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Secretly Selfish

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"You must not be so foolish as to believe yourself worthy of salvation. You lost people dear to you and wish for their happiness. Excellent. Splendid, indeed. But why do you sully the purity of your desire by not thinking solely of them? There is no bliss to be received from narcissism. Do you not see, Leonhart? You only seek the happiness you would gain by being at their side. Why go through all this trouble when you could simply go and embrace your own image in the mirror? You wish for only your own happiness. Only for yourself to be loved. You cannot deny your narcissistic disposition."
Valeria Trifa, Dies Irae

A character known for noble deeds, selfless sacrifices and a lifetime of service is normally The Ace, The Hero, or The Messiah. They seem to have an extra quality that makes them give of themselves without a second thought. However, occasionally a nasty spanner is thrown in the works, and the hero is forced to question their fundamental motives: are his/her good deeds really performed for the benefit of others... or, deep down, are they doing these things for themselves, without even realising it?

This challenge usually comes from a third party — often someone with a grudge against the hero, if not an outright villain. They argue that if the hero is going about their life without being miserable, or giving up absolutely everything, then they aren't really being good: they're just giving what they can afford to give and reaping the benefits of being "a good person". This antagonist may have a point... or could just be trying to undermine the do-gooder's confidence.


The usual "selfish" motive offered is usually one of reputation or identity: doing these altruistic or self-sacrificing things fills a void for the person doing them. If someone or something comes along that would remove that burden from their shoulders, they panic - because who are they if not the Love Martyr or The Caretaker? Alternatively, being good may reap social rewards, making their good deeds a transaction rather than a gift.

The other common argument is that Good Feels Good: the person accusing them of being Secretly Selfish will point out that since good feels good, it has a built-in reward system. Therefore, you're no different from the villain, who gets the same high from committing crimes. This is a common argument against someone who is preachy and self-righteous characters, who are only pretending just to make themselves look good, rather than genuine belief.


Even if the hero reluctantly admits that they get something out of the deal, being Secretly Selfish does not make a character "bad", just plausibly flawed, and it's possible for Character Development to make a character become more genuinely selfless. However, there is definitely a truly selfish variation. In these cases, the character is usually outright lying to themselves about their motives, and in need of a calling out.

