goal attainment, with the emphasis on short-term usefulness or profit maximization for individuals. Governmental framework direction of, for example, companies in the Scandinavian countries is therefore, Thurow (1996) further points out, today to a much smaller extent than before, characterized by ideas and ideals of equality, equal working conditions and equal pay.

Ideology may be exposed empirically in a variety of different manners. Analyses of language and language usage represent a particularly sensitive approach (Blakar, 1973, 1979). In my work on ideology in Norway, a society for a long time being based on welfare society values, the so-called Scandinavian welfare model, I have among other things mapped the change over time in language use in the mass media. Also Norway, as Thurow (1996) points out for Scandinavia, seems now to move away from social values based on solidarity and responsibility for the common good and more and more accept the ideology of the market. Let me give an example: The most influential broad-sheet newspaper in Norway, Aftenposten, in the three years period 1984-86 ) had only 3 articles including both of the words "tilbud" and "etterspørsel" (supply and demand), the two key concepts of the market ideology. In the three years period 1989-91 there were 2 occasions only, but in the very last three years period 1999-01, however, there occurred a total of 167 such articles. The total number of articles per year in the actual newspaper across this period was stable. This ideological shift should thus be clearly demonstrated.

Many will maintain that it is unreasonable to assume that today's worldview is so homogeneous that one may refer to a common pattern. Furthermore, the West is sooner going in the direction of pluralism today, not towards homogeneity of values and views of the world. On both the cultural and institutional level, and the group and individual level, life views and values are then today probably quite diverse. It is thus not possible to maintain that there is a common view of the world on which there is consensus in Western culture, a homogeneous value basis which forms contemporary research in definite directions.

However, in the same manner as Bourdieu (1998) and Thurow (1996) I will also conclude that it is not pluralism of ideologies and values that characterizes the West today. As now documented, it is more this new variant of the market ideology, which in constantly more absolute and pervasive ways influences, limits and forms our positions and our pre-scientific assumptions about human nature.

Moreover, mainstream psychology has never opposed the predominant capitalist ideology (Martin-Baro, 1994). As Prilleltensky & Fox (1997, p.9) conclude on today's situation in psychology: "By and large, psychologists fit comfortably within a capitalist system that gives lip service to both freedom and equality, but in practice supports the freedom of the free market... (Baritz, 1974; Fox, 1985, 1996; Pilgrim, 1992)." Thus, visions other than those of the market become most probably in practice marginalized in contemporary research. Concretely, this ideology entails that the social and material world constitutes a market, where it is of constant concern for individuals to calculate winnings, costs and losses. Every single individual is therefore ascribed market worth. In this version of the market ideology, the common good and responsibility for others is thus a marginalized vision indeed. It is those individuals with the highest market worth who are given priority. The idea that all citizens have the same right to receive public services is not a central vision. Within this new ideology, all people then will not have the same rights. Rights, and what is just, become a question of the individual's market worth.

This ideology entails thus a value basis which more and more turns away from inclusive visions of the common good, in the direction of the ideal of a type of person to an ever-stronger degree defined by the explicit moral of the market. Thurow (1996) terms this current ideology: ".... a survival-of-the-fittest capitalism." (p. 18). The goal values which are given priority in this new societal ideology is then, in the end, only the single individual's freedom to choose and to choose in such a way that one gets as much as possible of both material and non-material goods for oneself (Schwartz, 2000). Or as Thurow (1996) concludes: "... an individual interest in maximizing personal consumption" (p. 257).

One may therefore conclude that this ideology which now seems to be spreading in the West, has as its ideal and vision a type of person with little interest for values such as, for example, empathy, solidarity and responsibility for the common good. It is therefore a type of person with lack of abilities and willingness to work for the common good on all levels of social life, which the West more and more often considers to be the socialization ideal for children and youth. The vision of a person within this value system is necessarily therefore the idea and value of a strong and adaptive self, an individual who quickly and effectively masters the market forces. An individuality who manages to get back preferably more than invested, is therefore in the end the goal of or the ideal for psychological development and maturity based on this ideology. The ideal for social and personal development is thus not ideals such as caring for others' welfare, that is, solidarity with the living conditions of people today and in the future, etc. The goal or ideal for the individual's development within such an ideology cannot be anything but developing oneself to a steadily better rationally calculating and egoistic decision-maker and consumer of one's material and non-material world.

