recently wrote about self-love, using the term in the sense of pursuing one’s own self-interests.  I was interested to find a pertinent chart from the Atlantic/Aspen Institute American Values Survey (see a report of the survey here).  When asked whether people are generally motivated by self-interest or by altruism, 77 percent said self-interest, and only 20 percent said altruism.  Thus, most of us Americans tend to think that those around us are self-serving rather than concerned with the welfare of others or the common good.

Had I been asked the question, I think I would have been in the three percent who didn’t choose either self-interest or altruism.   I think we’re motivated by both; most of us are in turns self-serving and self-giving.  Certainly there are exceptional individuals who habitually tend to choose the welfare of others over their own, but ordinary, unsaintly individuals may be more considerate of those around them than we realize.

An example of such consideration occurred in a recent flight I was on from Seattle to Atlanta.  The plane was arriving a little after 10 p.m. and was about 15 minutes late.  The flight crew announced that a number of those on the plane had a short time to make another flight, and the late arrival could result in some missed connections.  They asked that everyone who had no connection to make, or who had considerable time between flights, stay in their seats until those with close connections had left the plane.

Usually when a plane arrives at the gate nearly everyone tries to disembark as quickly as possible.  I wondered whether the crew’s request would change anyone’s behavior.  After all, we passengers were ignorant as to who had to rush to make a connection, so we wouldn’t know whether someone who tried to leave immediately had a legitimate reason to do so or not.  In the absence of social pressure, who was actually going to sacrifice self-interest for the sake of those in danger of missing their next flight?

I was on the aisle, and when the plane came to a stop I got up to let out the two people seated next to me, who were headed for Tampa and Jacksonville, respectively.  I sat back down and looked around.  At least half of the passengers were still seated, waiting while the others scurried out the exit.  Only after that group of passengers left did the rest of us get up, squeeze into the aisle, and head out the door.

Some of those who left immediately may not have needed to hurry to another flight.  Still, I was impressed with how many of the passengers surrendered a few minutes of their time in deference to fellow travelers who had little time to spare.  So, to all the good folks on Delta flight 1220: Well done.