Cynical works will agree that yes, there is no such thing as a completely altruistic person and all people are selfish in one way or another — in fact, cynicism at its core is the belief that all humans are motivated purely by self-interest. An idealistic work will admonish such a way of thinking as bad people trying to drag good ones down to their level. Characters who definitely have, and know about, their unscrupulous ulterior motives are not Secretly Selfish - they're A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing. On the other hand, a more pragmatically good hero is more comfortable with the idea of Enlightened Self-Interest, and less inclined to have a moral meltdown. The Selfless Wish and Secretly Selfish tropes usually serve to deconstruct each other: the existence of one in a fictional universe usually "weakens" the concept of the other. The Straw Hypocrite is the cousin trope, where the hypocrite is selfishly not practicing on what they are preaching.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Erwin Smith in Attack on Titan is a brilliant and dedicated commander of the Survey Corps that does anything in order to save humanity, even it means sacrificing hundreds of lives and using his soldiers as Cannon Fodder for the greater good. In reality all the deaths and sacrifices he made was for his own personal goal of finding out for certain if humanity is extinct outside the walls, not just for humanity's sake, but to prove that his father (who "was disappeared" by the Secret Police) was right., this leads to his own Heel Realization and his trying to redeem himself by leading a suicide charge against the Beast Titan.
  • Puella Magi Madoka Magica uses this as a plot point with its magical girls and their supposedly "selfless" wishes.
    • Sayaka Miki sacrificed her peaceful life to heal her crush - who was verging on suicidal after damage to his hands looked set to end his career as a violinist. Given that his attitude towards her swung from polite indifference to ingratitude to downright violent at his lowest points, Sayaka seems to be (and considers herself) a selfless Love Martyr. She also takes pride in her desire to help those in need. Before she makes her wish, her Cool Big Sis Mami actually questions how truly selfless she is, and Sayaka's reaction is Visible Silence. Then, she makes the wish and is hit with the Awful Truth: she did want something for herself: she wanted Kyosuke's gratitude -- and subsequently his love -- and she wanted to be the heroine of her own story.
    • It's hinted that many if not all magical girl wishes are made by girls who don't want to admit to themselves what they really want... making them just the right kind of wishes Kyubey needs to drive them into despair and make them witch out, as they decide that wanting something for themselves makes them terrible people. It's easy to see if one examines the wishes made by the other main magical girls: Kyouko wished for her dad to be successful in his preaching because the family was starving and she thought she'd save herself and them; Mami wished to save her life after a car accident but in her despair, she didn't extend it to her parents and deeply regrets it; Homura wished to save Madoka after she died for her, but she also can be seen as her wanting to be the one to do something so important for her... Madoka's Selfless Wish escapes this solely because she has gathered enough power and experience to not let Kyubey prey on her insecurities any longer, so she's completely honest in her intentions. That being said, an Alternative Character Interpretation of her actions suggests that she made her choice because she saw herself as worthless and/or felt indebted to Homura for trying so hard to save her.
  • Yuuri (and, to a lesser extent, Kurumi) of School-Live!. She believes that letting Yuki live out her delusions is the only way to keep her calm and happy. Incomer Miki, however, is quick to realise the real reason why the club hasn't called out Yuki's behaviour: Yuki's cheerfulness keeps everyone else going. In fact, when Yuki regains clarity, Yuuri falls into delusion almost immediately afterwards. Miki notes that not addressing Yuki's behaviour is actually dangerous for Yuki herself. Admittedly, Yuuri seems to have grudgingly realised her own real motivation as well, but she is incredibly reluctant to change it.
  • In Revolutionary Girl Utena, it turns out a character was invoking this trope all along, in regards to another. Rather than wanting to help and protect Anthy in the Duels, what Utena truly wanted was to be Anthy's Knight in Shining Armor so she could bolster her own ego and making Anthy relay on her, without taking Anthy's actual desires and thoughts into consideration. She only realizes this truth after finding out that Anthy was Akio's Decoy Damsel and, understandably, she's devastated. This grim revelation gives Utena the determination to truly free Anthy from both Akio and herself, rather than just White Knighting for her so she could feel good. It works since Anthy sees her sincerity, realizes Utena is truly fighting for her rather than for her own ego... so in the end, she decides "I Will Not Be a Victim" and leaves Ohtori with Chuchu to find the missing Utena, finally liberating herself from Akio and her own demons.
  • Played very darkly in Neon Genesis Evangelion.
    • The heroes of the story are trying to protect humanity from the Third Impact, which would cause mass extinction. In spite of this, and in spite of their presenting themselves as grand, heroic figures, every single member of the cast (including Shinji, but that's for later) is doing this for entirely selfish and ultimately very tragic reasons: Asuka is in it for the glory since she was neglected as a child and lost her mother horribly, Misato is in it for revenge because she was at the center of the Impact itself and was traumatized, Rei has been raised specifically for this purpose and was cloned from a woman involved in this, Ritsuko is being manipulated into it by her lover Gendo and is struggling with her own self-image, and Gendo himself is only interested in using the crisis to resurrect his wife/Shinji's mother, the woman that Rei was cloned from.
    • The show's protagonist, Shinji Ikari, is only of the few characters to not be secretly selfish... but only because he's up-front about his own selfishness: he knows and straight-up says that he's more interested in pleasing his father than he is about saving the world. The rest of the cast tend to look down on him and scold him for having such self-centered motivations, but at the end of the series, when all of their consciousnesses merge, Shinji is able to see that they're no better than he is.
    • Ironically, one of the only members of the cast to genuinely care about the future of humanity is Kaworu, one of the Angels that the humans are trying to save humanity from.
  • Yue Ayase of Negima! Magister Negi Magi wholeheartedly supports her best friend Nodoka's feelings for the lead character, Negi. However, she soon starts to develop feelings for him and tries to suppress them for the sake of her best friend. Negi and Yue have a conversation about what to say to Nodoka after she confessed to Negi. Yue tells Negi to wait until graduation to give her a proper reply (seeing as he is their teacher), and she ends up feeling relieved that Negi doesn't like anyone yet... and is suitably horrified at how selfish she is. This comes to a head later when Nodoka finds out about Yue's feelings, and the two resolve to pursue Negi while cheering on the other. Of course, Nodoka would be just as happy in a threesome...
  • A common theme in Pet Shop of Horrors, as it's a series based around rather nasty moral tests along with a helping of Armor Piercing Questions. You claim to want your wife resurrected? Is that for her sake or just to absolve your own sins? You wish you'd died in your friend's place? Sounds noble, but are you just running from your own guilt? Do you really want to protect your son from your abusive ex-husband, or are you ashamed to admit that you'd rather save your own skin instead of your child if you had to make that choice? Of particular note is that characters who admit their selfishness (such as the Senator's assistant who admits that, to him, the happiness of the woman he loves is more important than the fate of the nation) fare rather well in the Count's tests, since the Count admires their honesty.
  • Reki from Haibane Renmei seems to be a kind Team Mom however it turns out she's this way for selfish reasons. She wants to break out of her Circle of Sin and be able to have her Day of Flight. Despite this, she does end up truthfully becoming nice (even if she's in denial).
  • Zekkyou Gakkyuu has the Do-Gooders club, who goes around the school doing good deeds, ranging from simple acts such as picking up the trash, to saving others from bullying. As the chapter goes on, it becomes apparent that the club members are only doing these nice things to be praised by others. In fact, they deliberately cause problems that they would later "help" fix, to further advance their accomplishments.
  • My Hero Academia This trope pops up a couple of times with Iida Tenya. Though he tries to be an upright and moral person, particularly after he's made into Class Rep, there have been several incidents where Iida puts himself and his own goals above others:
    • When Uraraka was stuck under a robot during the Entrance Exam, Iida noticed that she'd gotten trapped but chose to continue fighting robots anyway and leaving her behind because he needed more points to win a place in UA, whereas Midoriya immediately tried to help her even though he was way behind everybody else and hadn't earned any points for destroying the enemy robots. (He was unaware at the time that he could earn rescue points for saving Uraraka). Later, Iida commends Midoriya for this and berates himself for his selfishness.
    • During the Sports Tournament Arc, after Midoriya manages to come in first during the obstacle course, he then finds out that was actually a bad idea, as with all the points he earned made him a huge target for the other contestants. When he looks for teammates for the Cavalry Battle, Uraraka immediately says she'll support Midoriya, but Iida doesn't, saying that at the moment, Midoriya is his rival first, friend second, and joins Todoroki's team instead. This actually bites him in the ass, since during his fight with Todoroki during the Tournament, Todoroki remembers that his ice can jam the engines on Iida's legs and cripples his ability to run, thus easily taking him out of the battle. Interestingly enough, Uraraka believes that she's the secretly selfish one despite having chosen to stand by Midoriya, as she believes that she was using her friendship with him to get ahead and that Iida was right to think of Midoriya as a rival. As a result, she declines Midoriya's offer to give her advice on how to defeat Bakugo and ultimately loses to him.
    • During the Stain Arc, Hero-Killer Stain nearly kills Iida's older brother Tensei, crippling him and forcing him to retire as a Pro and leaves the identity of Ingenium to his brother. Iida is so enraged that he goes after Stain by himself, and during their confrontation, he totally ignores the wounded hero that Stain was about to kill. Stain, of all people, calls him out on this.
  • In Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day, all of the former members of the Super Peace Busters are forced to acknowledge their selfish ulterior motives in the final episode, when their attempt to fulfill their dead friend Menma's wish by launching a fireworks rocket doesn't allow her to pass on to the afterlife. While Yukiatsu had always been shown to have an unhealthy obsession with Menma, especially when he crossdressed as her, Jintan realizes after the rocket launches that he didn't actually want Menma (whom only he could see and hear) to pass on. Anaru, however, wanted that to happen so that she could finally get together with Jintan (whom both she and Menma liked), while Tsuruko wanted Menma to move on and Anaru to hook up with Jintan in order to get together with Yukiatsu. Even Poppo admits that his efforts to help Menma find peace were largely so he could get over the trauma of having seen her drown in the river, and not being able to save her. After a rather emotional conversation, the Super Peace Busters come to terms with their issues, and are ultimately able to help Menma move on once she realizes her true wish.
  • Kariya Matou in Fate/Zero presents himself as a guy who just wants to save unfortunate little girl Sakura from a horrible fate—but as it turns out, he's been in love with Sakura's mother since childhood, and Did Not Get the Girl. While his motives are altruistic and he suffers greatly for them, and he knows that he'd never be able to enjoy the fruits of his labors even if he did manage to save her (as his powers are Cast From Life Span), deep down, he always has that fantasy in the back of his mind that when he saves Sakura, her mother will be so grateful that she divorces her jerk of a husband and hooks up with him again, and then Sakura and her sister will be his daughters for real. When said mother rejects him at the end of a Trauma Conga Line, he snaps and attempts to strangle her in a fit of rage.
  • The final arc of Mob Psycho 100 centers on this question, as it's revealed that ???% isn't a separate entity living inside Shigeo, but rather his id, which is also the ultimate source of his power. Sick of being used yet ignored for the sake of people he believes only accept the more palatable "Mob" and what he can do for them, ???% goes on a rampage, lashes out at every friend Shigeo has ever harbored uncharitable thoughts towards or gets in his way, and threatens to do away with all of Shigeo's efforts to better himself in order to prove that no one would accept him for what he truly is and that he can only rely on himself in the end. It's only when Reigen weathers his rampage to confess his own unsavory "hidden side" and apologize for using Shigeo while never truly understanding everything he was going through that ???% backs down and willingly integrates with "Mob" instead of destroying him.
  • The lead couple of Ayakashi Triangle both take actions they say and believe are totally in the other's interest, but have more self-serving aspects beneath the surface:
    • Matsuri has made his life practically revolve around Suzu's wellbeing, and is so self-sacrificing he thinks himself unworthy of her affection, and that Suzu's love life is none of his business. In reality, Matsuri is constantly trying to appear strong before Suzu to impress her, and when Soga and Suzu meet for lunch, Matsuri takes desperate, embarrassing measures to spy on them. When Suzu starts taking advantage of the spiritual power that endangers her, Matsuri isn't glad she's gaining the power to protect herself, but worried he won't be able to keep doing so himself and be left behind.
    • Suzu insists Matsuri keep Shirogane alive, even if it will endanger her, because she feels responsible for Matsuri getting turned into a girl, which only Shirogane can reverse. However, an issue she keeps to herself is that she's uncomfortable still being attracted to Matsuri in his current form. Working to turn Matsuri male again lets her avoid questioning her own sexuality. Suzu even dreads the idea of Matsuri wanting to be a girl.
  • Kei Asai of Sagrada Reset believes that good people are only truly good if they take no benefit from their good deeds, even personal satisfaction. This is why, in Sumire's parable about a man who helped others because he felt intense pain whenever he saw sadness, and a copy who had no will of his own but only aped what the man did, Kei feels that the latter is the only one who is a truly good person. However, this should not be taken to mean that he thinks being "truly good" in this way is a goal we should all aspire to. Indeed, despite feeling that Misora Haruki is beautiful and perfectly good because she is a real life version of the parable's "copy" — someone who is so emotionally dead that she uses an algorithm to decide her actions, and does the right thing but derives no satisfaction from it — he still works to reawaken her emotions, because he believes that it is more important for a person to be happy than to be perfectly good. In other words, he thinks it would be wrong to try to make a person truly good.
  • Welcome to Demon School! Iruma-kun has Ameri Azezal, who normally puts others well-being before others and is a Resonable Authorative Figure, but is also deeply interested in the Shoujo Manga she has from the Human World and cannot read them. Once she meets Iruma and learns he can read them, she (literally) drags him off and forces him to read the manga to her. It is downplayed later given Iruma being such a massive dormat and his inability to say no and Ameri herself stops doing this after seeing how submissive he really is.
    • Following the disbanding of Iruma's battler as a result of Kiriwo's attempt to blow up the school, Ameri has Iruma join the Student Council, after he previously declined her attempt at inviting him. However, one of her reasons for doing so was to help him get a letter of recommendation from her division, and was for his own benefit as much as it was her enjoyment. In fact, when Iruma later declined to remain after earning his recommendation, Ameri became the first person ever that Iruma directly told “no” to, and she accepted his decision with a smile.