It is in practice this value system which most probably now more and more often is endorsed by and taken for granted by researchers as well. It is thus this vision, value or idea of social life and social systems as a market for maximizing personal consumption, by which Western psychology and social science to an ever larger extent are directed and influenced. Relevant research is thus research which has personal consumption and successful adaptation to the market as its core assumption. Research will therefore, if it has this market ideology as its basis, not give priority to people with low (market) value - for example, the unemployed, and people with greater problems of adaptation, such as the chronically ill, and suffering and unhappy people, - to the extent that previous social and psychological science in e.g. Scandinavia has done (Nafstad, 2001).

But is it really the case, however, that mainstream psychology and the social sciences to an increasing degree take the above depicted assumption of the individual only as an egoistic being rationally calculating own well-being and welfare as a self-evident truth and the underlying taken for granted basis for the majority of the analyses of individual and social actions and of social life?

Current status of the axiom of human beings as only self-interested and egoistically motivated.

The anthropologist Fiske (1992) is among those today concerned with analysing fundamental starting points or cornerstones on which psychology and the social sciences rest. He describes today's situation in ways which clearly support the assertion now suggested, as to which basic perspective on human nature is the one given priority. Fiske (1992) states concerning today's metatheoretical situation within psychology and the social sciences: "From Freud to contemporary sociobiologists, from Skinner to social cognitionists, from Goffman to game theorists, the prevailing assumption in Western psychology has been that humans are by nature asocial individualists. Psychologists (and most other social scientists) usually explain social relationships as instrumental means to extrinsic, non-social ends, or as constraints on the satisfaction of individual desires." (p.689). As this shows, Fiske (1992) thus ascertains that the predominant approach, both in psychology and the other social sciences, is this axiomatic postulate of human beings as asocial and egoistic individuals. A person is thus a priori defined as a self-interested being constantly preoccupied by consuming, using or exploiting the social, collective and material world with the goal of getting benefits or the best possible result, physically as well as psychologically.

The social psychologist Batson (1990) is another who maintains that contemporary psychology approaches human beings with such a frame of understanding: An all-encompassing egoism as the true, real motivation: "Contemporary personality and social psychology implicitly accept the answer to the social nature question inherited from its functionalist, psychoanalytic, and behaviourist ancestors: We may be social in thought and action, but in motivation we are capable of caring only for ourselves." (p. 338, italics added). Fundamentally viewed, within mainstream psychology, the person has thus one goal for own actions: Consideration for oneself. This goal or telos for human life represents, therefore, an integral component of today's Western psychological theories.

The central characteristic for human, as opposed to animal, nature is for the social psychologist Baumeister (1991) that a human is a meaning-seeking being. The same position has been held by Frankl (1972) and is now systematically put forth by positive psychology (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000) At the same time however, Baumeister (1991) without reservation, in the introduction to his extensive theoretical and empirical review of the relevant research on what gives life meaning, a priori takes as given that a person's fundamental structure of meaning is only to take care of own comfort, interests and needs: "Organisms are born selfish, and creatures have a natural tendency to seek their own pleasure and benefit." (p. 39).

Baumeister (1991) then, as well, delimits the individual a priori to a being only concerned with own benefits, with the consequences this carries for the other(s) in relationships, for social life and society: "This broad pattern of self-interest could be harmful to group life, unless it is regulated and kept within bounds. Morality is a vital means of accomplishing this." (p. 39). The moral rules of society must therefore exist to keep in order this egoistically motivated consumer of the material and social world. Without such rules or social norms, the person as acting subject would not take consideration of others, of group-life or society if this were to impinge on own comfort or well-being. Baumeister (1991) specifies further on this approach to the individual and thus also to the themes of social action and human morals: "Moral rules are often explicitly designed to restrain the pursuit of self-interest, especially when one's own benefits come to the expense of others." (p.39).

