The Biology Of Selfishness: Letting Go Of Line-Cutters

I spent four days in D.C. at the inaugural activities last week. Overall everybody was extremely excited and full of enthusiasm, lots of smiling happy faces, lots of kindness prevailing in the air. But there were crowds and long lines to get into events; despite being full of enthusiastic people energized by Obama there was still waiting, waiting, and waiting in really cold weather. These were the conditions that set the stage for a pervasive amount of ‘line cutting’.

One friend I know ‘cut’ into the front of a long VIP ticket line to be quickly admonished by a distinguished looking gentleman, ‘Young Lady, he said, that is extremely rude and dishonest. Do you know that the line begins about 1.5 hours behind us?’ My friend was humiliated and wandered to the back of the line. An hour or so later, all forgotten, she had befriended her line mates when four people cut in line in front of her. Indignant, she pointed out their unethical behavior and was readily ignored. Oh, but that did not dissuade my friend. She decided it was outrageous that someone would so blatantly ignore her admonishment; she continued to berate the line cutters. Eventually two of the four departed – fed up with her complaints. But the other two kept going, ignoring her comments.

Finally at the gate, she turned to the two and offered a truce of sorts: “Just admit you’re wrong and I’ll let it go”, she says. Stone silence. My friend cannot let it go – her self-righteousness is so painful. Her husband comes to the rescue reminding her that when someone doesn’t want to let go of something – you cannot make them. All you can do is let go of it yourself. My friend learned a cool lesson that day in the cold – do what you might, we cannot change anyone else, we can only change ourselves. And noticing how quickly we put ourselves above others is one sort of behavior that easily emerges, is often hard to see, and usually causes us pain.

A Buddhist teacher once described that idea to me visually – if you bend your index finger into a hook and think of it as a ‘thought’ that may grab you, or anger you, or bother you in some way. Think of the other finger (hooked as well) as how you relate to it. If you hook the fingers together, that’s you ‘holding on’ to something tightly, but imagine if you just straighten your one finger. The things that you attach to, that you hold on to, that cause you stress and discomfort, can be released fairly simply by you changing your view! Just straighten your finger (release it from your mind).

Line cutting is likely to be around for a long time. I was thinking about it as a type of ’selfish’ behavior. Biologists know that sharing and compassion – altruistic behaviors in general – are difficult to explain from a biological evolutionary perspective because genes that code for the opposite (selfish genes) would quickly overtake those that code for altruism. It is this problem that led to the rise of sociobiology and kin selection (the idea that we ‘help’ those who are close to us genetically because it, in effect, increases our own genes — see E.O. Wilson, Sociobiology for example). In contrast to these genetic models, Susan Blackmore argues for memes (ideas that replicate) as an alternative mechanism for the spread of altruism or non-selfish behavior (based on work of Richard Dawkins, see The Selfish Gene).

Line cutting may seem far removed from the selfish genes of survival, but it may also illustrate the challenges we face in building a more compassionate, kind society. We each likely have in us a little bit of ‘line cutting’ or a tendency to break rules when they benefit ourselves at the expense of others. Notice if you rush ahead of someone at a Starbucks, take a taxi first when perhaps you weren’t really there first, maneuver your way to the front of a line, or rush ahead of others to get first choice of some merchandise. Noticing these intentions when they arise and taking note of our actions (what we choose to do in response) may help us direct our evolutionary future somewhat. Perhaps we can override our biology of selfishness through awareness and choose to act in kindness.