    Comic Books 
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: During the Season 9 comics, Willow becomes obsessed with finding a way to restore magic to Earth, convinced that the world is dying without magic and needs it to survive. Over the course of the Willow: Wonderland miniseries, she eventually realizes and confesses that she actually just wanted magic back so she could feel powerful again.
    Willow: ...Maybe just a couple of sads. My friends need me. At least, I keep telling myself they need me. The truth is... when I think about now, they seemed to be doing fine. I'm the one who was falling apart. Without magic, I'm back to being part hacker, part hostage, while my superpeeps kick evil's butt. I was so convinced the world needed magic. That life on Earth is fundamentally missing something. But maybe... maybe it was just me.
  • The Plutonian from Irredeemable is this combined with Love Hungry. He ultimately became a superhero to fulfill his deep-seated desire for love and acceptance (resulting from a Dark and Troubled Past) coupled with an intense martyr complex imposed on him by his foster parents.
  • Many a superhero (especially Thou Shalt Not Kill-types) can be accused of this when their enemies rack up increasingly massive body counts yet the heroes refuse to kill them because it would be against their principles.
    • Following the Maximum Carnage storyline (where the supervillain Carnage led a gang of like-minded psychos and killers on a merry massacre of Manhattan), a fan letter wondered if Spider-Man's refusal to kill even a irredeemable monster like Carnage (who was a serial killer even before gaining his symbiote costume) would've held up if his own loved ones like Mary-Jane or Aunt May had wound up as victims.
    • The most infamous example is of course Batman and The Joker. While the Caped Crusader's fear that he'd find it difficult to stop killing criminals if he ever started is understandable, it's harder to sympathize when the Joker does something particularly monstrous like murdering children.
    • A complicated version showed up in a Punisher / Daredevil crossover. Matt Murdoch was trying to get one criminal (a Mafiya boss named Antonov)'s trial held in Texas rather than New York because he could simply terrify witnesses away. Frank (who doesn't know who Daredevil really is) argues with Daredevil that Murdoch has much simpler motives: Texas has the death penalty, New York doesn't, Murdoch just wants to see the man dead without getting his hands dirty. Daredevil is quite pissed at the accusation, especially since his sidekick isn't far from agreeing because Antonov is trying to get them all killed, even the superheroes trying to protect him from Frank.
  • The Killing Joke reveals that the Joker himself suffers from this trope, albeit in a twisted way. At first, it seems like he truly believes that everyone on Earth is just "one bad day" away from going completely insane. He tries to prove it by shooting and paralyzing Barbara Gordon, taking pictures of her nude body (and possibly doing worse), then kidnapping her father James and forcing him through a funhouse ride with the photographs disturbingly enlarged. He claims it's all proof of his theory that Humans Are Bastards - but Batman then tells him that, while Gordon is understandably shaken up and deeply sickened, he has not lost his mind or sense of morality, to the point of insisting that the Dark Knight take the Joker in "by the book" instead of getting revenge. Batman then challenges the Joker by saying that his entire philosophy and subsequent mad crusade is nothing but a cheap attempt to justify his own failure to keep it together:
    Batman: So many ordinary people don't always crack. Maybe there isn't any need to crawl under a rock with all the other slimy things when trouble hits. was just you, all the time.

