David Anderegg

David Anderegg Ph.D.

Young Americans

Little Greedheads

College kids remember their earliest transgressions

Posted May 10, 2008

I recently carried out a fascinating little exercise in my developmental psychology class. We were talking about models of moral socialization, or how children learn to do the right thing. To make it more concrete, I asked my college students to share the earliest transgression they remembered: what they did wrong, what happened to them, and how they felt about it. This is an interesting, if somewhat risky, undertaking: some college students still feel humiliated and/or angry about how they were treated for relatively minor transgressions- and really, what major transgression can a three- or four-year-old accomplish? We shared stories of all kinds of misdeeds and a wide range of corrections, including a surprising amount (for a progressive college) of corporal punishments. But the really interesting part was the theme of greed as an integral part of most of these misdeeds. A majority of the stories of childhood misdeeds were all about children being driven mad with greed, usually as a result of watching television. One young man pitched a fit in the grocery store because he had to have the sugary cereal he saw so alluringly portrayed in a television ad. A young woman lied her way to a hotly-desired Barbie. Another broke into the Christmas presents early to get her hands on her dream doll (which she desperately wanted because she saw it advertised on television). And on and on and on. It is not news, of course, that little kids want attractive toys. Those of us of a certain age all studied an endless stream of "delay of gratification" experiments in which snazzy toys were always the bait for kids who just couldn't keep their hands off them. But my little experiment pointed out to me the enormous role of advertising in the felt snazziness of those toys. My students remember that their very first sins were driven by media-induced desire. One can only feel for their parents, forced to defend their familial values ("Son, we don't eat Sugar Googoo Flakes for breakfast") against the onslaughts of market-tested commercial pitches aimed directly at their kids' pleasure centers. Was it ever thus? Have kids always, throughout history, experienced such unrelenting greed? The Ten Commandments tell us not to steal or covet, but the things enumerated as covet-worthy were useful things, like thy neighbor's ass. God didn't name Barbies or Sugar Googoo Flakes as things we should not covet, but then, the ancient Israelites didn't have TV to contend with. Lucky them.