We humans are self-interested creatures. Our concern is focused on what affects us and we naturally see the world through self-colored lenses. And that’s okay.
Actually, it would be almost impossible to be anything else. Every moment of life is spent living in the same mind and body, and with the same perspective stemming from the same lived experiences. Having a self-interested attitude is really the only reasonable thing to expect.
We almost don’t even need a name for it since it’s so tied up in being human, but this is our egocentric bias. This is one of the biggest fish in the cognitive sea. We could almost just say “human” and it would equate to “mostly self-concerned sentient being.”
There’s a reason it’s normal. We need to focus on what’s happening to us in order to survive and accomplish anything notable.
So, we shouldn’t feel bad about our thoughts centering mostly on our own life and our own affairs. For better or worse, this is the human way.
Well, maybe feel bad about it–but not too much.
Instead we should appreciate what it means that we feel a little guilty when we feel more than normally self-interested; it means that we’ve matured enough to understand there’s a real need to think beyond ourselves, that we actually owe it to others to do so.
It’s the role of education to make us learn to care about things beyond our interest or larger than us. To care about things that don’t necessarily spring from our own perspective is part of learning. It makes us less self-centered.
It means we have consciously stepped up from the base concerns of the ancient brain inside to realize there’s a bigger world beyond our own taste and touch.
This is the purpose of getting an education, whether Good Will Hunting-style through the public library, formally through universities, or otherwise.
It’s done throughout life. You could even say the point of learning something is to inspire us to learn something else next. Every piece of knowledge is a brick with which to build. Everything is another piece of awareness used to construct a body, mind, and personality to call home.
This is what I take from David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon College speech, one of the most impacting of commencement speeches.
Wallace talks about choosing to do the hard work of moving past the default setting of self and choosing what you’ll pay attention to each day.
This is how we move away from System 1 thinking, the immediately reactive decisions or actions you take most often, and spend more of each day in System 2 mode, being more thoughtful and less viscerally emotional in making choices and decisions. (Read Thinking, Fast and Slow for more.)
In sum, the most innate human bias we have is our egocentricity, which would have us believe that since we occupy the center of our own life, we are the center of all lives. The purpose of education–reading a book, traveling, taking a class, or getting a degree–is to combat this bias. Learning widely is the natural remedy for egocentricity.