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"Successful" Egocentrism

Though egocentric thinking is irrational by nature, it can be functional within a dysfunctional logic. For example, it often enables us to selfishly get what we want without having to worry about the rights of the people we deny in getting what we want. This type of thinking—though defective from the points of evidence, sound reasoning, objectivity, and fair play—is often "successful" from the point of view of self-gratification. Hence, though egocentric thinking is inherently flawed, it can be successful in achieving what it is motivated to achieve.

We see this in many persons of power and status in the world—successful politicians, lawyers, businesspeople, and others. They are often skilled in getting what they want and are able to rationalize unethical behavior with great sophistication. The rationalization can be as simple as "This is a hard, cruel world. One has to be realistic. We have to realize we don't live in a perfect world. I wish we did. And, after all, we are doing things the way things have always been done." Conversely, rationalization can be as complex as that masked in a highly developed philosophy, ideology, or party platform.

Hence, though egocentric thinkers may use ethical terms in their rationalizations, they are not responsive to ethical considerations. They do not, in fact, respect ethical principles. They think of ethical principles only when those ethical principles seem to justify their getting what they want for other reasons.

Egocentric thinking, then, is inherently indifferent to ethical principles or genuine conscience. We cannot be exclusively focused at one, and the same time, on getting what we selfishly want and genuinely taking into account the rights and needs of others. The only time egocentric thinking takes others into account is when it is forced to take others into account to get what it wants. Hence, an egocentric politician may take into account the views of a public-interest group only when her re-election depends on their support. She is not focused on the justice of their cause but, rather, on the realization that if she fails to publicly validate those views, that group will refuse to support her re-election. She cares only about what is in her selfish interest. As long as the concern is selfish, by definition, the rights and needs of others are not perceived as relevant.

Corporate executives who ensure that the expected earnings of the company are significantly overstated (to enable them to sell out their stock at a high price) cause innocent people to lose money investing in a company that appears to be (but is not) on the upswing. Most CEOs who manipulate data in this way do not worry about the well being of potential investors. Their justification must be, "Let the buyer beware!" By using this type of justification, they don't have to face the unethical nature of their behavior.

Highly skilled egocentric thought can be generated in every type of human situation, from situations involving the rights and needs of thousands of people to simple, everyday interactions between two people. Imagine that a couple, Max and Maxine, routinely go to the video store to rent movies. Inevitably Max wants to rent an action-packed movie while Maxine wants to rent a love story. Though Maxine is often willing to set aside her choices to go along with Max's desires, Max is never willing to go along with Maxine's choices. Max rationalizes his position to Maxine, telling her that his movie choices are better because they are filled with thrilling action, because love stories are always slow-moving and boring, because his movies are always award-winners, because "no one likes to watch movies that make you cry," because, because, because… . Many reasons are generated. Yet all of them camouflage the real reasons: that Max simply wants to get the types of movies he likes, that he shouldn't have to watch movies that he does not want to watch. In his mind, he should get to do it because he wants to. Period.

Max's egocentrism hides the truth even from himself. He is unable to grasp Maxine's viewpoint. He cannot see how his self-centered thinking adversely affects Maxine. Insofar as his thinking works to achieve his desires, and he is therefore unable to detect any flaws in his reasoning, he is egocentrically successful.

Test the Idea
Recognizing Egocentric Thinking in Action

Think of a situation in which someone you know was trying to selfishly manipulate you into doing something incompatible with your interest. Complete the following statements:

  1. The situation was as follows…

  2. This person, x, was trying to manipulate me in the following way (by giving me these reasons for going along with him/her)…

  3. At the time, these reasons (did/did not) seem rational because…

  4. I now believe this person was trying to manipulate me because…

  5. I think the real (irrational) reason why he/she wanted me to go along with his/her reasoning is because…

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