    Fan Works 
  • BURN THE WITCH (Miraculous Ladybug): Lila firmly believes that everyone is inherently selfish, and repeatedly scoffs at Marinette's assertations that she sincerely wants to save her from being murdered by Witch Hunter and her angry mob. While Marinette mostly dismisses her claims, she does feel that her Moment of Weakness helped cause the whole mess, privately berating herself for letting Lila get under her skin in the first place.
  • Principal Nedzu declares that Aizawa is this in Coyote, while brutally deconstructing his harsh teaching methods. Aizawa claims that he only expels students who wouldn't be able to cut it as Pro Heroes; Nedzu, however, asserts that his real motivation is making less work for himself, keeping only the most talented and naturally skilled students around so that he gets credit for turning out such strong graduates.
  • Ned Stark in A Dovahkiin Spreads His Wings. He did protect and raise his nephew to the personal cost of dirtying his reputation and ruining his marriage, but he tends to consider the boy more as an extension of his dead sister and as such struggles with the fact that Jon would have dreams and wishes very different from what Ned wants for him.
  • The Karma of Lies:
    • One of the reasons that Lila is able to con her classmates so effectively is because she exploits this tendency. By convincing them that she has 'connections', she leads them to believe that if they donate generously to her various Fake Charities, they'll be able to impress her famous friends and earn more advantages for themselves.
    • Adrien also proves to be a Bitch in Sheep's Clothing. For all his moralizing, ultimately he simply doesn't care about how others are impacted by anything Lila, Chloe, he or anyone else does so long as he doesn't suffer himself. Lila naturally turns this to her advantage as well, convincing him to help her out with the notion that he'd be able to prove he was right to 'take the high road' with her.
  • Wally West in Our Own League. He tells his teachers and peers that he boards at Titans Tower instead of living with his mom because she recently divorced her abusive husband, and needs to focus on picking herself up and getting steady work. There is truth to this, but he's also avoiding her (and most elements from his life pre-Kid Flash) to avoid remembering his father's abuse.

