How Psychologists Promote Greed

Do you hate greed in others and rationalize it yourself?

Posted Oct 09, 2012

My friends complain about other people's greed, but they seem oblivious to their own. I bite my tongue, but when psychologists do this, I want to speak up. 

Psychologists like to condemn "our society" for greed, but when the common man is greedy they justify and even glorify it. A striking example is “the ultimatum game.” Researchers give $10 to a laboratory subject and invite him to give any amount to a second subject. The rules of the game allow the second person to veto the whole deal if he doesn’t like his cut. Both parties get nothing then. Repeated trials show people tending to veto $3 offers. In other words, they pass up three bucks for the pleasure of depriving someone else of seven.

To me, that's greed, but psychologists call it "fairness." I think it stinks if you're willing to spend money for the joy of sticking it to someone else just because they have more than you. But psychologists attach positive labels to this behavior. They flaunt the ultimatum game as evidence of the human urge for fairness, implicitly saying that it's fair to punish others because they have what you want. You can't study psychology these days without being fed this definition of justice.

The flaw in this thinking would be obvious if you saw it in a child. If your kid threw a tantrum because he got a $3 gift and his brother got a $7 one, and the tantrum sent both gifts flying into the wind, would you praise that child for his fairness? I hope not. I hope you would teach him to focus on his own path instead of preoccuppying himself taking other people’s inventory.

Psychologists may think they are empathizing with the "underdog," but they end up glorifying spite. They imply that anything goes if you feel resentful. Why does this definition of “fairness” go unchallenged? 

Because it makes us feel good. We like to see ourselves in a positive light. When we see self-interest in others, we don't like it. We imagine ourselves above that. But we inevitably stumble on our own self-interest because the brain evolved to promote itself. So we condemn self-interest in people who are safely removed from our social circles, while making allowances for the self-interest of our friends, relatives, allies, and selves. Sigmund Freud introduced the term “projection” for the habit of perceiving negative traits in others when you can’t accept those traits in yourself. Projection is everywhere because the human cortex has trouble understanding the mammal brain it's attached to.

The mammal brain produces neurochemical ups and downs, but has no language to explain why. When something promotes your interests, your mammal brain releases feel-good neurochemicals. Your cortex then looks for evidence of goodness to explain the good feeling. When something threatens your self-interest, your mammal brain releases a bad feeling (cortisol), and your cortex finds evidence to explain it. Other people's reward-seeking leaves you feeling bad while your own reward-seeking leaves you feeling good. Your cortex finds a way to make sense of this.

I am not saying greed is good. I am saying your brain is self-seeking, and when you don't understand this you build an exaggerated sense of deprivation. You notice other people's self-seeking and not your own, so you end up frustrated. Let's look closer at the evolutionary roots of our underdog feelings.

Your primitive brain has a simplistic way of interpreting social relations. It compares you to others and ranks you above them or below them from moment to moment. I am not saying we should do this but the animal brain does it whether you intend to or not. When you're in the one-up position, your mammal brain releases serotonin and you feel good. When you're one-down, your mammal brain perceives it as a survival threat and stress chemicals are released. You have good reason to seek the one-up position. You are only trying to survive. But when other people do that, your sense of relative deprivation triggers neurochemical alarm bells. (Research on serotonin and social dominance: 1 2 3. Dominance does not mean aggression; they are often opposites from a serotonin perspective, as explained here and elaborated in my book I, Mammal.)

“I don’t think this way,” you may say. “I think everyone is equal.” Equality is an abstraction, and the mammal brain does not process abstractions. It strives to feel good. You feel good when you see yourself as an equality-loving person because you feel superior to all those greedy people you imaginee. You get to feel superior without having to acknowledge your own urge to feel superior.

The urge to be special is always there because the serotonin feels good. If you filled a room with people who say they don’t care about status, they will soon form a hierarchy based on how anti-status they claim to be. That’s what mammals do. I’m not saying we should do this. I’m saying that when you lie to yourself about your own self-seeking, you have an exaggerated sense of the self-seeking of others.

When you feel one-down, you feel hostile toward those you perceive as one-up. You can easily find others who share your hostility. With this social support, it’s easy to believe in the reality of your own perceptions. Your can convince yourself that the guy who got seven dollars in this round of the game is out to grab all you have. That feels bad, but as soon as you position yourself as morally superior to him, you feel good. Self righteousness is a way to put yourself on top without the mess and bother of competing for resources.

It’s not easy being a mammal. In the state of nature, you never knew where your next meal was coming from. You could not put anything aside for a rainy day before food storage and money were invented. All a mammal could do was invest today's extra energy in social dominance, because that could improve its access to resources tomorrow. Natural selection built a brain that is always looking for a way to get ahead. If you hate this in people, you will end up hating everyone, and you won’t even know why.

Should psychologists help us feel good about ourselves, or to be honest about ourselves? Honesty can lead to unpleasant truths. The honest psychologist can end up in the one-down position. Psychologists are mammals, too. Social science is social as well as science.

In a follow-up to this post, I'll take a closer look at “prisoner’s dilemma,” another social science research paradigm that attaches ethical labels (like “cooperation”) to behavior that is more honestly understood in mammalian terms. For more about mammalian social behavior right now, check out my website,, and my free Powerpoint presentation, It’s Not Easy Being Mammal (bottom right corner under "Research Papers").