There are many examples of this, and I'd like to give a few:

  • A person who puts a lot of effort to help the community and earns reputation points. But that reputation is the motivation behind helping the community, not because they really want to.
  • A student approaches a professor, and helps them in their teaching and doing research in order to have a good LOR (letter of recommendation).
  • To a SEO, the content of the website must be good (well, this one is a little tricky, but you get the spirit.)

I'm not saying that the reputation/LOR/high-ranked is not deserved. It is. I just want to focus more on the selfish reason(s) behind that.

Any kind of answer can be accepted: single word, phrase, proverb or idiom.

  • 3
    The action is still selfish. It is made out of self-interest, however benevolent it may appear on the surface. I've added scare quotes.'Self-promoting' is one possible descriptor. Jun 8, 2015 at 9:02
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    Nothing wrong with a little self serving altruism now and again. That's one of the evolutionary advantages that selects for altruism in the first place. Jun 8, 2015 at 12:23
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    @jiggunjer: doesn't really matter, because as far as the choice of words is concerned we still distinguish between people who take joy or satisfaction in bringing benefits to others (and thus serve themselves by helping others) vs. people who help others for the purpose of securing some material advantage (and thus serve themselves) while claiming to be the former. Maybe philosophers and the latter type of person think we shouldn't distinguish those things, or that we shouldn't refer to the former as "altruism", but on the whole that's what the word refers to however you compute utility :-) Jun 8, 2015 at 13:12
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  • 5
    How about "human nature".... Nobody ever does anything if it doesn't benefit them. Ever. If they help others it's because it makes them feel good (whether consciously or otherwise). Period. Jun 8, 2015 at 20:37

11 Answers 11


Ulterior, as in, an ulterior motive. From the Collins dictionary:

if you say that someone has an ulterior motive for doing something, you believe that they have a hidden reason for doing it

While this doesn't necessarily define the action, it describes the reasoning/motivation behind it. To describe the action itself, you may describe the action as Ostensible, wherewith the actions you describe are ostensible, with ulterior motives

outwardly appearing as such; professed; pretended

  • what is the difference between "ulterior motive" and "hidden agenda"?
    – Ooker
    Nov 7, 2018 at 11:23
  • 1
    While I won't state categorically that they're different, on a semantic basis - the word motive necessarily implies intent or reasoning, not an action or plan of action. Agenda can mean both a plan of action or intent @Ooker
    – kolossus
    Nov 7, 2018 at 15:05

The hidden agenda is a useful expression used to refer to the unsaid motives of somebody's actions:

  • An undisclosed plan, especially one with an ulterior motive.(AHD)
  • 4
    Or sometimes, simply agenda. +1.
    – Tushar Raj
    Jun 8, 2015 at 10:30
  • This implies the motive is hidden, while the question doesn't.
    – o0'.
    Jun 8, 2015 at 13:42
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    It implies that the real motivation is not explicit but disguised as a different, apparently less 'personal' (selfish) one, as asked by OP.
    – user66974
    Jun 8, 2015 at 13:52

While the terms supplied in the answer to Ooker's question are useful in describing "the reasoning/motivation behind" the action, neither of the single words ostensible nor ulterior apply solely to the question raised, i.e., doing/saying a "good" thing for "bad" or selfish reasons.

The opposite could be equally valid (often described as "the end justifying the means"): one might say/do a "bad" thing for reasons that redound ultimately to the common "good", and even these can said/done for selfish reasons! There is no real antonym for altruistic; selfish comes close but, alas, no.

The best idiom this contributor has come across to describe what Ooker is looking for is enlightened self-interest. No single word I can think of does the job. ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

  • 1
    Enlightened self-interest is related but it doesn't convey "selfishness". It is about "what comes around comes around". If you help others, you are also helping yourself. On the other hand, "Unenlightened self-interest" conveys selfishness but it lacks "unselfish acts". It is hard to find a perfect term for this contradiction actually.
    – ermanen
    Jun 8, 2015 at 15:16
  • @ermanen: I think enlightened self-interest fits the bill almost perfectly, especially if you add in the idea of long-term thinking. Perhaps the reason there's no exact word is that few people will admit to practicing it, or that others practice it. I have a great deal of trouble explaining this to friends, who think I'm a really nice guy. I keep trying to tell them I'm not, I just find that life is so much easier when everyone thinks I am that I invest some time & effort into creating that reputation.
    – jamesqf
    Jun 8, 2015 at 17:28
  • I wanted to say "what goes around comes around" :)
    – ermanen
    Jun 8, 2015 at 18:44
  • Would "hypocritical" suffice?
    – spoorlezer
    Jun 9, 2015 at 16:23

In the study of religiousity, a person's orientation is classified as intrinsic, extrinsic, or quest. From this we can borrow the terms for motivation to behaviors as extrinsic (doing an outwardly selfless act for selfish reasons) or intrinsic (doing it selflessly).

In the context it's borrowed from, attending a church service could be intrinsic (for thinking about the religion) or extrinsic (to make friends, to keep up appearences).