  • Any mother written by Jodi Picoult, to the point of straight-up demonization of motherhood as a whole. They will go to their graves maintaining that they are the Only Sane Woman, and the only one in the family willing to do something and make sacrifices and why does the rest of her (badly neglected) family have to make things so difficult?!! Anyone else will point out that said mother has a boatload of issues and either a serious case of narcissism or a messiah/martyr complex.
    • Sarah in My Sister's Keeper sees herself as a martyr who only wants what's best for Kate — even if that means making everyone else's lives miserable. She keeps the spotlight on her own suffering and sacrifices and conveniently glosses over the fact that the actual person being dragged through unnecessary medical procedures and who is being pressured to give up an organ is Anna, her younger daughter. Sarah's husband and sister both realize that her whole identity centers around being Kate's Crusading Mother — and while part of her motivation is indeed a deep love for her child, part of it is that she'll lose that identity if Kate dies.
    • Charlotte O'Keefe in Handle with Care eventually admits that the court case she sets in motion (ruining the lives of everyone involved with it in the process) was really a case of It's All About Me, not, as she initially claimed, all about Willow, her daughter with osteogenesis imperfecta.
    • Emma in House Rules centres her whole life, and that of her younger son Theo, around the needs and demands of her autistic son, Jacob. She prides herself on "managing" Jacob, to the point that she's sabotaged any coping skills he might have been able to develop because teaching him to be independent would mean that she would lose The Caretaker role she's built her life around.
  • At some point, the protagonist of Tales of MU laments that she must be evil because she only helped another to avoid feeling bad for not helping her. Her interlocutor answers that it's how everyone works, and what proves her a good person is the fact not helping would have caused her to feel bad in the first place. An evil person would feel nothing for not helping.
  • Ciaphas Cain, HERO OF THE IMPERIUM!!!, admits in his memoirs that everything he did during his Imperial Guard service was with the ulterior motive of keeping himself alive. Cain has a massive case of Heroic Self-Deprecation, considering himself a Dirty Coward and nothing else. Cain doesn't seem personally conflicted about this, but the setting is one in which human culture has a martyrdom complex, and where the concept of Enlightened Self-Interest provably fails when applied on any significant scale, so it has to be a secret. In the teaching part of his career, he tries to teach his students to behave rationally on the grounds that while surviving can't be too high a priority, until they get some experience they won't recognize when a situation actually merits sacrificing themselves.
  • In Tamora Pierce's Circle of Magic, Sandry, a noble and a thread-mage, is regularly accused of this. For the most part, she genuinely is just a good person, but her friends point out that, while she's gone to great lengths to protect people on her estates in Namorn, they wouldn't need protecting if she'd just sign the land over to someone who actually lives in the country — her possessiveness (and dogged determination to hang on to one of the last reminders she has of her parents) puts the people living there at risk. Before that, her beloved Uncle accuses her of hiding from her responsibilities in Namorn by taking on other responsibilities in Emelan — which seems rather unfair, as the extra responsibilities she takes on are HIS responsibilities, and she's been covering for him after he had a heart attack.
  • Vishna in Counselors and Kings is a wise and benevolent Old Master, but secretly he's aligned with one of the trilogy's main villains, Kiva, and has been her accomplice for decades, if not longer. He says it's because he made a vow to help her when she was young, but his actions indicate he's actually afraid to back out when he's in so deep and acknowledge his responsibility for his actions. However, when his favorite pupil (and son), Matteo, calls him out in it, Vishna is sufficiently shamed that he finally manages to pull himself out of Kiva's influence - for the cost of his life.
  • In the novel Little Fires Everywhere, Elena Richardson rents out houses in the neighbourhood to "suitable" tenants, which on the surface is generous of her, but said tenants are carefully selected by Elena to make her look like a Good Samaritan who is lending a helping hand to some misfortunates. In reality, Elena is not as tolerant and generous as she likes to think she is and when Mia sides with Mrs. Chow in the custody battle over the baby, Elena takes this as a personal slight and goes out of her way to ruin Mia's reputation.
  • Highlord Amaram of The Stormlight Archive is widely considered to be the most honorable man in Alethkar, and he believes that he is vital to Alethkar's continued survival against the coming Voidbringers. It's increasingly made clear that he doesn't want Alethkar safe from the Voidbringers, he wants to save Alethkar from the Voidbringers, especially since his faction, the Sons of Honor, set out to wake the Voidbringer gods, kicking off the plot. When one of his soldiers claims a Shardblade by killing its last owner, saving Amaram's life, Amaram seizes the Shardblade and sells the soldier into slavery. Amaram justifies the theft by saying that a Shardblade would be wasted on a commoner with no sword training, and it needs to belong to someone with the proper skills. Except the soldier refused the Shardblade (it killed his friends), so Amaram could have just pulled rank and taken it. Amaram destroyed a man's life because he didn't want to suffer the indignity of being bested by a commoner and not earning his Shardblade.
  • Tiffany Aching is accused of this towards the end of her first book - going off to save her kidnapped baby brother more so that she can feel special (and assuage her own fears of not caring enough about other people) than out of any genuine care for him; of course, the kidnapper is the one making said accusation. However, this turns out to be a good thing, because it proves she'll always defend those who need defending, no matter what.
    Tiffany's Third Thoughts: Then turn selfishness into a weapon! Make all things yours! Make other lives and dreams and hopes yours! Protect them! Save them!...My brother! My family! My land! My world! How dare you try to take these things, because they are mine! I have a duty!

    Live-Action TV 
  • Done a lot in Desperate Housewives, especially Susan. For example, in Season Two she lies to Mike about paying his biological son, Zach to go away to Utah so he wouldn't get in the way of her relationship (and to keep him away from Julie), but pretends to keep searching for him anyway to look good in front of Mike. Edie calls her out on it.
    • In Season Four, Susan immediately manages to rub her new neighbours the wrong way, so her solution is to kidnap their dog and then pretend to "find" him to make them like her. Naturally this all goes wrong and they hate her more than ever. Mike even lampshades this - Susan wasn't trying to be a good person, she just can't stand it when people don't like her.
  • Inverted with Earl from My Name Is Earl. He starts his to-do list of good deeds to catalogue every bad thing he's done. He plans to make up for each one to earn positive karma so good things will happen to him — a basically selfish motive. However, his actions cause him to become a genuinely better person anyway.
  • In one episode of Friends, Joey and Phoebe's subplot revolves around an argument they have - Joey posits that there is no such thing as a truly selfless good deed because the good deed doer always wants or expects something in return - even if it's nothing more than feeling good about doing good.
  • House, M.D. is constantly accusing Wilson of this; only being so caring for his patients because it's the only thing that makes him feel good about himself. House, being House, seems to believe this to be true of all altruistic actions.
  • It's revealed in The Good Place that good actions and deeds can be negated if they're performed for these reasons. Hence why Tahani is actually in the Bad Place - she did a lot of charitable things, but only because she wanted the attention it would bring her (as well as to compete against her Always Someone Better sister).
  • In the Roseanne episode "Don't Make Me Over," Becky and Darlene treat Roseanne to a day at the spa for Mother's Day. Roseanne thinks that they're doing it out of the kindness of their hearts, but then Becky and Darlene reveal that they were just trying to butter Roseanne up so she'll let them go to a concert for the weekend. Roseanne is not too happy about this, and neither is Dan, who punishes his daughters by making them spend the weekend with their grandparents.
    • They learned from her: Roseanne's Tough Love approach can come across as simply wanting others to suffer as much as she has, coming from an abusive home.
  • Discussed in Once Upon a Time. Regina, now The Atoner, at one point wonders, if she's doing good in an effort to redeem herself, is she actually doing good?

    Myths and Religion 
  • The Bible provides a crystal clear order to not do this trope, and instead do good deeds while keeping concern for those of whom are benefiting from these good deeds of yours, not solely to make yourself look great.
    Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves: do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interest of others (Philippians 2:3-4)

