It turns out that greed may not be so good after all. Even Gordon Gekko seems to be coming around.
On Monday, the National Academy of Sciences published the results of a series of studies conducted by psychologists from the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Toronto that found what many of us already knew: Greed is in fact quite bad, and those most likely to celebrate it find it easier to lie, cheat and, yes—even take candy from a baby—than the less materially driven among us.
The researchers—who were led by a Berkeley doctoral candidate named Paul Piff—conducted seven individual experiments in an effort to determine what effect, if any, social status has on ethical behavior. Piff and his colleagues used a standard gauge of socioeconomic status based on wealth, occupational prestige and education to show, among other things, that people from higher income groups are far more likely to drive aggressively, cheat at games of chance, behave underhandedly in business negotiations, and, when given the opportunity, take things that don’t belong to them.
In one experiment, participants were invited to help themselves to a jar of individually wrapped candy destined for children in an adjacent lab; those who were identified as upper class took roughly twice as much candy as their lower-status counterparts.
The researchers have a few theories about what’s going on. For one thing, wealthy people simply have an easier time getting away with things. They enjoy comparatively higher levels of privacy than those lower down on the social strata, which means there are fewer prying eyes around to scrutinize their behavior. On top of that, the rich have more and better resources for dealing with the fallout when they do get caught, which ultimately serves to mute the consequences of bad behavior. (When it looked like Dominique Strauss-Kahn could get in real trouble for playing touchy-feely with a hotel maid, he was able to call high-profile, New York attorney Benjamin Brafman to the rescue. Question: What if, instead of a dignitary, Strauss-Kahn had been a bellhop? Answer: He’d probably still be in jail.)
But is simply being able to get away with unethical behavior temptation enough to engage in it? Piff doesn’t think so. When I asked him to elaborate on his findings, the researcher—who’s written dozens of articles and papers on how social class influences everything from sense of humor to charitable giving—said people from society’s upper classes share a common “psychological experience” defined by self-interest that leads to feelings of entitlement and exclusivity. In other words, not only are the rich and powerful more inclined to selfishness, but on a subconscious level, they actually believe they deserve more, even if they have to break a few rules to get it.
“I think that, in general, as a person’s station in society increases, that is, as their position in the socioeconomic hierarchy increases, their self-focused tendencies also increase,” said Piff. “The more wealth and status a person has, the more likely they are to see themselves as deserving of that status, perhaps even entitled, independent of others, powerful, and so forth.”
Piff seems to be saying that greed is a self-fulfilling prophecy that beats a path to moral corruption: The more you have, the more you want; the more you want, the more you think you deserve; the more you think you deserve, the further you’re willing to go to get it.
According to the report:
“Although greed may indeed be a motivation all people have felt at points in their lives … greed motives are not equally prevalent across all social strata. ..[T]he pursuit of self-interest is a more fundamental motive among society’s elite, and the increased want associated with greater wealth and status can promote wrongdoing.”
Given our heightened sensitivity to economic inequality and the yawning gap between America’s haves and have-nots, it’s no surprise that Piff’s study has been getting a lot of attention over the past few days. And while it probably surprises no one to learn that greed seduces the One Percent to engage in disproportionately high amounts of unethical behavior, on a macro level, the same corrupting influence has been driving the American economy into the toilet for at least the last four decades.
Throughout most of history, greed has been treated as a destructive force in human society; but by the 18th century, greed got a reprieve, was reborn as “rational self-interest” and took a seat of sacred honor in post-Enlightenment western political thought, where it has stayed ever since.
That worked out pretty well as long as societies were relatively insulated and your neighbor’s success really did raise your ship as well (you know, the days when U.S. companies actually employed U.S. citizens and paid U.S. taxes).
But in today’s economy, where globalization, neoliberal trade policy and a 2,000-plus-page tax code have made it possible for a corporation to be American in name only, self-interest is no longer rational and Adam Smith’s invisible hand now looks more like a fist, squeezing what little juice is left from our country while leaving the pulp to rot.
That’s not to say the free market can’t be saved, but it will take work.Recently Al Gore and veteran investment manager David Blood put forth a proposal for a sustainable capitalism that seeks to mitigate greed by, among other things, doing away with mechanisms—like quarterly earnings reports—that fuel short-term speculation. That’s certainly a start. But the powers that profit from greed by scavenging on the crumbs of others’ failure are sure to resist.
For the civic-minded ancient Greeks, greed (pleonexia) was recognized as a root cause of civil strife. In his first epistle to Timothy, the apostle Paul writes: “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” Dante reserved his Fourth Circle of Hell for those guilty of “avarice and prodigality.”
And yet here in America we continue to celebrate greed and the pursuit of unrestrained profit as the be all and end all of good economic policy.
I don’t know about you, but I think there is something fundamentally wrong with that.