Baumeister's (1991) work on the individual as a meaning-seeking being illustrates therefore also how strong this a priori basic presupposition stands within mainstream psychology: The individual as hedonistically and egoistically motivated. Thus the individual as such is neither regarded as a genuinely prosocial being, nor as a moral being, that is, as one basically motivated also by others' welfare.

But what does this predominant axiom or fundamental definitional truth within contemporary psychology, more precisely entails of further presumptions about the individual as a relational and social being?

The individual as a relational or social being

Inspired by Lewin's theory the ecological psychologist Bronfenbrenner (1979, p. 56) states that a social relationship is established between people when a person in a situation notices, takes consideration of, or participates in activities which the other(s) perform. Actions are thus defined as social actions when they are formed as reactions to, or in relation to another person. By and large, then, Western contemporary psychology chooses a priori to give priority to the assumption that when the individual joins activities of others, acts socially, it is in the end only with the purpose of gaining own advantages. Also "social" actions then have only self-consideration and self-interest as their ultimate goal.

This presupposition is fundamental within central social psychological theories such as game theory (Luce & Raiffa, 1957; von Neuman & Morgenstern, 1947), in exchange theory (Blau, 1964; Homans, 1961), in theories of co-operation (van der Vliert, 1999) as well as in the general theories on interpersonal action (van Lange, 2000). As van der Vliert (1999) concludes about this taken-for-granted position as the basis for understanding such different social relationships as co-operation and competition, two crucial phenomena in social life: ".... co-operation, individualism, and competition have self-interest or the maximization of one's own outcomes in common..." (p. 234).

Regardless of whether one studies social phenomena such as co-operation, solidarity and group fellowship or different forms of help and care-giving, this taken for-granted-basic perspective will thus continually guide one in the direction of a theoretical and conceptual framework in which various positive and negative comfort and discomfort aspects and consequences for the individual constitute the central core and explanatory concepts. The other(s) in the relationship are in the end only means or instrument for the pursuit and attainment of a better situation for oneself. Other possible motivational systems are thus considered, as the social psychologist Darley (1991) critically states, only as representing different derivatives of this one underlying basic egoism motive.

This paradigmatic conception of the individual as a social being, however, has nevertheless not lead to (social) psychology not considering issues such as co-operation, sharing, helping, care-giving and taking consideration of other(s) in the relationship. Contemporary (social) psychology has carried out and still to a large extent conducts empirical research which maps the extent of individuals' willingness, in different situations and under different conditions, to take consideration of each other, to share, and to help (Clark, 1991; Darley & Batson, 1973; Dovidio, 1984; Eisenberg, 1982; Roberts & Strayer, 1996; Strayer, 1981). Mainstream psychology, however, a priori assumes and takes for granted that the individual performs such (pro-)social acts because this, in the end, is to one's own advantage. One tradition within reward theory is for example that of an individual taking consideration of another, by helping and sharing, because of visible rewards such as praise and/or recognition for oneself (Baumann et al., 1981; Gelfand et al., 1975; Grusec, 1991). It's comfortable. Another variant of the egoism position is that the subject helps others because it is self-rewarding. When we help others, we experience ourselves as for example kind and caring (Bandura, 1977; Batson & Oleson, 1991; Cialdini et al., 1973; Cialdini & Kenrick, 1976; Weyant, 1978; Wilson, 1976). This is a good affective state. Yet another central theory is that when we help another, we avoid experiencing the uncomfortable feelings of guilt and shame caused by not giving help or support (Batson & Oleson, 1991; Hoffman, 1976, 1982; Steele, 1975). These are some of the concrete reward theories exploited today to explain why a person takes consideration of another, or acts to another's advantage. These theories are, as shown, all clearly anchored in this definitional truth of considering human nature as in the end driven by consideration of one's own welfare only: The final underlying goal is always to get benefits, be comfortable and avoid discomfort for oneself. Today's most generally accepted variant of the egoism-motivation theory to explain positive or prosocial behavior is the so-called arousal: cost-reward model (Dovido et al., 1991). This theory takes as its basic assumption that it is uncomfortable for the individual to watch or observe others' suffering or difficult situation.

