Saturday, November 22, 2008

When greed motivates behavior

For a start, let me apologize. Writing is a responsibility – a tremendous one. And when I undertook writing this blog, it was never my intent to do anything but deliver on that responsibility. My initial goal was to write at least 100 articles per year, with at least 50% of them on tennis, and the rest loosely divided between “life” and “love”.

And then along came John chipmunk-cheeked McCain, with Sarah-the-Bitch Palin, and Barrack Hussein (
yes, Hussein, get over it) Obama, and I got more than a bit distracted. And for that too, I apologize.

My intent on starting this blog was to write at least one article every 3.65 days. Really, it would be greedy of you to expect more.

Yes I have greed on the brain. I think that it is a massive factor to explain the precipice that we seem about to fall off of. And yes I know that a preposition is not a good thing to end a sentence with. But how else could I make my point?

I have an ex-boyfriend who believes that greed is the best explanation for men’s infidelity. I probably need to mention that he was not a psychologist. But inasmuch as he was dating one, he frequently felt moved to try to attempt to give his two cents on explaining human behavior. And he felt that psychologists had become so enamored of anxiety and depression and anger as motives for human actions that we had simply lost sight of baser motives such as envy, and coveting, and greed.

What triggered his observations was a series of in-depth columns I had written on infidelity in relationships. He endured the series and the unending commentary it had inspired – and then told me that I was completely wrong.

Infidelity in his view had nothing to do with discontent or desire – twin motives I had put forward to explain why men cheat on the women they claim to love. Instead, in his view, it was all about greed. He felt that infidelity was inspired by wanting more than your fair share. He argued that in my feminine naiveté, I had completely missed the truth that some men were just greedy, had been greedy since childhood having never learned to be content with their portion. He maintained that such men would spend the rest of their lives wanting to acquire more and more and more. He believed that base greed more than any other emotion adequately explained their behavior.

I must admit that at the time, I took some solace in his strong language, thinking (stupidly) that his self-awareness was a protection against his ever being inspired by a similar motive. Silly me. He was not speaking about himself. He was commenting only on a blind spot in human motivation that he honestly felt that psychologists had completely missed. In hindsight, I think that he was right. Let’s not count the levels.

It was hard not to ponder on greed as the price of oil kept rising and rising throughout the North American summer. You and I may have started taking the bus but someone(s) somewhere must have been profiting by this epiglottal squeeze. Who profits when a specific commodity suddenly becomes scarce or unaffordable? Who benefits when something needed overnight ends up out of the reach of the average? Really, this is all so reminiscent of Frank Hebert’s “Dune”, isn’t it?

I have long had an interest in altruism – the very opposite of greed in many ways – and have tried to keep track of some of the research that examines human selflessness. There is a great deal of research to back up the assertion that altruism is innate to human nature, that its absence needs to be explained, not its presence. What then about greed?

Greed has been defined as the selfish desire for the pursuit of money, wealth, power, food, or other possessions, especially when denying the same to others. Are we born greedy or do we learn to want more than our fair share? And if greed is learned behavior, how is it learned? Can it be unlearned? Are there gender differences on this dimension? There is so much about this motive for human behavior that we do not know.

I do believe that the greed of a few is a principal factor in the economic death grip that has seized hold of the world economy. It was greed that made some American realtors and brokers sell subprime mortgages to the clueless poor who would soon discover that they would not be able to afford their shiny new houses. It was greed that motivated banks to buy and sell these questionable pieces of paper, collapsing them into bundles of worthlessness that could be floated on the free market. And as the meltdown continues to affect us all, somewhere there are a handful of Shylocks who continue to count their pounds of flesh.

A lot of brilliant psychologists are among the staff of those advertising firms that persuade us to buy unnecessary commodities. In fact the best advertising influences us to blur the boundary between wants and needs. In truth, we can all live more healthily without either Pepsi or Coke, but a lot of money has been spent in persuading us to choose between the two. Greed will always remain a motivator for behavior because it enriches and profits the conscienceless gluttons among us.

1 comment:

happygeek said...

"A lot of brilliant psychologists are among the staff of those advertising firms that persuade us to buy unnecessary commodities."

Really?! Interesting info.