  • This is the Twist Ending of The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O'Neill. The patrons of Harry's saloon love to talk about their big plans for the future, or "pipe dreams." When main character Hickey shows up, he seems oddly intent on forcing them to attempt to achieve those dreams, even though they're all doomed to failure. When everyone comes back shattered and depressed, Hickey claims that he did them all a favor, as they can now finally move on with their lives. It's then revealed, via a Motive Rant, that Hickey's actual motivation is his wife, who refuses to divorce or stop loving him despite his repeated infidelities, as she has never stopped believing in her own pipe dream that he is a decent person who will someday reciprocate— which drove Hickey to such fury that he murdered her. His desperate attempts to force other people to also give up their pipe dreams is simply an attempt to shift his own guilt: if everyone's dreams are meaningless, then he was right to kill her.
  • The Mrs. Hawking series has this as a central theme. Mary Stone joins Victoria Hawking's crusade for women as part of a desire to make something of her life, while Victoria's nephew Nathaniel joins in because he wants to be special. Interestingly, though, both Mary and Nathaniel gradually grow out of this trope and start helping women because it's genuinely the right thing to do, while Victoria herself slides toward increased selfishness. We later learn that even her initial crusade was the result of this trope: the first "problem" she ever faced was helping a starving village in Singapore receive food. Others pointed out that there were simple but effective ways to do it, but Victoria insisted on pulling off a grand scheme just because she could, hinting that it wasn't enough for her to only do good deeds—it had to be on her terms, exactly as she wanted.
  • Downplayed in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It's apparent from the beginning of the musical that Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney's Psycho Supporter, is a self-serving woman, and she's largely helping him in his revenge plot to both enrich her meat pie business by turning his victims into the filling and make Sweeney return her unrequited love, despite the fact that the barber only cares for Lucy, his now-dead wife. But the end of the musical reveals just how selfish Mrs. Lovett truly is: it turns out Lucy isn't dead, just driven insane by her rape and abandonment, and Mrs. Lovett knew it, but deliberately made her statement about the situation as vague as possible—"She poisoned herself...arsenic from the apothecary on the corner"—as part of her scheme. And Sweeney only finds out about all of this after he's inadvertently killed Lucy. When Mrs. Lovett uses Exact Words to defend herself—"No, no, not lied at all! No, I never lied! Said she took the poison—she did—never said that she died!"—it's suddenly apparent that she's downright sociopathic, because she doesn't care about anyone or anything beyond her own wants. It's not for nothing that Stephen Sondheim himself said that Mrs. Lovett is the true villain of the piece.

    Video Games 
  • Persona:
    • A big part of Persona 4, as the characters' shadows will be happy to tell you. The characters work on addressing these issues over the course of their Social Links.
      • Yosuke sees himself as investigating Saki's death out of a sense of justice and because of his affection for her. His shadow responds that he was trying to be a hero — and trying to relieve his desperate Small Town Boredom. His Social Link involves coming to terms with Saki's death and his own insecurities about not being "special."
      • Chie is Yukiko's protector and confidante. Her shadow sneers that this is only to feed a sense of superiority, because she's jealous of Yukiko (who she sees as superior in every way), and having the other girl depend on her boosts Chie's ego. That said, Chie points out that while her jealousy was true, she does genuinely want to help Yukiko.
      • Yukiko is an incredibly dutiful daughter, who's a model student on top of putting in long hours at her family's inn. Her shadow informs her that this is all just an act she puts on, hoping that being so virtuous will attract a "prince" who will reward her by whisking her away to somewhere nicer, where she doesn't have to make as much effort. Her Social Link begins with her deciding to take the initiative to decide her own future and ends with her deciding to inherit the inn for the sake of her hometown and the inn's employees, who've been like family to her.
    • Persona 5 also has these sorts of issues.
      • When the Thieves target Kunikazu Okumura, a fast-food CEO accused of unethical business practices, they find out that the man's daughter Haru is cooperating with Morgana (who'd left the group due to an argument with Ryuji), but Haru refuses to join them, saying that it's her responsibility to deal with her father. Sometime later, though, the group finds Haru being confronted by a Jerkass man who turns out to be her fiance, and shortly afterward, Haru admits the real reason she's opposing her father—by stealing his heart, she won't have to go through with her Arranged Marriage to the man, whom her father had arranged for her to marry in order to gain political power.
      • Yuuki Mishima, in an attempt to make amends for spreading rumors about the protagonist, starts a website for people to make requests to the Phantom Thieves, but it turns out that he's partly motivated by a desire to become popular and get back at those who bullied him. A good part of his Confidant involves dealing with Mishima's Shadow and helping him change as a person.
      • Despite how much Yusuke loves art and wants to paint purely for the pursuit of beauty, it's obvious that he's also desperate for his work and art to be acknowledged and is in dire need for financial assistance, even considering selling his art for money. Yusuke began to worry that his heart was "tainted" now that he had other motives to create art. Both Ann and Ryuji reassure him that these motives don't make him a bad person, as long as he doesn't lose his altruistic reasons for painting.
      • A major theme of the game is the protagonists' personas will only manifest if they truly want something and not for the sake of pure altruism. But the game also points out that selfishness and personal desires are not a bad thing, so long as it is balanced out with equal selflessness. As noted above, Haru and Yusuke are still heroes who genuinely want to help people, but they only gained the power to do so after they acknowledge their own wants. Even Joker, who is ultimately a selfless person, wants the power to take down evil to get back at the people who framed him for assault for trying to help a stranger.
  • Ultimately this plays a big part on BlazBlue: Central Fiction where the world is trapped in a depressing time loop, and everyone feels like they want to change it to make progress... Except for every one chosen man who wanted change for everyone, there is a selfish reason, and they all contrast to each other so much, that it's impossible for the world to change. On learning this, Ragna ends up deciding to embrace the 'villain of the world' status to devour the selfish desires of the cast and force them to just accept things and move on with their life.
    • Previously this is also invoked on one of the cast, the resident Anime Chinese Girl Hospital Hottie Litchi Faye-Ling. On the first impression, she seemed to be this nice and compassionate lady who's dedicated to protecting the Orient Town from the monster Arakune, even as she's trying to save him, but has stated that once the 'saving' is done, she would go back to being the town protector as everyone has idolized her. As the game went further, her own deteriorating condition forced her to take selfish actions, including one Face–Heel Turn and eventually being on board with the plan of an Obviously Evil villain to blow the world up for her one wish to have a world where Arakune is not a mutated being, turning her back against her other friends, who called her stupid for pursuing it. What makes her this trope is that as much as she disliked the notion, she decided that she shouldn't be so picky for her one goal, so she pushed on, even after in Central Fiction, she learned that the world refused to even entertain her one wish because she's simply not The Chosen One compared to the rest, much to her own grief.
  • Undertale: On a Neutral or Pacifist route, Alphys'll offer to guide you through Hotland and protect you from her out of control robot, Metatton, but the truth is that Alphys actually reactivated the puzzles and told Mettaton to pretend to threaten you so that she could "save" you and feel better about herself.
  • Ingrid of Fire Emblem: Three Houses longs to be a knight and has extremely idealistic visions of what knighthood and chivalry are, but is constantly badgered by her father sending her potential matches for an Arranged Marriage. The reason he does this, however, is because while Ingrid is a noble, her house is not what it was and they have very little money, to the point that sometimes there wasn't enough food for all of them. As the only one of Count Galatea's children who has a Crest, Ingrid is the only one who can expect to marry well enough to pull the family out of very possible financial ruin. Ingrid constantly rejecting suitors because she wants to focus on her career can therefore be seen as rather selfish of her, something Ingrid herself eventually acknowledges in her supports with Byleth and Seteth.

