the scientific reason why greed makes literally everything worse
Greed is a sin for which you will be punished in the afterlife, say religions. But greed is also good because it motivates people to work and pursue grander and grander ambitions, say the movie Wall Street and two generations of motivational speakers and pundits who happily got the exact opposite message than the film was trying to convey. Today, as we’re living in the Second Gilded Age, greed very much rules the world with an iron fist, and assets of the wealthiest 26 people on the planet exceed the combined holdings of nearly 4 billion of the world’s poorest.
Obviously, there’s a reason why people get greedy and support greed despite all of us growing countless childhood admonitions against it, and Dutch researchers wanted to figure out what it is that makes greedy people keep wanting more and more, and what happens to them as they endlessly pursue material wealth. The upshot? It doesn’t do them many favors. While they tend to have higher household incomes and more sexual and romantic partners, they also end up with fewer kids and long term relationships, and lower overall life satisfaction.
It’s important to note the household income part. Greedy people don’t necessarily make more money, but they often tend to either marry rich or push partners to make more so they can buy more material possessions or indulge in more luxury experiences. The researchers ain’t saying they’re gold-diggers, but, no, wait, that’s exactly what they’re saying. And being never satisfied with what they have, they’ll push others away, meaning fewer relationships, less romance, and more sexual conquests that leave them still feeling empty and dissatisfied.
sometimes greed is not about just money
Now, studying shallow, materialistic social climbers and bed-hoppers is unlikely to yield a happy population thrilled with how life is going across the board, so the researchers expanded their definition of what they considered greed. Not limiting themselves to a desire for more cash or flashier cars and first class plane tickets, they considered a seemingly insatiable drive for just about anything as a manifestation of the same vice. Sex, status, power, influence, friends, if you don’t have the ability to say “that’s enough for me,” you were a viable subject.
When accounting for other out of control desires, the study found very similar outcomes. Fewer real friends, shorter relationships, fewer kids, more depression, and less satisfaction in exchange for access to a material bump. In short, selfishness and inability to stop seeking ever better from good, to borrow an axiomatic Russian phrase, automatically makes you unhappy. It will then be up to you to decide if the money or the number of notches on your bedpost makes up for that general sense of malaise and that something is still missing, or still just isn’t enough.
At this point, you may be thinking “fine, that sounds like a them problem,” but it’s not as simple as that. Unfortunately, today, government policies, financial systems, and labor laws are being dictated by extremely greedy people who will never, ever, ever be satisfied with the tens, if not hundreds of billions of assets under their control. Even worse, at that level, they’ve reached the kind of wealth scientifically proven to pretty much obliterate basic empathy and shame. If they have to hurt us in their pursuit for infinite wealth, it won’t even register.
how do we survive the world that greed built?
Logically, it makes perfect sense that at some point, there will be a limit to how much money a person could ultimately make. Resources are not infinite, and neither are people or machinery, so eventually, growth for the sake of growth, money for the sake of money, and production for the sake of production will have to come to a halt. Even the universe seems to have a point at which there will be no new stars. A socio-economic ordered obsessed with infinite growth and infinite riches flies in the face of causality and mathematics.
Even if we were to put that fundamental problem aside, it seems like fewer and fewer spoils of modern economies shared with average people over the course of the past four decades will backfire. A lot of hungry people with work that either can’t feed and house them, or no work at all thanks to automation and politicians’ disdain and inaction, and a lot of time on their hands to seethe, ends extremely badly as history showed us time and time again. In these extreme cases, selfishness and an inability to say enough becomes everyone’s problem.
Ultimately, this is why selfishness is such an important research topic these days. We are quite literally flirting with polluting ourselves into near-oblivion just because it’s impossible for some people to say they made enough money burning fossil fuels and making toxic chemicals, and let us invest in cleaner alternatives or improve social services to prepare for the future because it’ll delay their financial gratification for just a bit. And should the worst scenario come to pass, they are ready to die in a luxury bunker instead of giving up a sliver of their wealth until they make it back, and then some. Now that’s a pathology that deserves professional attention.
See: Hoyer, K., Zeelenberg, M., Breugelmans, S. M. (2022). Greed: what is it good for? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. DOI: 10.1177/01461672221140355