Creating a balance between self-centered actions and the things we do for others is vital. Our own health and wellbeing depend on our ability to look after ourselves. Yet, as social beings, our role in society also underpins our own constitution to such an extent, it could be argued that it is our allocentric behavior that supports our individual welfare.
So what does it mean to be egocentric or allocentric, and how do we create harmony between the two opposing traits? In order to look at this in more detail, we need some home-baked cookies!
Egocentric behavior is about playing the lead role in your own life. It takes courage and honesty to love yourself. Accepting your own faults and recognizing your own dream is a lifetime’s journey. Moreover, our status as social creatures makes separating the ‘Me’ from the ‘We’ a confusing and drawn-out process. In a fast paced, media filled world, ignoring the calls to compete for the latest ‘badge to belong’ is not easy.
Furthermore, if you find a route to your true ‘me’, you still need to function within our social culture. Too much ego-centered behavior results in selfish actions. Such self-centered behavior can disconnect you from your community. However, being egocentric is not about selfishly always taking the last cookie, it is more about recognizing that you want it.
Allocentric behavior is outward looking; your attention and actions are on others. For example: the drive to bake cookies for another’s enjoyment. Allocentric traits help you to recognize each individual as the star in their own life, thus leaving you with a supporting role. It is about putting their needs first.
The list of ‘others’ can be endless; family, friends, and neighbors through to the wider world community. Endeavors such as ‘water for Africa’ or ‘save the planet’ allow us to connect beyond our geographical communities and feel responsible for causes much further afield.
When performing allocentric deeds, energy may be quickly depleted outside of ourselves, and not necessarily invested in a direction of our choosing. And yet our actions are often approved of socially. So where does the balance lie?
One of the problems in trying to create harmony between the two sides is just how complex each one is. Doing things for others makes us feel good, for example; getting recognition for that makes us feel even better.
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So, back to the cookies… if you bake a tray full of cookies and eat them all, you feel a tad guilty (and probably a bit sick too!) However, baking and giving cookies away makes you feel good. People appreciate your homemade cookies. Some never make their own, so really love it when you make them. Some yearn for the visit that comes with the delivery of a cookie. Some enjoy that it makes you happy to make cookies. While some just hanker after sweet treats.
You love the way it makes you feel seeing all these happy cookie munchers, so you keep baking. We are social beings; caring for others enriches us with a sense of purpose and wellbeing. Evolutionary biology points us in that direction. The adage that ‘there is no such thing as a selfless act’ indicates there is always a reward for altruistic behavior.
The animal kingdom provides many examples of altruistic behavior. The more complex the social structure, the more common altruism is within its culture. Vervet monkeys will risk their own lives to raise an alarm call to the presence of a predator. Ants, bees and other social insect colonies work as a team and dedicate their lives to their queen. Darwinian theory suggests that natural selection will often favor those who favor others.
So, back to the example of making cookies… family and friends love the cookie maker; they pay nice complements about the cookies, but they also look out for your wellbeing. Social interactions take place that affirm you – the cookie maker – has a place in society. It pays to be the cookie maker. In real life, this is more than just a one-off good deed.
There would, then, appear to be more than one dimension to allocentric behavior:
- An instinctual act of kindness without thought.
- An act in the interest of others that results in a ‘feel good’ emotion.
- Behaviors that have a positive effect on the environment or society.
This begs the question: in this global world we live in, how far does ‘community’ stretch? Are there any boundaries to potential allocentric responsibilities? Private knowledge is known about our family and friends at a level never seen by previous generations. Increasingly, we live great distances apart from loved ones, yet we can now know what each other are eating from half way around the world since it is pinged electronically to our many devices. Does this increase our feeling of responsibility to our world community?
News on natural disasters and man-made tragedies miles from where we live are constantly beamed into our living room. Do these stories inflate our compassion for the suffering of our fellow humans? The problem, of course, is that resources are finite. Remember those cookies? After a full day’s baking, you sit down tired, ready for a treat, but you have no cookies left. You gave them all away and you are left feeling taken for granted.
The balance between egocentric and allocentric behavior is found by weighting your actions according to personal circumstances and preferences. You must look after yourself to ensure you have the energy and disposition to look after others. Looking after others will give you the societal feedback (positive feelings of pleasure, diminished negative emotions such as guilt) that promotes self-worth and inner happiness.
Finally, we are remembered for what we do for others; these are the things that ‘make the difference’. Remember, if you don’t get to eat a cookie every now and then, you may lose the disposition to bake them for others!