Monday, November 4, 2019

The Psychology of Greed

Is greed the driver of a booming stock market and explosive budget deficit? Can greed ever be a good thing?

Frequently, various measures of the performance of the world’s largest economy—the United States— make the news. I see blurbs telling me of stunning multiyear highs for the S&P stock index, incredibly low unemployment, and budget bursting deficits. And I wonder about greed.

Is greed the major reason why everyone seems to join the party and ignore the day when debt payments must be paid?

Meanwhile, wise individuals assess their level of greed balanced against their appetite for risk. And some consider the virtue of generosity and their social obligations.

What is Greed?

Greed is a desire to get more and more of things regardless of personal needs. Greed may be situational, but it may also be dispositional—a personality trait. Greed is usually linked to goals of getting more food, money, and material things. The Cambridge Dictionary lists related words like avarice, materialism, and rapaciousness.

Beyond the dictionary list, researchers (for a summary, see Bruhn & Lowery, 2012) find that regardless of national culture, people seek to satisfy five needs: security, shelter, sustenance, sex, and self-expression. Values are related to perceptions of need. In the United States, values include material comfort, wealth, competition, and individualism.

Ambition is a benign term for socially acceptable greed. Greed is ambition beyond the norms of a culture. High levels of greed interfere with personal, corporate, and national well being.

Greed is a biopsychosocial motivational force that appears to be a part of human nature. It isn’t surprising to see some tout the values of greed despite general religious teachings condemning greed.

Greed: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

If I were a famous researcher, I think I would like to write a piece for a major news outlet called Greed: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly because, I believe the answer to the question, “Is Greed a Double-Edged Sword?” (Zhu and others, 2019) is yes. On the one hand, people with high levels of greed aim for higher levels of social status and the associated benefits, which includes a variety of material goods.

The “good” of greed for an employer can be the respect for those in authority who are in a position to control the advancement of the greed-driven employee, not to mention the high job performance. Greedy people want more and never seem to be satisfied— these are the two elements of greed described by Seuntjens, Zeelenberg, van de Ven, & Breugelmans (2019).

The “bad” of greed include the lack of performance when employees view their organisation as not distributing benefits in a fair manner and destructive competition. Greed is also linked to a willingness to take bribes and break rules (e.g., Seuntjens et al., (2019). Bruhn & Lowery (2012) identify the downside using terms like “envy, power lust, exploitation, manipulation, deception, and a sense of entitlement” (p.138).

I also note the work of Gray, Ward, and Norton (2014) demonstrating a “paying it forward effect.” In their studies, people pay forward equality and generosity, though they tend to be less generous. But they tend to excess when paying forward greed and acts of cruelty.

Managing Greedy People and Organisations

Fair play is critical to prevent greed-linked cheating. The findings from Zhu et al. (2019) suggest government and organisational leaders ought to ensure a culturally fair distribution of resources to benefit from the energies of greedy people.

Boundaries are needed at all levels of society to establish acceptable norms for ambition.

Monitor acts of Paying it Forward. It’s important to reward positive acts of kindness and generosity. But it’s equally important to be quick to address the payback of greed and harm, which can quickly lead to harmful relationships and an unsafe culture (e.g., Gray et al., 2014).

Leaders’ public pronouncements of regret may be helpful. Expressing regret about greedy behaviour and unfairness appear to have some impact on strengthening norms about fairness. Conversely, leaders who tout the virtues of greed can influence violations of social boundaries (van der Schalk, Kuppens, Bruder, & Manstead, 2015).

Public exposure of deception is important. National leaders, the press, organisations, and individuals play an important role in exposing the tricks of the greedy who use misrepresentation, lies, and deception to exploit others in their pursuit of goods (Steinel & De Dreu, 2004). A free press and support for whistleblowers are needed to curb measurable harm from the negative effects of greed.

See Creating Surveys to help measure attitudes, values, and behavior in organizations.

See the Dispositional Greed Scale as a measure of Greed.

Also see the related concept of Altruism and the work of Batson.


Bruhn, J. G., & Lowrey, J. (2012). The good and bad about greed: How the manifestations of greed can be used to improve organizational and individual behavior and performance. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 64(2), 136–150.

Gray, K., Ward, A. F., & Norton, M. I. (2014). Paying it forward: Generalized reciprocity and the limits of generosity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(1), 247–254.

Seuntjens, T. G., Zeelenberg, M., van de Ven, N., & Breugelmans, S. M. (2015). Dispositional greed. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(6), 917–933.

Steinel, W., & De Dreu, C. K. W. (2004). Social Motives and Strategic Misrepresentation in Social Decision Making. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86(3), 419–434.

van der Schalk, J., Kuppens, T., Bruder, M., & Manstead, A. S. R. (2015). The social power of regret: The effect of social appraisal and anticipated emotions on fair and unfair allocations in resource dilemmas. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144(1), 151–157. (Supplemental)

Zhu, Y., Sun, X., Liu, S. & Xue, G. (2019). Is greed a double-edged sword? The roles of the need for social status and perceived distributive justice in the relationship between greed and job performance. Frontiers in Psychology.

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