    Visual Novels 
  • Mikan Tsumiki in Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair. She's known as the Ultimate Nurse due to her incredible wealth of knowledge and skill in health care. However, during one of her free time events, she reveals the reason she became a nurse because she realized that sick and injured people are weaker than her. She does genuinely enjoy helping people, but she also enjoys the power that comes from their complete dependence upon her. Given her history of being severely bullied and abused since childhood, this isn't all that surprising. In fact, she got so good at treating wounds because of how often she had to treat her own, since no one else would help her.
  • Kei Sakurai from Dies Irae. She wants to use the Golden Alchemy offered by Reinhard to resurrect her parental figures, Beatrice, as well as her own brother, Kai. Of course, doing so involves the slaughter of an endless number of innocent and not so innocent people, yet Kei has driven herself to believe that, since she thinks she is doing it for someone else, her cause is just and that she is some sort of tragic anti hero/villain driven to extremism due to factors outside of her control. Several characters call her out on this, yet the words of Trifa are those that end up cutting the deepest as he gets right to the root of it all, correctly claiming that she is not doing it for them, but rather for herself in order to regain the family she lost, everyone else be damned.

    Web Animation 
  • RWBY:
    • While Raven initially appears to be a powerful Social Darwinist, her actions in Volume 5 show that she's quite a self-absorbed, pretentious Jerkass who always puts herself above her family and the tribe's value. Raven is even willing to risk the lives of her own brother and Team RWBY to obtain the Relic of Knowledge in order to save her own skin. However, she fails to take into account that she'll be on Salem's hit-list, and once she's made aware of this, she flees, allowing Yang to take the Relic and the future heat from Salem.
    • ZigZagged; Ironwood is genuinely dedicated to thwarting Salem however he can, but there's also an implication that he's just as motivated by a desire to avoid admitting his own fears and failings and validate his own beliefs as he is by saving people. This part of him becomes increasingly stronger throughout the series, and by the end of Volume 7, he shows no discomfort in trying to murder those who do not agree with what he's doing.
    • When Ozpin asks Hazel if he knows why Salem recruited him, Hazel tells him exactly why he's following her. Ozpin points out that supporting someone as monstrous as Salem isn't acting in the name of justice, it's acting for himself because Salem made him believe that taking out his rage on Ozpin would help him. He then asks Hazel if it's helped.

  • Poppy O'Possum: Queen Kit Darling claims that her advocacy on behalf of marginalized opossums is motivated by the atrocities she saw in Sorvail during a conflict called "The Backlash". This is not untrue, but when pressed she admits that she's also partly motivated by the simple fact that she can only see the world in terms of its atomic structure; but opossums, being magic nullifiers, are unaffected by this power, and she can see them normally. "It's hard not to empathize with someone when they're all you can see." Poppy doesn't think any less of her for it: "A good thing done for selfish reasons isn't really any less of a good thing. Even if you're helping someone out just to feel better about yourself, maybe that's good enough, sometimes."
  • Sleepless Domain: This is discussed when the members of the Power Training Club confront Cassidy, after the latter attacks Undine physically and accuses her of being responsible for the death of her teammates. She tries to justify her actions as protecting Heartful Punch and the rest of the club; however, Bud believes that her real problem is that HP is spending more time with the new girl, and that Cassidy was just trying to use these vague suspicions as a cover to vent her jealousy.

