The Unselfish Gene

The Unselfish Gene by Yochai Benkler. It has a catchy title so I was intrigued right from the beginning. Now I am not going to lie, I have not always been extremely excited to read the articles assigned for homework. What kid at any level in a school system likes homework? However, I was very pleasantly surprised when I read this weeks article assigned to blog group B. The author had me interested and engaged from start to end. I was doubly surprised because this week Professor Kane also said this article was the most dense and long to get through. So me? The kid who doesn’t like homework, was engaged and interested in an article that was dense and long? Hey I’m just as surprised as you probably are. Let me tell you a few reasons I enjoyed this weeks reading.

I’m going to start with a little background to what the reading was about. The early belief about humans was that we are inherently extremely selfish. Our understanding was that what makes people tick is the fact that people are ever trying to advance their own interests. selfish-people-clipart-1After extensive research had been done and in different fields of work, such as psychology, sociology, political science, and experimental economics, this notion of “the selfish gene” began to lose its strength. The belief moved more towards the fact that people are more cooperative and organizations should help us to embrace our collaborative sides.

Now you might be thinking this topic doesn’t sound very interesting so why did I like this article so much? Well first off I would have to disagree with you because for some weird reason this topic is interesting to me. But second off, the part of the article that really drew me in was the examples it gave. The examples given helped to paint a picture in my mind of really what was going on in the world and what was really going on with people. There are two examples that really stuck out and those were the cattle example and the game theory example.

The cattle example is called the tragedy of the commons, so I guess I’m the only one that calls it the cattle example. In this example there is a plot of land that farmers can graze their cattle on. The farmers kept letting their cattle graze until there was no grass left. The thought in this example is that nobody stopped grazing their cattle because of the fear that if they did then the other farmers would simply use all of the land. The big take away is that as human beings, we are inherently self-interested, and unless there is some sort of regulation, we will inevitably destroy shared resources until there is none left for anybody.


Now that was an example of the previous notion of selfish people. The game theory example is the opposite. In this experiment the leader told half of the participants they were playing the “Community Game” and he told the other half they were playing the “Wall Street Game”. This was the only difference, yet 70% of players in the Community Game cooperated with one another and only 30% of players in the Wall Street Game cooperated with one another. This example shows us people are extremely influenced by context and how things are framed. Just because the name of the game was Wall Street Game people had the assumption that everyone was for themselves and it was just about making money, therefore they weren’t willing to cooperate with each other.

I think there are two big takeaways from this article that are shown through these few examples. The first is that it is a lot easier to ruin a collaborative environment than to start one. The 30% of people in the Wall Street Game that were cooperative stopped when the other 70% didn’t respond that way. This just shows how quickly you can ruin an environment. The second takeaway is more collaboration occurs when there is a culture that supports it. This to me puts a lot of pressure and onus on the organization to create a culture that supports workers collaboration because as research has shown, people are less inherently selfish than society originally believed.



  1. Personally, I LOVE this article (in fact, I thought so when I was re-reading it this week). In the past, it hadn’t been rated that highly by students, so I have cut it recently. I’m glad to have it back in the readings and I’m glad it’s been received so well.

  2. I agree with Prof Kane. i enjoyed this article as well, and this was a very inclusive summary. I would like to think that there is a lot of truth to this article, it gives me hope for the future.

  3. I enjoyed reading your summary. I find that the millennial generation is frequently called selfish and self-absorbed, so it is nice to hear that this is not entirely true. The article makes it clear that creating an environment that supports collaboration is critical to overcoming selfish “tendencies”. I’d like to argue that humans are not inherently selfish because so many dedicate the majority of their lives to taking care of their children, parents, and even pets.

  4. After hearing so much in the last 3-4 years about how our generation is the most narcissistic of all time, how the state of business affairs seems at a moral low, this article was refreshing. I think it’s easy to forget how valuable collaboration can be, and how effective we’ve become at doing so. Thank you for the great summary! :)

  5. Great Post! I enjoyed your summary and takeaways. I remember learning about the experiment with the “Community Game” and “Wall Street Game” in a psych class and it’s interesting to think about the different applications and implications. In this article it seems to stress the importance of company culture like we discussed in class. A manager can set the tone and make the difference between a collaborative environment or a competitive environment.

  6. I thought that this article sounded very interesting when we were discussing it in class so I’m glad that I was able to learn more about it through this blog post. Many of the environments I have worked in have started to make the switch towards more open layouts in which people’s desks are connected in pods as opposed to individuals having their own cubicle or office. At the last two places I worked even the CEO’s didn’t have offices. I think that this kind of environment is ideal because people can always ask for collaboration or the opinion of the group without having to get up and move or interrupt someone at their desk. I think encouraging people to communicate with one another leads to increased teamwork and will ultimately help to produce better ideas than someone just brainstorming alone in their own space.

  7. ajsalcetti · ·

    Thanks. This was a fun one to discuss in class because there are definitely the two schools of thought on whether humans are inherently selfish or selfless, or optimistic or pessimistic. Those that believe the world is good, the selfless optimists, would not be in a situation like the tragedy of the commons because they wouldn’t have that selfish desire to use the land or feel boxed out while others ruin it. It is a really cool subject, more psychology than business/social media, but certainly important in understanding why people tend to flock to one thing, why things go viral, and how marketers and firms can find ways in monetizing that (or dare I say exploit it..such a bad connotation). These article are always fun, even if dense, because they allow each reader to step back and ask themselves what type of person are they.

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