Be symbish not selfish (win-win not win-lose)

Greed is seen as a problem in 21st century society. A simple, partial solution is to encourage people to “be symbish not selfish” (win-win not win-lose). It shifts attention away from people’s motives, and onto their actions. Using this phrase could help to directly change their behaviour and also indirectly aid the design of better incentive. It could also flag a few wider problems for businesses and policy-makers to solve.


The bulk of human activity is win-win activity. We trade, we share and we cooperate with friends and strangers throughout our lives. Acting in win-win ways is normal.

On the other hand, economists typically communicate our motives as selfish. In economic textbooks, they explain that we make decisions based on what is best for ourselves. Given the chance, we will maximize or increase those gains (they assume). While these assumptions are usually applied to trade, they have also been applied to human behaviour more generally.

Critics of economics see this communication as a problem. There seems to be a disconnect. Selfish behaviour seems to be at odds with the way people act in reality. Some critics, like Kate Raworth and Samuel Bowles, argue that communicating selfishness as a social norm may actually increase the volume of selfish behaviour and be making all of us worse off.

Now, here’s the thing. The idea that people are selfish is actually half-true. Those who trade in markets generally do look for deals which maximise their gain. However, as traders, they also act in a win-win way. A more accurate way to communicate human behaviour is to communicate the concept of a selfish win-win person.

I believe that if we communicate this concept well, then the world will change. The reputation of economics should improve. Profit-driven businesses should be more respected. We would get better at helping each other in general.

A picture could help in communicating this idea.

Encouraging a selfish person to act in win-win ways is likely to require one of the following five changes:

  • Changing the scope of the actions they consider
  • Changing the scope of the costs/benefits they consider
  • Changing the scale of the costs/benefits considered
  • Changing the timescale of the costs/benefits considered
  • Changing the calculation method for these costs/benefits (e.g. use of heuristics)

These five categories can be more widely applied to the study of human behaviour and to behavioural economics.

To drive this concept home, here is a set of words which I believe will help:

  • ‘symbish’ means ‘unintentionally win-win’
  • ‘symbishness’ means ‘win-win activity without a shared intent’

These words allow us to

For example: kindness is not symbishness. A selfish win-win person does not have to be compassionate, so encouraging compassion is not a viable solution for fixing capitalism. What’s more, private symbishness is not the same as the public good. So, leaving markets alone to coordinate symbish actions may not optimise the gains to society on the whole. That said, if symbishness is the basis of all economies, then promoting economic growth also means helping people help each other, and so should be encouraged.

…to be continued..