Are You Greedy?

Does greed do more harm or good? And just how greedy are you?

Posted May 27, 2020

This article summarizes key research and tips from the “Greed” episode of our podcast, Talk Psych to Me. Available on AppleSpotify, and wherever you get your podcasts.

“Greedy” is generally a word we use to describe others. But can we benefit from applying it to ourselves? And is greed the root of all suffering or all progress?

Let’s start with a definition: Greed is generally described as an insatiable and selfish desire for more. It could be an endless drive for more money, more fame, more knowledge, more toilet paper, or more power. The operative word is more. To be greedy means to never reach a point of satisfaction. 

How greedy are you?

To better understand your own greed levels, answer the six questions below from the Dispositional Greed Scale (DGS). Keep in mind that greed is related to but distinct from materialism. So it may help to look at these questions through the lens of your personal greed triggers. For some it might be money, for others friends, and others (like myself) it could be an unquenchable craving to learn new things, collect new experiences, and start new projects. 

Rate yourself on a scale of 1-5, with 1 meaning you strongly disagree and 5 meaning you strongly agree:

  1. I always want more. 
  2. One can never have too much money. 
  3. As soon as I have acquired something, I start to think about the next thing I want.
  4. It doesn’t matter how much I have. I’m never completely satisfied.
  5. My life motto is “more is better.”
  6. I can’t imagine having too many things.
  7. Actually, I’m kind of greedy.

Now add your answers and divide them by 7 to get your score. In a sample of 6,092 American and Dutch participants, psychologist Terri Seuntjens found that people scored an average of 3.87 across these seven questions. How do you compare? And what does it means to score high (or higher than you expected)? 

Is greed good?

Despite greed’s notable position among Christianity's Seven Deadly Sins, and equally bad standing in most other religions, it isn’t immediately clear whether greed does more harm or good. As Adam Smith, a founding thinker of capitalism, wrote, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard for their own interest.”

Perhaps if we were easily contented, we would live in a more peaceful world, but also a world with less progress. Many of us would be happy to part with the archetype of the greedy, suit-clad Wall Street investor, but would we also want to live in a society without the tireless inventor, scientist, or artist? Then again, this may be an unfair question to pose since we can only answer through the lens of our real (greedy) vs. our hypothetical (greed-free) selves. For better or worse, it’s likely that our species has evolved with some degree of greed as a mechanism for survival.

Does greed cause harm?

While religion points to greed as the source of corruption and unethical behavior, psychology paints a more nuanced picture. Joanne Muñiz studied white-collar criminals who committed acts of fraud even though they were already wealthy — the perfect picture of greed gone too far. What these individuals had in common was a need for recognition, a fear of failure, early-life financial scarcity, and a combination of personality traits referred to as the dark-triad: narcissism (thinking you’re better than everyone), psychopathy (a lack of empathy), and Machiavellianism (the tendency to manipulate others). In short, greed appears to be just one stop on the road to illegal behavior. 

Greed doesn’t seem to be sufficient to cause criminal activity, but how about plain selfish activity? Seuntjens found that people who score higher on the Dispositional Greed Scale tend to place their own interests above others. For example, in an experiment known as the Dictator Game, participants received $10 and had to decide how to distribute it between themselves and another participant, with no negative consequences even if they chose to keep the full amount for themselves. On average, people kept $6.31, but as people’s DGS scores rose, the amount they gave to others declined. 

So, greed prevents us from giving, but it doesn’t seem to cause taking. That said, there is one clear victim of greed that Seuntjens identified in her research: Greed ultimately hurts the greedy. And a higher DGS score goes hand-in-hand with lower life satisfaction.  

Are humans fundamentally greedy?

Given greed’s likely role in helping our species survive and advance, does this mean we are all destined to be at least somewhat greedy? Researchers David Rand, Joshua Greene, and Martin Nowak found a surprising answer to this question. They had participants play a series of economic games that made it easy to track greedy vs. cooperative behavior. They found that when people were told to make a fast decision, their first impulse was to be cooperative. It was only after they were asked to pause and reflect that they were more likely to act in their own best interest. 

In a study of children ages 4 to 6, Erin Sparks, Meghan Schnikel, and Chris Moore found that kids have a tendency toward generosity. And this generous impulse — in this case, a willingness to share their stickers — was heightened when they felt even a slight sense of in-group membership or shared interests with the other children. 

And research consistently reveals that the very act of being generous and helping others simply feels good. In psychology, this phenomenon has been given the nickname “helper’s high.”

So, what’s the verdict?

In short, it seems that most of us are at least somewhat greedy and also at least somewhat generous. This push-pull of selfish motivation and selfless dedication is the balance that has led our species to thrive. Either extreme of too much greed, or too much generosity, throws us and our relationships off balance. Just as excessive greed can lead to life dissatisfaction, excessive selflessness can lead to what psychologist Adam Grant terms “generosity burnout.” 

So, go ahead and strive for more, and keep pushing to reach greater heights. Just pause from time to time to take stock of how far you’ve already come, and find contentment in gratitude. For best results, remove the social stigma of the world "greedy" and try on "motivated," "driven," or "ambitious." And go ahead and give to others. Succumb to the natural impulses of our fundamentally cooperative species. Relish in the joy of generosity. Just pause from time to time to make sure you are not neglecting your own needs or forgetting to savor your own life.  

Last but not least, be sure not to fall into the evolutionary trap of tending to a narrow in-group. Though we survived by focusing on a small tribe, in the modern world, our survival depends on our ability to cooperate on a much greater scale. Especially in times of scarcity, uncertainty, and high stress, when our brains want to treat out-group members as threats, we must deliberately redefine and expand our in-group. Our new in-group, and the source of our generosity, can no longer be confined to the members of our race, ethnicity, or even species. Once we draw wider circles around our identity, our natural urge to give and cooperate will kick in. That's good even for the greediest among us because we’re truly all in this together. 

References

Give and Take by Adam Grant

"Affiliation affects generosity in young children" by Erin Sparks, Meghan Schinkel, and Chris Moore

"The psychology of greed" by Terri Seuntjens

"Spontaneous giving and calculated greed" by David G. Rand, Joshua D. Greene and Martin A. Nowak