A Simple Strategy You Can Use To Tell If Someone Is Selfish

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woman looking in mirror hugging self

Surrounding yourself with people who prioritize nobody else but themselves is draining and exhausting.

Especially if you’re a giver by nature, things can quickly evolve into a toxic dynamic where you give everything to another person and take nothing in return.

The thing about selfish people is that they’re usually experts at hiding their self-centered nature. Luckily, the results of a study focused on social decision-making revealed a simple strategy you can use to tell if a person is bound to put themselves before you.

If you want to know if a friend, partner, or colleague is secretly selfish, force them to make a split-second decision.

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We make more honest decisions when we are under time pressure.

In the study, 102 college students played 200 rounds of a game in which they chose between two ways of splitting up an amount of money between themselves and others. More specifically, they had to decide whether to give up some of their own money to increase the other person’s payoff and reduce the inequality between them.

In some cases, they had to give up a small amount of money to increase their partner’s payoff — let’s say $1 to give their partner $10 — while in others they had to make a bigger sacrifice to give their partner comparatively little — $10 to make their partner $3.

The key to this study? The researchers manipulated how much time the participants had to make their decision.

If they only had a few seconds to decide, the participants were likely to make the same decisions as before (selfish or pro-social). If they were given more time, though, they considered their decision and often reversed it.

When we must act quickly, we make decisions based on our instincts, and what we’ve done before. But give us a little bit of time to think it through and you might get a completely different decision; a decision that might not be based on what we truly want to do, but what others would want us to do.

To quote Ian Krajbich, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology and economics at The Ohio State University:

“People start off with a bias of whether it is best to be selfish or pro-social. If they are rushed, they’ll tend to go with that bias. But when people have more time to decide, they are more likely to go against their bias as they evaluate the options in front of them.”

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Quick decisions give the biggest clues about what we truly want.

If you think about it, you’ll realize that you have made different decisions based on the amount of time you had to think over the same situation; or that you made a different decision from what you truly wanted to do for the sake of others.

Remember that time when you didn’t want to go to that party your friend invited you to and your knee-jerk reaction was to say no?

But then you thought about it for a couple of minutes and decided to say yes instead because you didn’t want to disappoint her.

Or that time your brother asked you to lend him some money for the 1000th time after he recklessly spent his salary? If you had to decide in a few seconds your instincts would say no, but because you had more time to think it through, you decided that helping him was probably the moral, right thing to do.

When it comes to spotting a selfish person, the key is to not give them a lot of time to decide about something, since that will allow them to think more clearly and make the right, selfless, against-their-instincts decision.

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How to use that strategy:

Forcing someone to make a split-second decision isn’t as hard as you might think. Here are some examples:

  • Ask them for an immediate favor (to give you a ride because you’re in a hurry, to cover you in work, or lend you a couple of bucks).
  • Force them to pick between two things on the spot (e.g., if you’re going out together, tell them, “I’m calling right now to make a reservation. Do you want to go to my favorite place or yours?”).
  • Ask for help without asking for it. For example, if you’re in the middle of a conversation with someone, mention something you might need help for (e.g., “I just moved into my new home, and there are so many things to unpack, but I’m incredibly busy right now.”) — they’ll either propose to help on the spot or brush it off.

Between you and me, most of us are a little selfish from time to time. It’s part of human nature. But there’s a huge difference between occasional selfishness and continuous self-absorption.

Truly selfish people are very hard to be around. Don’t allow yourself to give up your time and priorities for them. Keep in your life generous people you can lean on, who are willing to give as much as they’re willing to take.

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Margaret Pan is a freelance writer who writes to help others find love for others and themselves.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.