Consequently, this leads to contributing to the other(s) bettering their situation, and to oneself avoiding the discomfort of being in a relationship in which one experiences that the other(s) is/are in need of help. One avoids observing the other(s) suffering and thus improves one's own situation (Piliavin et al., 1969, 1981, 1982).

The individual thus may be concerned about the other's welfare, about the common good, and communal welfare, but only as an instrumental goal for improving one's own welfare. Others' welfare cannot comprise any final goal by itself. Ameliorating others' and society's situation must thus be considered only as intermediate goals on the way to a better psychological, social or material situation for oneself. The final goal is always one's own well-being or advantages for oneself. This constitutes the "real" or true motivational nature of human beings. Based on this approach to human nature, prosocial or good acts, within mainstream (social) psychology, are generally reinterpreted within a context of meaning about basic human egoism.

Today's research also on positive social behaviour is thus characterised, as now shown, by a continual development of new theoretical variations which all have in common that they are based on the assumption of the organism's all-encompassing consideration of own needs (Batson, 1991; Batson et al., 1988; Miller, 1999). If the individual actually co-operates, helps and gives another person a hand or not, will however depend on situational factors, such as how strongly in need of help the other(s) is/are, how close the person is to them, if there are others in the situation who also may help, etc. (Clark, 1991; Dovidio et al., 1991; Hoffmann, 2000).

The core of human nature is thus within mainstream Western psychology a priori construed as a "for oneself" motivation nature. Other potential motivational systems are considered as representing derivatives only of this one underlying self-interest motive.

So far I have mainly given examples from research traditions within the discipline of social psychology. What about cognitive psychology? Does this tone setting discipline for understanding individuals and human nature development also a priori ascribe to this idea of human nature containing only an egoism-based motivational system in which it is consideration for oneself only that is the goal?

Preference, choice and frames of decision.

The issue of how the individual makes decisions about their surroundings is a central research theme within current cognitive psychology (Abelson & Levi, 1985; Ajzen, 1996). The criterion for and the a priori approach to what comprises a good decision, then, becomes necessarily that it must be to one's own advantage. As also Higgins (2000b) formulates the prioritised criterion for the good decision within this field of contemporary cognitive psychology: "But what makes a decision "good"? The traditional answer has been in terms of outcomes. Simply put, a good decision is one that produces positive outcomes." (p.1218).

Evaluative judgements of the material world is another research area given constantly higher priority within contemporary Western psychology. As Ciarrochi & Forgas (2000) state about this field of research: "Making evaluative judgements about the things we own or want to own is one of the more complex and important cognitive tasks people face in everyday life." (p.646).

It becomes thus more and more important within cognitive psychology to give priority to research on the individual's ability to calculate evaluations of and decisions about the surroundings. People go through life with options arrayed before them. The individual then compares the options to one another on a one-dimensional scale of preference, utility and value: After making the comparisons people choose so as to maximize values or utilities for themselves. Research then is undertaken to provide data on how to deal with this complex cognitive task of making such evaluative judgements in a more efficient way. Typically, efficiency is to be understood as not having to sacrifice benefits or well-being for oneself. Furthermore, within this field of research well-being and happiness is associated with the pursuit and attainment of more money and material wealth. People long for money to buy all the things they want to own. This postulate, often implicit and unspecified, may therefore be taken as a predominant value fundament of this field of cognitive psychology.

To be able to master existence the individual is dependent on gaining an understanding of the environment (Stokols, 1995). The human being is, and thus must be, concerned with own welfare and must necessarily be able to calculate advantages and disadvantages in one's social and material surroundings (Higgins, 1996, 2000a, 2000b). The human being, however, is probably something more and something other than only what one might label an information-seeking being, concerned with acquiring sufficient knowledge about one's surroundings so as to evaluate, calculate, decide and choose in such ways as own advantages and own welfare and comfort are maximized.

