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Are humans selfish?

People often disagree with me when I say that most humans want to help others, and will help others, and it ends up being a debate about whether people are basically selfish or not.

There’s a difference between being selfish and self-interested: selfish means – for example – not helping another person when there is little or no cost for you (e.g. not giving one ringgit to someone who clearly needs it, and you can easily spare it); self-interested means not sacrificing yourself – it is not selfish to refuse to give your car to someone, when you need it to get to work and support yourself, for example.

One of the reasons I decided that most people are not selfish is that I used to travel quite a lot, and I used to hitchhike often too. I travelled thousands of kilometres in strangers’ cars, and often they would go out of their way to drop me somewhere convenient for me. In all the places I travelled to, I have always been able to count on someone helping me out if I’m lost, or for some other reason.

OK – you may say that it was only a minority that helped me, and that’s true. But think of this – if everyone was really so selfish, how would societies work at all? We all cooperate willingly with other people every day, and think nothing of it. The idea that if there were nobody to force us to cooperate, under pain of punishment, we would turn around and become crazy beasts just flies in the face of all evidence. Wherever people group together, the first thing they will do is try to find some common means of communication and common standards to operate on. The problem, in my opinion, is that so many people are trained to expect others to make decisions for them, so when they are faced with a situation where there are no clear and obvious rules, they turn to someone to lead them – depending on that individual leader, they may or may not end up acting in violent and unsocial ways.

Anyway, all of this is because I was pointed to this interesting experiment - tweenbots. It sounds like some marketing cartoon for kids, but in fact
Tweenbots are human-dependent robots that navigate the city with the help of pedestrians they encounter. Rolling at a constant speed, in a straight line, Tweenbots have a destination displayed on a flag, and rely on people they meet to read this flag and to aim them in the right direction to reach their goal.

Check out tweenbots to see what happened when this was tried in Central Park, New York


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Adeline on :

I really like this post, Julian. I wonder if Malaysians would be as helpful as New Yorkers or if the tweetbot would remained undamaged if it was placed in the busiest area in the city - the Golden Triangle of KL :-) My guess is it would prolly be run over by a Mat Rempit

Jan on :

It will get kidnapped =x
I will steal it, cos it is so cute xD

julian on :

Hehe, yes it is ^_^

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