To be clear, the term quest means to be continually searching for "truth" and may apply to someone who switches religions until they feel satisfied, or may discover their own (non-established) beliefs. It wouldn't apply as a third option to being selfish or unselfish.

  • 3
    Can you fill this out a little bit more to be complete. What is 'orientation'? (I think I know by context but please be ... explicit. What does 'quest' mean with respect to this set of three? I want to know what the other option is. Note that 'explicit' and 'implicit' have other much more common meanings in addition to these specific technical ones (in theology)/religious ethics).
    – Mitch
    Jun 8, 2015 at 11:50
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    And maybe highlight the actual term extrinsic Extrinsic... good use of the word
    – WernerCD
    Jun 8, 2015 at 12:48
  • (a) Your answer is the only correct one. But you have to flesh it out for the heathens. (b) the study is of religion or theology, "religiousity" means something else. (c) the context is the same He did it extrinsically. Jun 8, 2015 at 17:23
  • As I understand it, the study of religion can mean many things (such as studying a particular holy book), but the study of religiousity is in the context of the scientific study of the psychology of people who are active in religion. So the term religiosity refers to people who are religious, and there's three types of religious people, called orientations.
    – jmac698
    Jun 8, 2015 at 22:18
  • I'd reckon that intrinsic selflessness is nonexistent, because humans always do things to make themselves happy, the only difference is in what makes a person happy(A "selfless" person is happy because he helps other people without wanting anything back, but still did it for his own happiness) (other than this too literal interpretation its pretty clear what you mean)
    – akaltar
    Jun 9, 2015 at 13:51

Although she appeared to be genuinely interested in helping others, it later became evident all her actions were calculated and self-serving.


All words and or phrases expressing the "hidden motive" work and even give degrees of the selfishness. However, it has been postulated that there is no such thing as an altruistic act since even giving something anonymously can make one feel self righteous or pious. Even Sister Theresa actions lead to her experiencing joy and satisfaction.

If you are looking for a single word for the opposite of unselfish act, in the examples you gave, my choice would be self-serving.


I finally found an answer that wasn't listed! In behavioral economics, this is called signalling. It happens a lot when people want to appear to be conscientious of the environment but they don't really care.


In economics, more precisely in contract theory, signalling (or signaling: see American and British English differences) is the idea that one party (termed the agent) credibly conveys some information about itself to another party (the principal). For example, in Michael Spence's job-market signalling model, (potential) employees send a signal about their ability level to the employer by acquiring certain education credentials. The informational value of the credential comes from the fact that the employer assumes it is positively correlated with having greater ability.

Here is a great podcast which explains it all



As she did not render anonymous service there was some question if she was an altruist or self-serving.


It is okay to be self-serving (like working for a wage) as long as everyone knows the person is self-serving and not pretending to be an altruist.


Good suggestions by colossus and Josh.

I'd like to offer another:

an axe to grind

to have private reasons for being involved in something or for arguing for a particular cause

She had no axe to grind and was only acting out of concern for their safety.


  • 4
    I think the definition you link to is incomplete. "Having an axe to grind" does imply being involved in something for private (personal) reasons, but having private (undisclosed) reasons for doing something doesn't imply you "have an axe to grind". Usually it means you're pursuing some grudge or personal conflict, not just that you have something to gain. For example a spy has private reasons for being here (to gather intelligence), but you don't say a spy "has an axe to grind" unless they have a personal reason to spy on their target in addition to their job as a spy. Jun 8, 2015 at 13:00
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    "She had no axe to grind and was only acting out of concern for their safety." -- wouldn't usually be said of someone who selflessly gave their time to teach road safety, but might be said of someone who reported a child to their parents for crossing the road carelessly. If she'd "had an axe to grind" it would mean she wanted to get the child in trouble with the parents for some reason, not that she wanted to profit from the gratitude of the parent for her ostensibly selfless act. Jun 8, 2015 at 13:06

some of the words I could think of :


premeditated scheming intent

  • 1
    Hi, and thanks for taking the time to post under this question. It's great that you want to help. However, this answer doesn't really seem to be a full answer. When answering it's best, in the case of single-word-requests, to give a good explanation why the word you're suggesting is a good one. If necessary quote and reference a dictionary. Jun 9, 2015 at 9:25
  • Sure thing! I suggested what I believed but I guess I have long way to go on learning.
    – alpa
    Jun 9, 2015 at 16:24
  • You can edit your answer to include the reasoning behind the word's you're suggesting. Jun 10, 2015 at 11:16

An unselfish action made for selfish reasons is called an unselfish action. An example of this would be donating to the poor.

An unselfish action made without any selfish reason is called an irrational action. An example of this would be donating to the rich.

  • 1
    'An unselfish action made for selfish reasons' is strictly speaking a contradiction in terms (and not an oxymoron). Jun 8, 2015 at 9:04
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    "An unselfish action made without any selfish reason is called an irrational action. An example of this would be donating to the rich." No, it is a purely unselfish action. Another example would be donating to the poor, but doing it anonymously, so that your reputation is unaffected. Jun 8, 2015 at 11:11

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