Greed Is Good?

Is greed the only way that societies can function?

Posted Feb 22, 2017

Greed is good! Sharing is for Communists and losers! Such maxims are widely articulated in the capitalist/free-market world most of us inhabit. Do they capture the essence of human social behavior?

Anthropologists and psychologists investigated this issue in subsistence societies and in young children.

Hunting by Committee

In subsistence societies, poor hunters were made fun of and had trouble getting girlfriends. Yet, successful hunters behaved with extreme modesty. They avoided bragging and belittled the game they brought home. They did not need to brag, however, because they enjoyed high social status, much like the sports stars in modern societies who are not always so modest.

The important point to bear in mind is that hunting is a highly cooperative endeavor where the proceeds are shared equally amongst the families of the hunters (1).

The secret to this cooperation is that hunting is a highly uncertain occupation and an individual might go for weeks without bringing down game. This would be catastrophic for a solitary hunter but works fine if about ten hunters pool their efforts. Cooperation in this case functions as an insurance system against extreme uncertainty in the food supply.

Women likewise cooperate in subsistence societies and often gather food in groups providing additional security for young children who are vulnerable to animal attacks.

There is very little greed in subsistence societies and a great deal of cooperation.

From the Mouths of Babes

The cooperative inclinations of young children were tested in the laboratory in experiments that compared 2 ½-year-olds to mature apes (2). This might seem like an odd comparison but it turns out to be reasonable because toddlers have similar cognitive abilities to adult chimpanzees and orangutans. At least that is true for spatial memory, ability to gauge quantities, and understanding of causality.

In a test of social learning, subjects saw a demonstrator accomplishing a difficult task such as getting food out of a long narrow tube. Toddlers were very good on this test but chimps and orangutans scarcely benefited at all from the demonstration and scored very low on social learning. This implies the people are a great deal more attentive to what other members of the species are doing so that even young children can imitate practical problem solutions.

So even small children are good at fitting in with what others are doing but are they motivated purely by greed? This hypothesis was tested in an experiment where young children were forced to choose either between mimicking what someone else did, or exploiting a luckless opponent for personal gain. The results were clear: children strongly favor copying others over Machiavellian exploitation (3).

This suggests that human intelligence may have evolved in the service of cooperation rather than personal greed. Evidence related to the intelligence of other species seems to point in the same direction.

Cooperation as a Function of Intelligence

Cooperation is generally more complicated than greed because participants must avoid getting taken advantage of by others. This can involve insight into the intentions of others that calls for considerable brain power. Possibly for that reason, elaborate forms of cooperation are characteristic of highly intelligent species such as killer whales who hunt cooperatively, just as humans did.

One feat of cooperation by these predators involves working together to upend a small ice floe upon which a hapless seal seeks shelter (4).

Given that human societies are more complex than those of other primates in terms of the amount and diversity of social contacts, it could be that humans evolved greater intelligence so as to deal with this complexity. Of course, living in a more developed country actually boosts intelligence (5).

Moreover, the evidence from developmental psychology suggests that our increased intelligence was not designed to advance selfish interests. So whatever economists might say about the wealth-generating properties of capitalist greed, such propensities are hard to find in subsistence societies.

For our remote ancestors greed was emphatically not good. It caused social conflict whereas cooperation was rewarded with high status, affection – and sex.


1 Barber, N. (2004b). Kindness in a cruel world: The evolution of altruism. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

2 Hermann, E., et al. (2010). The structure of individual differences in the cognitive abilities of children and chimpanzees. Psychological Science, 21, 102-110.

3 Henrich, J. (2015). The secret of our success: How culture is driving human evolution domesticating our species and making us smarter. Princeton, NJ: Princeton university Press.

4 Orcas attack seal movie, Youtube.

5 Barber, N. (2005a). Educational and ecological correlates of IQ: A cross-national investigation. Intelligence, 33, 273-284.