How Psychologists Promote Greed
Do you hate greed in others and rationalize it yourself?
Posted Oct 09, 2012
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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, imammalthebook.com, and my free Powerpoint presentation, It’s Not Easy Being Mammal (bottom right corner under "Research Papers").