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Selfish Choices: Are You The Joker?

Selfish choices are especially prevalent today. Understanding the root and motivation can help you understand your own situation and the context of others.

Written by: Jonathan Dunnett
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I was reflecting recently on the topic of selfish choices. Last week, there was an outbreak of COVID-19 close to me. In part, it was due to a party held by some people, which became a spreader event.

As I was thinking about the choices of these individuals, it struck me that we are living in a time of selfish choices. People have a strong aversion to loss right now: mainly, “What if I can’t party?” Or, “What if I can’t see my best friend?” “When will I see my Grandma?” What questions have you been asking?

When we look at the construct, selfishness has two primary characteristics:

  1. Being concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself.
  2. Having no regard for the needs or feelings of others.

In the context above, the partiers seemingly have no regard for the needs or feelings of others (the larger community) while definitely only considering their own feelings ahead of buying the keg. Meanwhile, many have been sacrificing during this time through not seeing loved ones, staying home, and not doing the things they would ordinarily do. So, was organizing and holding the party in some way understandable?

This choice to hold a party made me think of the ferry scene in The Dark Knight. Professor Craig Palsson believes this is not, in fact, a prisioner’s dilemma:

The prisoner’s dilemma is a standard example of a game analyzed in game theory that shows why two completely rational individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interests to do so.

I believe he is right (based on his argument below), and we can use this frame as a helpful one for COVID-19 and other discussions:

Based on Palsson’s argument, you might consider that the choices that the partygoers made were in the frame of an iterated prisoner’s dilemma.

In the iterated prisoner’s dilemma, the game is played repeatedly. Thus each player has an opportunity to “punish” the other player for previous non-cooperative play. Cooperation may then arise as an equilibrium outcome. The incentive to defect is overcome by the threat of punishment, leading to the possibility of a cooperative outcome.


We are in a time when we are actively making choices. What we do (mask/no mask), where we go (parties/stay home), what we say/type (Engage with “the other side”/do not engage); all of these are decisions we are actively making, whether they are conscious or not. Furthermore, some of these choices have the opportunity to “punish” others, or, to be a selfish choice. For the good of the world, we definitely do not want to turn this into a “grim trigger” situation.

How can we deal with this?

This is a time when we need to have empathy and understanding for people. We’re all tired and we’re all exhausted: you’re not unique in feeling that, if you do. Somehow, if you’re emotionally depleted, you need to recharge your engine, because without empathy and tapping into our own emotional intelligence, we’re more likely to skip critical thinking and to take the path of least resistance.


Eliminating The Empathy Deficit – Johnny C. Taylor


Yet, as the ferry scene showed, even when we are in high-stress situations, we can make active choices to not make events a zero sum game.

This is applicable to broader decision making contexts. While there is such a concept as “healthy selfishness“, we also have to map our some key intervals in a multi-stakeholder game to see win-win-win:

  1. We all have to be coming from the same place. I appreciate Stephen Covey’s concept of paradigms: it is the “map” of how we see the world, and it is informed by our experiences and our place in the world. If you’re not starting with the same lens on problems, it will be difficult to even begin a discussion on solutions. Emotionally, we have to deal with any variance as much as possible as well.
  2. We have to understand the moving pieces. We have to understand all the drivers of what is happening to make an effective decision. These are both internal (how we and our organization feels) and external forces (what’s happening outside our four walls).
  3. We have to understand the expected outcomes. Based on exercises like wargames, or scenario analysis and other models that pull from strategic foresight, we can begin to understand “what if?”, especially when we understand the moving pieces (above). That doesn’t mean we can’t have a sudden factor (a Black Swan) emerge, but, when you think about the future, even imagining wild scenarios like the U.S. Coast Guard did in the 1990s can help you mitigate risk and be better prepared for what may come.

It can be difficult to reconcile some of this selfish behaviour we are seeing during COVID-19 with a win-win-win outcome. It can also be difficult to manage when you have any kind of multi-stakeholder environment where people want to win and want to avoid loss and/or pain.

Among the opportunities is to help people (if they are willing to listen) rethink (the podcast below with Adam Grant and J.J. Abrams may help) their positions to bring them to something closer to your paradigm and understanding of the world. Moreover, employing strategies beyond giving facts (as they can reinforce existing biases), and – as discussed above – show empathy.

People feel the way they feel for a reason. You have to understand how they have arrived at that place first, and only then can you begin to engage on showing them how you arrived at your paradigm of what you believe to be true and why.

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