    Western Animation 
  • Steven Universe:
    • On a general level, all of the gems dote on and care for Steven, and are perfectly willing to risk their lives for him...but that's partly because Steven is their Living Emotional Crutch, and their behaviour often forces Steven to handle issues that, as a child, he shouldn't really have to cope with. Something that Amethyst directly admits to Steven as being wrong of them in the latter half of the show's run, especially considering that the Guilt Complex Steven had developed by that time means if they don't actively seek him out to serve as their emotional crutch, he will. However, that does not mean that they're bad caretakers, even if they think this is the case.
    • Pearl, the most maternal Gem, wouldn't let so much as a cold wind blow on Steven if she could help it...but a big part of that is the psychological hangover from being his mother, Rose's, self-proclaimed protector. She's been utterly bereft after losing that part of her identity and really wants it back.
    • Garnet falls foul of this in "Future Vision". Letting Steven know how her power works initially seems to be her usual humoring of Steven's curiosity, but at the end of the episode, she admits that really, she wanted Steven to understand her better so that she could be closer to him.
    • Steven Universe Future does this to Steven himself, with a healthy dose of Condescending Compassion. After successfully ending the Great Diamond Authority's reign and establishing a galaxy-wide peace, he finds himself without a purpose anymore, and throws himself into project after project in the name of assisting others. It's quickly apparent, though, that his goal is to boost his own mood and feel useful again rather than genuinely helping people.
  • Many episodes of South Park have one of the adults or the kids performing something they see as good for the community only for everybody else to try (to comically very little avail) to tell the character in question that what they are doing is simply shoving their beliefs on everybody's faces and ruining people's lives. Which makes one episode where Eric Cartman (who is one of the biggest examples of The Sociopath) takes in all the cats of South Park out of actual unselfish love of them a very surprising inversion, In-Universe and out.
  • Family Guy:
    • Brian often conveys himself as a firm liberal against corrupt or fascist dictations. A lot of the time, however, he is revealed to be a pretentious Attention Whore who only has a barebones idea what he's preaching about so he can look smart. One episode had him switch completely to conservatism on the grounds he could get in more people's faces, lending to Lois accusing him of simply being a contrarian who chooses whatever position makes him feel superior to everyone else.
    • In "Ocean's Three and a Half", Peter and his friends decide to rob Carter's mansion when he refuses to help them pay back a loan shark. While discussing their plan, Peter mentions that they're going to rob the vault clean, only for Cleveland to remind him that all they need is $20,000. Peter then reveals that he's actually taking this opportunity to get back at his father-in-law for treating him like crap for so many years.
  • Hayley of American Dad! was portrayed very similarly to Brian in early episodes, though despite her hypocrisies, she still stood for far saner views than her right-wing extremist father Stan.
  • Rumor, the titular villain of the episode "Rumors" from The Batman is speculated to be this way by Hugo Strange after Rumor launches into a tirade against the Rogues Gallery, as his motive involved failing to save his boss from the Joker crippling him.
  • The Young Justice episode "Antisocial Pathologies" sees Oracle calls Bruce out on this, saying the Benevolent Conspiracy between themselves, Dick, Tim, Justice League co-chairs Aquaman II and Wonder Woman and the League's covert team leader Miss Martian is really about furthering Bruce's own personal mission, not the League's, even pointing out that all but one are used to deferring to Brucenote —and the one who isn't, Diana, is in space, where she can't actually do anything but criticize.
  • Bob's Burgers: In "It Snakes A Village", the Belchers visit Linda's parents in Florida and, much to Linda's horror and Bob's amusement, it turns out that the retirement community is inhabited by elderly swingers. Unfortunately, Al and Gloria get a notice warning them they'll be evicted from the community if they don't start attending the community's events, so Bob decides to help them out with getting them out of their comfort zone and convinces them to attend a potluck so they can stay. However, Bob also had the ulterior motive of not wanting Gloria and Al to move into his restaurant since he knows they wouldn't be able to afford to live anywhere else if they got kicked out.
  • Justice League: In an alternate universe, President Lex Luthor accuses Superman of keeping Lex around to be a villain against whom he could play the hero, and this was why Superman would never kill him or do anything that could stop him from coming back to cause problems again. This, alongside the fact that Luthor had Flash executed, prompted Superman's Face–Heel Turn and the creation of the Justice Lords.
  • The Biskit twins from Littlest Pet Shop (2012) act like this in the episode "Winter Wonder Wha?" where they invite Blythe and Zoe to their fancy cottage in the mountains. Blythe thinks they're doing it to be nice, but then Zoe overhears the twins talking about how they were actually just using Blythe to prove to their dad that they can do a good deed and think that he'll shower them with gifts for it.
  • In the As Told by Ginger episode "Trouble In Gal Pal Land", Courtney and Miranda get into a big argument and all of their friends side with Courtney. Afterwards, Miranda latches onto Ginger and her friends since the fight was concerning Ginger. While Ginger is initially upset about this development, as she didn't want to take sides, Dodie points out that without Courtney, Miranda is desperate for friends, so they will in a position of power and be the ones able to boss Miranda around for once. When this proves untrue and all Miranda does is browbeat Ginger, Dodie and Macie into doing what she wants, Ginger complains about it to Lois, who points out Ginger doesn't have a right to be mad about how Miranda is treating them when she was planning on doing the exact same thing to her. Ginger realises she's right and decides the only way to solve things is get Miranda and Courtney to be friends again.
  • Subverted by Darkwing Duck, who isn't shy at all that at least part of his motivation for superheroics is the glory.
  • Amphibia: "True Colors" reveals that on Anne's birthday, Marcy's parents told her that her father got a job in another state and that she would have to move away. After running out of the house in tears and anger, she eventually ended up at the thrift shop where the Calamity Box was being kept, and convinced Anne and Sasha to steal it so she and her friends would be teleported to another world to have adventures forever. While she initially tries to claim she did it for the group, only for a hurt Anne and Sasha to pull away from her, she ultimately admits that she did it just because she didn’t want to be alone.
    Anne: How could you? I've been missing my parents! My life!
    Marcy: But look at how much fun we've had! Look at how much you've both grown! Look at Sprig! I gave you this! I gave you everything!
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic gives Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo, a group of young ponies who have not received their Cutie Marks (a special marking that manifests when a pony finds their true purpose in life and dedicates themselves to it). They decide to form a club—the Cutie Mark Crusaders—in the name of learning their destinies and finally getting their Marks. Many of the episodes that feature the CMC have them ostensibly solving problems for people, but it's clear that their only goal is finding a way to win their Marks rather than actually be useful to anyone. It's only when they stop trying so hard and genuinely begin helping other "blank flanks" find and understand their own destinies—to the point of saying that they long care about getting their own Marks so long as they can continue to help other ponies find theirs—that they finally achieve their goal.

    Real Life 
  • Schools of thought that see humans (and life forms in general) as fundamentally selfish will maintain that altruistic or "pro-social" behavior is strictly for the benefit of the performer, not the receiver. In fact, the very definition of cynicism is the belief that everyone is motivated purely by self-interest.
  • This trope (and the related Nature vs. Nurture) has been of interest to various scientific and philosophical fields. What research has been done suggests that humans are intrinsically mixed - we have drives for both genuine selflessness and selfishness.
  • George Price was a geneticist best known for his theories regarding evolutionary altruism and game theory. His theorems offered a genetic basis for altruism which apparently lead Price to desperately trying to prove or disprove that kindness was indeed genetic, he commited suicide in the end.
  • Related to the above, altruism vs selfishness in general can be considered the same issue as free will vs destiny - a truly selfless person may well be an automaton who does good simply out of instinct/programming thus undermining the whole thing, and introducing ego immediately causes selfish motives to start surfacing. Free will vs destiny has the problem of the deterministic forces either negating free will or having chaos eliminate it as well since everything becomes random and pointless. The solution may lie in reconciliation via various weak-deterministic free will theories and Enlightened Self-Interest respectively.