What happens to those who behave unselfishly and make sacrifices for the sake of others? You might be surprised to hear that greed may not be the path to prosperity.

According to an interdisciplinary study by researchers from Stockholm University, the Institute for Futures Studies, and the University of South Carolina, unselfish people tend both to receive higher salaries, in comparison to more selfish people.

“The result is clear in both the American and the European data. The most unselfish people receive the highest salaries. And we also find this result over time – the people who are most generous at one point in time have the largest salary increases when researchers revisit them later in time,” says Kimmo Eriksson, researcher at the Centre for Cultural Evolution at Stockholm University and one of the authors of the study.

The results of the study, which have now been published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, are contrary to theories that selfish people manage to get their hands on more money through their selfishness, as suggested in previous research.

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Previous psychological and sociological research has shown that unselfish people are happier and have better social relationships, but this study focuses on unselfishness from an economical and evolutionary perspective.

In this collaboration with the Institute for Futures Studies and the University of South Carolina, researchers at Stockholm University have looked at how selfishness relates to income and family size. Selfishness was measured partly through attitudes and partly through reported behaviors according to the analyses of four major studies of Americans and Europeans.

Unselfishness is defined in the study as the desire to help others because you care about their welfare. Therefore, attitudes concern how important a person thinks it is to help others and care about their welfare. The behaviors concerned how often and how much the person engaged in various help behaviors, e.g. giving money or their time to help others.

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“In a separate study, we examined the expectations of ordinary people to see if their expectations aligned with our data. The results of this study showed that people generally have the correct expectation that selfish people have fewer children, but erroneously believe that selfish people will make more money. It is nice to see that generosity so often pays off in the long run,” says Pontus Strimling, one of the authors behind the study.

The authors themselves believe that improved social relationships may be the key to generous peoples’ success from an economic perspective, but note that their research does not definitely answer this question.

“Future research will have to delve deeper into the reasons why generous people earn more, and look at whether the link between unselfishness, higher salaries and more children also exists in other parts of the world. And it is of course debatable how unselfish it really is to have more children,” says co-author Brent Simpson of University of South Carolina.

(Source: Stockholm University)

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