The Psychological and Economic Roots of Greed


greedy man

Note: The following is an adapted transcript of a spontaneous talk.

If you ask people why there is so much suffering in the world, most of them are likely going to tell you that it is because of greed.

You know, why is there so much poverty? Well, because some people are so greedy that they hoard so much money for themselves that hundreds of millions of other people don’t even have enough to buy bread to eat. Or, why are people cutting down rainforests? Well, because they are so greedy that they are willing to destroy the very lungs of the earth in order to make profit.

But nobody asks: Where does greed come from? What is the source of greed? Are people born greedy? Are babies greedy? People don’t ask this sort of questions. Instead, they’re ready to blame greed and demonize greedy people. But by doing so, they don’t really understand what greed is and what makes people be greedy.

What if greed arises because of certain conditions that exist? If that is the case, even if we take the power away from those greedy people, even if we deprive them of the money that they have made, still other people are going to pop up and take their place, because the conditions are left unchanged.

Let’s have a look at where greed comes from. Greed arises when we have some deep unmet emotional needs, and we try to meet them by seeking objects that cannot achieve that. But sometimes those objects can provide us with a psychological substitute of what we need. They can provide us with a temporary sense of joy or happiness. But they can never give us what we truly need. They’re not the real deal. They’re not what we’re actually looking for.

For example, a lot of people are seeking to acquire a lot of money so that they can feel happy, or secure, or successful. But no matter how much money they have, they never feel happy. They never feel really successful. They never feel secure.

I remember a study that I recently read, where researchers asked millionaires with a net worth of US$25 million or more (some had much more — the average net worth was US$78 million) if they feel secure. The millionaires said, “No, we’re not secure.” And so the researchers asked, “How much more money would you like to have in order to feel secure?” and many of them said “About 25% more.” So, they have over US$25 millions, and they’re still not secure. Yet they think that if they have a few more of them, then they’re going to find security.

The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said that money is abstract happiness, and that what people are really deep down looking for is concrete happiness. Therefore, no matter how much money they have, they’re never going to be happy.

Now, there are also economic reasons that make us greedy. For example, in our economic system money is created out of debt. That is because when money is created, it’s essentially given out as loans. And there’s almost always interest attached to those loans. So, people who get those loans at some point have to return them. But on top of that, they have to pay the interest. What that means is that in our economy there is more debt than money.

So, people are thrown into a situation where they have to compete for never enough. And since there is never enough money, someone’s success is going to be the failure of others. And, of course, because money is scarce, we don’t know how much money is enough for us to be secure. As a result, we try to accumulate more and more money, because who knows if we are going to have enough after 2 years or 10 years or 50 years? Who knows if our kids or grandkids are going to have enough money?

That explains why so many people strive to acquire a lot of money. Money is necessary for our survival and the security of our families. And when we consider that in our culture success is measured mostly by how much money we possess, then we see how a person can become greedy.

If we look at those factors, we will see that greedy people are not to blame. Of course, I’m not saying that we should not hold them accountable. I’m not saying that they are not responsible for their behavior. But they’re not evil, and by demonizing them, we are projecting an image on them that prevents us from seeing them as they truly are. We don’t see their true colors. Hence, we cannot understand them. We cannot understand where they’re coming from and the causes of their greedy behavior (such as the psychological and economic ones we just explored). And if we attack them without addressing the root of the problem, then, as I pointed out earlier, even if we win over them, other people are going to take their place and act just like them.

It is like a pimple that pops out of your skin because of the crappy food that you eat. You can try to treat the pimple, but if you keep on eating crappy food, then more pimples are going to pop out of your skin. In order to treat that skin condition, you have to go and address its root causes. Only then will you get rid of the pimples.

So, yeah, greed is like a pimple, my friends.

Image credit: Ryan Harvey

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