A Dutch study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that greed may be good for our pockets but comes at a psychological cost. The findings revealed that greedy people tended to have higher household incomes but lower life satisfaction.
Greed can be described as a constant desire to acquire more of something, often to the detriment of others. Throughout history, greed has been denounced as an unfavorable characteristic that is disadvantageous for society. Across religions and around the world, the trait is typically viewed as immoral and sinful.
Psychology research has largely backed up this negative view of greed, showing that greed is associated with harmful behavior as well as dark personality traits. However, few studies have examined whether greed might be associated with positive outcomes for the individual. For example, an economic view suggests that greed can be advantageous when it comes to generating productivity and wealth.
“Greed has a very negative connotation; nobody aspires to be labelled ‘greedy.’ It is often condemned and suppressed because it regularly causes harm to others and society as a whole,” said study author Karlijn Hoyer, a lecturer at Tilburg University. “Still greed is ubiquitous, suggesting that it must have some benefits for the greedy person him/herself. This made me wonder, is there anything that greed is good for?”
Hoyer and her colleagues conducted a study to assess the life outcomes associated with being greedy. To do this, they obtained data from a longitudinal study involving a representative sample of Dutch individuals between the ages of 16 and 95. For the current analysis, the final sample consisted of 2,367 participants.
Participants filled out questionnaires that included measures of dispositional greed and the related concept of self-interest. The surveys also measured psychological outcomes (life satisfaction), economic outcomes (personal gross monthly income and gross household income), and evolutionary outcomes (number of biological children, duration of one’s longest relationship, and number of sexual partners).
The survey results revealed that higher greed was associated with higher household income, but not personal income. Being greedy was also associated with having a higher number of sexual partners, but a lower number of biological children and shorter romantic relationships. Finally, being greedy was associated with lower life satisfaction.
“Being greedy has some positive and some negative outcomes for the greedy person him/herself: greed is (somewhat) beneficial for economic outcomes (more income), but mixed for evolutionary outcomes (less children and shorter romantic relationships, but more sexual partners), and unfavorable for psychological outcomes (lower satisfaction with life),” Hoyer told PsyPost. “Furthermore, greed differs from self-interest in relation to these outcomes. In short, greed may be good for income but bad for happiness.”
Hoyer and colleagues note a few reasons why greediness might lead to higher earnings at the household level. It could be that people who are greedy push their partners to work harder and to earn more money. Alternatively, greedy people might choose partners with more money in the first place. A third variable could also be at play — for example, having fewer children to look after might leave greedy people with more income since parents are able to spend more time and energy at work.
“Most of the time when people refer to greed, they refer to the strong desire for more money and material things,” Hoyer told PsyPost. “It becomes clearer and clearer, however, that greed can also be experienced for other nonmaterialistic desires, such as status, friends and sex. I found it surprising to see that greed has such a big influence on people’s social romantic life: greedy people has less children and shorter romantic relationships, but more sexual partners.”
The finding that greedy people are less satisfied with their lives might be explained by the fact that greedy people are perpetually dissatisfied with what they have and constantly chasing more. It could also be an indirect effect through less satisfying social relationships. For example, greedy people were found to have smaller families and shorter-lasting romantic relationships which may have a negative effect on well-being.
Notably, the concept of self-interest revealed a different pattern of findings, which showed fewer significant associations with the measured outcomes. Still, self-interest and greed were found to be independently correlated with lower life satisfaction, which suggests that “being greedy and being self-interested makes you unhappy in their own way.”
“Even though this research gives some valuable insights in the effect of greed, the data is correlational. Therefore, we can not determine the direction of the effects,” Hoyer noted. “For example: Do people become unhappy in life, because they are greedy? Or do people become greedy because they are unhappy?”
“Future research should further investigate this and should also take a look at the underlying mechanisms — e.g., is it a deliberate choice of greedy individuals to have fewer children, or is this a result of unsuccessful relational bonding (because greedy people are not the nicest people to be in a relationship with)?”
“Greed is not only bad, it also has some benefits for the individual (e.g., higher income) as well as society as a whole (stimulating productivity and economic growth),” Hoyer added. “Ideally, future research should find a way to temper the bad sides of greed and take advantage of the good sides of it.”
The study, “Greed: What Is It Good for?”, was authored by Karlijn Hoyer, Marcel Zeelenberg, and Seger M. Breugelmans.