Dear Doctor, 

I ran across your article after having a discussion with my fiancée. She has a teenage son who is exhibiting some very selfish behaviors. Long story short, I feel that he can be set on the right path by reinforcing more altruistic behavior and creating more opportunities for these positive actions. She thinks that selfishness is a trait passed on from her son’s father’s side in that some of their behavior is on the selfish side and, as such, nothing we do will change his behavior. I ran across your article because I was looking for something that would prove or disprove her mindset. I am not looking at the human nature survival point, but rather whether something like selfishness is a trait that can be passed on through the gene pool from parent to child. Your thoughts?

Future Stepdad

Dear Future,

Thank you for your provocative email. We are a combination of genetics and experience.

Personally, it seems to me there is ample evidence for traits. Being more “selfish” may be one, but is more likely a combination of inheritance and experience. For example, suppose one’s neurology predisposes toward caution or awareness of the reaction of others. Then, through a variety of experiences, which might include overindulgence, a behavior of self-entitlement is created.

You allude, for example to altruism. In my opinion, no human behavior, no matter how saintly, is completely altruistic. There is always some degree of self-centered reward in any human act. This is healthy narcissism.

Of course, there is such a thing as malignant and character-disordered narcissism, but that is another column.

Dr. Larry Larsen is an Andover psychologist. If you would like to ask a question, or respond to one, email him at lrryllrsn@CS.com.

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