Is Greed a Natural, Fundamental Human Trait?

Is Greed a Natural, Fundamental Human Trait? August 16, 2016

Patheos_-_Pie-eating_contest_2003-Enh We so often hear the darker side of human behavior – atrocities like war, terrorism, violence, and corruption explained (or perhaps explained away) as simply due to some primal aspect of human nature. If we evolved from savage beasts into civilized beings, or so the rationale goes, those darker impulses are always bubbling beneath the surface. It is as though, if left to our own devices, our natural tendency would be to take, to compete, to kill — therefore we must restrain ourselves as a society with religion, civil laws, and punishments.

In this political election season, with all of the focus on economic inequality, one of these impulses, one of the “Seven Deadly Sins” that is getting much attention is “greed”. We hear much about inequality, the greedy billionaire class, the “1%”, the disparity between CEO pay and that of the average employee, golden parachutes, bailouts, the “takers”.

When seeking to understand this, and how and whether it might be addressed, we often hear the discussion-ending conclusion: “Well, that’s just how people are. Human nature is greedy – we always want more. Let’s just pass a few more laws.”

However, when considering other human needs, most have a limit, a satiation point. When thirsty, we drink until we are no longer thirsty. When hungry, we eat. When tired, we sleep until rested. When cold, we warm ourselves. All of these have a natural limit – and lead to disease when those limits are not respected.

So what is it that drives the seeming limitless, insatiable nature of greed? I suggest that greed is not a native biological or psychological impulse but rather is a symptom. It is an indicator that one is uncertain or confused about what one’s true need is, and therefore one ends up pursuing objects, activities, or goals that do not satisfy the primary need. Yet, not knowing what else to do, the default strategy is often to pursue still more of the same, in hopes that “more” will do it.

In some cases this strategy works, and that is probably why we cling to it. If one sandwich does not satisfy hunger, a second sandwich may well do so. However if one eats in pursuit of a different goal – to assuage boredom or depression for example – the goal will not be met, and “greedy” consumption and obesity are the result.

Something similar occurs in the case of abstract goals that appear benign in a general way, but have no objective satiation point. Fame, power, and wealth are some examples. While the first two do have some limits (celebrities who can no longer go out in public, competitors for power), wealth, as measured by money, has no apparent limit – more always seems better. This is so because money itself satisfies no need but rather is seen as a universal claim-ticket for the satisfaction of (almost) any other need. If in the moment one is unclear about one’s true needs and wants, well, piling up more claim tickets in the meantime may seem like a compelling strategy.

Psychological Roots

There is a phenomenon in behavioral psychology known as “secondary reinforcement”. If a neutral stimulus is regularly associated with something desirable, the neutral stimulus itself will eventually take on the reward value, even apart from the “primary reinforcer”. (You have likely heard of the “Pavlov’s Dog” experiment in which dogs were conditioned to salivate to a bell that had been associated with the presentation of food.)

In human culture, a powerful example of a secondary reinforcer is money. In and of itself, modern money is useless, yet due to its perceived status as a universal claim-ticket for goods, services, and experiences, it is commonly valued more highly than anything it can actually buy. Some people will steal, kill, or literally sell their body and soul for money, whereas they might not do so simply for a fancy watch or sports car.

If the above is not pernicious enough, it is further amplified by a second behavioral principle: “intermittent reinforcement”. If a particular action always leads to a reward, should that reward stop coming, the behavior will quickly die out. For example, if you put a dollar in the vending machine but the soda or candy bar fails to emerge, you will likely stop putting money in (at least until the circumstances change). However, if you’ve learned that the reward comes only intermittently – as with a slot-machine at Las Vegas – you may persist in the behavior until you need a 12-Step program for gamblers.

So, does money buy happiness? If it seems to do so intermittently, once every tenth or hundredth time, you may find yourself stuck in lifetime cycle of borrowing, accumulating, and spending.

Unfortunately, in the West, we’ve evolved a social economy that pretty much depends upon the above. As “self-made” men and women, we no longer have time to enjoy the natural rewards of friends, family, and community. We are taught to see these as competitors or distractions as we struggle on to become the next great success story. This leaves an emptiness that then renders us susceptible to the tidal wave of images in advertising, film, television, news, and general culture as to what makes for a happy life. Yet because these do not fulfill the primary need, by default we are condemned to an endless cycle of accumulation and consumption. This I believe is the essence of Greed.

Is There an End to Greed?

If greed is a symptom, then ideally there would be a cure. And I believe it is really quite simple (if not always easy): to grow in awareness of one’s true needs and wants — and what will truly meet them. Is it the Ferrari or is the respect that one believes a Ferrari might bring? Beyond that, is it respect or is it the love and acceptance that one might hope follows from respect? And then, is it love and acceptance or is it ultimately the inner conviction that one is an innately worthy, valuable being, with a full and equal right to exist among other innately valuable beings?

Were the latter sufficiently realized, I suspect the world might look quite different.


Image: Pie-eating contest, Seattle, Washington, 2003.
Item 144037, Fleets and Facilities Department Imagebank Collection (Record Series 0207-01), Seattle Municipal Archives.

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