It must thus be important to raise the question of whether or not one should allow the subject or self within psychology also to be ascribed other central potentials and purposes than only taking consideration of oneself. But thus far: Dominant parts of contemporary psychology adhere to and assume this notion of the individual basically having one motivational system only, one driving force which initiates and guides actions towards this one goal of comfort or well-being for oneself. And the cognitive perspective, then, includes the issue of how the individual can be capable of adapting to and getting the most out of the surroundings. One may term this assumption the rational egoistic perspective on human nature. As van Lange (2000) also critically summed up the prioritizing of this idea about human nature in mainstream psychology: "Within the domain of psychological theory, this assumption of rational self-interest is embedded in several key constructs, such as reinforcement, the pursuit of pleasure, utility maximization (as developed in the context of behavioristic theory, including social learning theory), psychoanalytic theory, and theories of social decision making." (p.299).

In conclusion, it is thus the frame of understanding of humankind as rationally calculating one's own benefits which more and more is assumed and given priority within contemporary psychology.

The economic or "rational egoistic-to-the core" individual as a frame of understanding within the other social sciences

The sociologist Münch (1992) maintains that the same frame of understanding of the individual as a being who constantly calculates own advantages and disadvantages, what one may also term the perspective of the economic individual, is an approach given priority also within sociology: "... a paradigm which has been claimed to function as a core of theorizing in sociology as a whole." (p.137).

Within the social sciences it is the sociologist Coleman (Coleman & Fararo, 1992) who most explicitly tries to develop concrete theories based on this frame of calculating economic rationality, in which the individual is concerned with both attaining benefits and with maximizing them: Thus, ".... in acting rationally, an actor is engaged in some kind of optimization of own benefits or desires. This is sometimes expressed as maximizing utility, sometimes in minimizing cost, sometimes in other ways. But however expressed, it is this that gives rational choice theory its power: It compares actions according to their expected outcomes for the actor and postulates that the actor will choose the action with the best outcome. At its most explicit, it requires that benefits and costs of all courses of action be specified, then postulating that the actor takes the "optimal" action, the action that maximizes the differences between benefits and costs." (p.xi).

The social scientist Herrnstein (1990) maintains that this frame of understanding, that is maximizing own benefits and attending to own welfare only, is the perspective in fact given priority in all the Western social sciences and behavioral disciplines: "Not just economics, but all the disciplines dealing with behavior, from political philosophy to behavioral biology, rely increasingly on the idea that humans and other organisms tend to maximize utility, as formalized in modern economic theory. In accounts of government decision making, foraging by animals, the behavior of individual or collective economic agents, of social institutions like the criminal justice system or the family, or of rats or pigeons in the behavior laboratory, it has been argued forcefully that the data fit the theory of rational choice, except for certain limitations and errors to which flesh is heir. The scattered dissenters to the theory are often viewed as just that: scattered and mere dissenters to an orthodoxy almost as entrenched as a religious dogma." (p. 356).

Social actions such as co-operation, altruism and solidarity will thus, within today's Western prevailing frame of understanding, often be limited to what one now might term calculation phenomena: What one receives of own benefits, welfare or comfort for investing in the other's situation and welfare, comprises the a priori assumed approach to the individual level. Acts of solidarity, such as helping, sharing and care-taking are therefore considered and understood within a cost-benefit frame of understanding, where the concrete research question becomes what will the subject receive in terms of advantages and disadvantages for performing such prosocial actions (Sciulli, 1992).

Finally in this review of the prioritised perspective or notion of human egoism and calculating rationality, let me point out that also contemporary neo-Darwinist perspectives adhere to this position on positive behavior or prosocial actions as being directed by one goal only: maximization of one's individual adjustment (Barash, 1977). Or as Howard (2000) has formulated the socio-biological basic position: "Finally, in sociobiology, actions are thought to be the result of attempts by "selfish genes" to maximize the number of their kind that make their way into the next generation's gene pool (Dawkins, 1989)." (p.511).

