A new kind of self-interest

Social scientists typically see self-interest in terms of individuals satisfying their interests/desires. I’m going to discuss another kind of self-interest: individuals who in conversation are only interested in themselves!

arrogant-guyI’ve met many people like this. (I’d be lying if I pretended I too wasn’t sometimes guilty of this!)

Some such people will answer your questions but won’t follow up with questions of their own. I once waited in silence for a whole minute before giving up and talking to someone else at the table. This was someone with so little grasp of how conversations work that he couldn’t even see how to turn back the previous question at me. Similarly, someone who used to be a very close friend subconsciously thinks himself so superior to me that when we discuss things that we both do, he simply doesn’t try to ask me about my approach. This is not just impolite: it’s disrespectful.

Other people will close down a line of conversation that doesn’t interest them. For example, if you say “I was just watching Downton Abbey”, the response might just be “I don’t like historical dramas”. There’s no attempt to engage, to find out more, even to feign interest: what you say goes only into the part of the brain that asks “do I like or dislike X?”, and the answer to that goes straight into the mouth.

Whether conscious or not – usually not, I suspect – both approaches can end up making conversations purely about the other person.

I suspect there’s many possible reasons for this kind of self-interested conversation:

  • sometimes these people are a bit insecure, and feel more comfortable talking about things they know about;
  • sometimes they have a lot of worries/stresses/problems, and need to talk about themselves;
  • sometimes they’re used to people dominating them in conversation, and this is a deflecting tool they’ve picked up;
  • sometimes they haven’t picked up quite as many social skills as one might like;
  • sometimes they don’t really care what others think of them, unlike people who are more polite in conversation because they don’t want others to think badly of them;
  • sometimes they arrogantly assume that other people want to know about them;
  • sometimes they genuinely aren’t interested in what you say;
  • sometimes they don’t respect you as a person;
  • sometimes they’re just a tosser.


Toilet advertising

German advertising in toiletWe Brits like to think that Americans are the best at advertising, but on a recent trip to Marburg I discovered that the Germans have come up with a new trick: printing adverts on the paper towels you dry your hands with in toilets.

Gutenberg would have been proud!



Welcome to the blog!

This blog is about politics, philosophy and history — and how to do them well, in terms of thinking, writing and teaching.

I’m more interested in how we think than what we think: this blog will not contain a lot of party politics or ideology!

I was an undergraduate at Cambridge and did my PhD in Oxford. I’ve taught at Oxford, at Queen Mary University of London, and at Manchester. I’m now Senior Lecturer in Politics at King’s College London.

I did my PhD in political science (elections), spent some time on political philosophy (democracy, Habermas and rationality), and now concentrate on history of political thought (Hobbes, and methods of interpretation). But I am still interested in all of these fields, and I plan to publish more in each of them.

I’ll cover many of these issues on the blog. Enjoy!