Thus, also within the area of contemporary evolutionary psychology, the approach given priority is that the individual in some way or another will always get something back when helping another. For example, the individual giving help in the social world will be categorized as a helpful person. This will in turn lead to the individual getting help from others around them. It is further also a central notion within evolutionary psychology that a person who helps others and cooperates will in the end cope better with life. Thus, the individual will have a greater chance to survive and in this way transfer oneself, that is, genetically, to the next generation (Nowak & Sigmund, 1998).

The self-interest paradigm: Relevant but not sufficient.

On the basis of today's prioritized frame of understanding of human beings and social behavior, it is thus, as now shown, often assumed and taken-for-granted that the individual basically is self-interested and asocial. Thus, genuine acts of solidarity or altruism, such as helping, care-taking, and sharing with others where the real goal and the real motivation is solely the other's welfare and comfort, cannot occur. Within this conceptual framework of calculating rationality for own welfare, one therefore thinks it always possible to find a cost-benefit explanation for all actions, also the so-called prosocial acts. Behind such acts as that of helping and sharing or contributing to the community, there is thus in some way or other cost-benefit evaluations of what pays off or is best for oneself, in the short or the long term, in terms of either material or non-material advantages. Humankind is basically self-interested. The self-interest motivation system is inherent, natural, presocial and fundamental. This is humans primary motivation, and it is the one from which all other motives, also social ones, derive. Individualistic and competitive motives thus have to be claimed as the core of human social nature.

As Herrnstein (1990) critically concludes on the pervasive hegemony of this paradigm within contemporary research of the individual as a rationally calculating being for own well-being: "The theory of rational choice seems to stand in relation to behavioral sciences as the Newtonian theory of matter in motion stands to the physical sciences." (p. 356).

Fundamental assumptions function as now shown through their deduced concrete theories, as windows or lenses to the social and psychological reality. As then Haraway (1984) points out about facts within the social sciences disciplines: "Life and social sciences in general, and primatology in particular, are story-laden; these sciences are composed through complex, historically specific storytelling practices. Facts are theory-laden; theories are value-laden; values are story-laden. Therefore facts are meaningful within stories." (p. 79).

Then, as now seen, researchers within current psychology and the social sciences prefer the window or story about human self-interest. Based on this approach to or taken-for-granted truth about the individual, the task of psychology is thus primarily to open up that window to the individual level which can reveal what might be comfortable or rewarding for the individual's own well-being.

I am, however, convinced that the self-interest axiom is inaccurate and unable to describe and explain all types of social behavior. Furthermore, I also seriously question whether this underlying assumption of selfishness produces a body of knowledge which are adequate to solve many of today's ecological crises and pressing lifestyle problems.

The maximization perspective on behavior therefore represents a vision on human nature which has to be challenged and supplemented. A compelling argument for my plea for a change also is that this belief system or ontological account of human beings over time contributes to dehumanization. As by now documented, however, we are here dealing with a deeply grounded, very powerful and influential belief system or vision on human nature. Could we then today think, reason or argue in terms of other a priori conceptions of human nature?

Thurow (1996) is also concerned with this problem of there being other goals than only the realization of egoism and such a calculating greed. Or as Thurow (1996) formulates it: "Yes, individuals are self-interested, but no, they are just not self-interested." (p. 276). And he also concludes that society with such a one-sided terminal goal value will, sooner or later, develop social and political crises. As Thurow (1996), therefore, critically maintains about today's dominating value, greed, as he terms it: "... individual greed simply isn't a goal that can hold any society together in the long run." (p.257). I agree with Thurow. Individual greed cannot hold any society together in the long run.

Let me therefore conclude: Science will and should necessarily always let itself be formed by society's central ideologies and values. Science has however also as its task to be an independent agent and independent critic of society's conditions and development (Foucault, 1972, 1978, 1980; Fox & Prilleltensky, 1997; Habermas, 1971, 1973; Ibanez & Iniguez, 1997; Martin-Baro, 1994; Nafstad & Blakar, 1989). It is, however, difficult to see that there is anything in the dominating market ideology which makes it capable of supporting and seeing the usefulness of critical research, for example giving priority to themes about possible extensive problems for people who live in societies which are so one-sidedly guided by the value of maximum economic growth, product development, competition and individual consumption. Neither will our ecology probably be able, in the long run, to survive such an individual personal consumption as that which our society, in practice also mainstream psychology and social science, now encourage. Thus we are faced with the challenge of a collective or universal self-destruction. Thurow (1996) is concerned with highlighting this situation, and he concludes: "In capitalism there is no analysis of the distant future. There is no concept that anyone must invest in the planet and equipment, skills, infrastructure, research and development, or environmental protection...". (p.303).

Therefore, there has now to be raised serious objections against this dominating and exaggerated use of the market ideology as the ideal and guide for science. Psychology and the social sciences cannot help solving modern society's pressing problems such as energy demands, pollution, environmental degradation, urban overcrowding, crime, dehumanization, and hopelessness with such a worldview as frame of understanding. The good life can no longer be considered only within such a frame of understanding which concerns consumption, supply and demand. Thus this one-dimensional calculating ego-based idea of the individual which dominates as the a priori taken for granted basic assumption of individual human nature, makes psychology and the social sciences, as I see it, unable to solve most of today's pressing problems.


To attack our civilization's problems with knowledge based on the predominant position of the individual as an asocial egoist, is totally insufficient. Practice can not any longer be based only on this particular voice (Austin & Prilleltensky, 2001) or conception of human nature. We must therefore, I would conclude, try to understand the social individual on the basis of a broader perspective of assumed ideas other than the individual only being concerned with calculating and evaluating own individual advantages and disadvantages.

The philosopher Bernstein (1986) is one of the few, however, who has launched an alternative a priori assumption about social and collective behavior and development; notions which have received little attention from psychology and the social sciences. Bernstein (1986) postulates: " ... there are deep urges and needs for solidarity, community, sharing, and reciprocal understanding. It is these fragile experiences that must be preserved and fostered if we want to keep alive the idea of moral and social development." (p. 12).

What Bernstein (1986) articulates here is a view on human nature radically divergent from the predominant one; a vision conceiving of humans as individuals with independent urges or motivations for community, for sharing and caring. Of course, human beings are self-interested, attempting to maximize reinforcement and benefits. But at the same time they may be genuinely prosocial individuals. The other(s) in the relationships may then not be only an instrument for bettering one's own welfare.

This explication of another background picture of human social nature will be controversial and difficult to propose as much of the ground, as by now documented, will have to be fought for. But we will, I believe, deceive ourselves if we continue to pretend that nothing is denied of our humanity if we continue to adopt only this outlook of the self-interested human being.

At the same time, however, I take, in the same way as Bernstein (1986), as my assumption that a prosocial motivation system is a fragile and vulnerable system. But my claim will be that the process of realizing this system, that is, trying to ensure the welfare of others without any form of self-interest or benefits for oneself, is a necessary aspect of a human life. If the individual is merely emphasizing own advantages, own comfort and increasing material standard while others' welfare is ignored, this will, as Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi (2000) maintain, lead to: "… increasing selfishness, to alienation between the more and the less fortunate, and eventually to chaos and despair." (p. 5). I fully agree in the scenario Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi (2000) describe of what will be the consequences if only self-interest reign and a wasteful consumption-oriented lifestyle predominate. Critical psychology in particular then has systematically to provide or open up other windows than the one of human selfishness so as to give other descriptions of social nature and human welfare.


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Author Note:

Correspondence concerning this article may be sent to Hilde Eileen Nafstad, Department of Psychology, University of Oslo, Postbox 1094 Blindern, 0317 Oslo, Norway. Electronic mail may be sent to h.e.nafstad@psykologi.uio.no
Hilde Eileen Nafstad is a social and developmental psychologist currently analyzing the interplay between a priori taken for granted assumptions and values in psychology on one side and predominant ideologies in society and the Western culture on the other.

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