Sam Allardyce has resigned from his “dream job” as manager of the England football team, partly because he discussed accepting a seemingly dodgy £400,000 deal with undercover newspaper reporters, but the psychological puzzle remains; why the pursuit of yet more cash, given he was on a £3 million-a-year contract plus bonuses?
Revelations of widespread corruption involving backhanders and ‘bungs’ in a sport awash with money, by managers and agents already being paid astronomical sums, resonates with greed in other professions, such as banking, where an insatiable appetite for yet more, apparently led to risky behaviours with calamitous consequences.
Sam Allardyce’s apparent greed may have lost him his job and plunged English football into a crisis, threatening the fans’ faith in the game, but was it not also the greed of financiers and their reckless decisions to line their wallets, which produced the subprime mortgage crisis in the USA and the debt crisis in Europe, evolving into a global economic catastrophe?
Is greed a growing problem in modern times?
Patrick Mussel and Johannes Hewig from the Julius Maximilians University Würzburg Department of Psychology in Germany, have just published one of the most up-to-date and in-depth investigations of the psychology of greed.
Ravenousness can be for more than money, but an insatiable desire for more can apply to excessive want for power, status, food, or sex. Athletes have recently been accused of dodgy use of performance enhancing drugs under the cover of medical exemptions – as some of those accused were already champions anyway – if proved true would these allegations attest to a kind of greed when it comes to winning?
Insatiability seems to land people in trouble because it’s not merely about wanting more, but seems to include incredibly strong drives leading to ignoring warning signs that their voraciousness is going end in self-destruction.
Psychologically, greedy people may therefore be running away from something unpleasant (some kind of state of deprivation), not just hurtling toward something desirable. Does a feeling of never having enough become an itch which it’s impossible to scratch for deeper psychological reasons?
If greed is a desire to get more at all costs, this explains the appetite for risking everything. It’s this self-destructive element, not just merely wanting more, which lies at the heart of the psychological enigma that is gluttony.
The authors of this new study, entitled, ‘The life and times of individuals scoring high and low on dispositional greed’, point out that greed is also related to status and power, and therefore could be viewed as a wider problem of our whole society, beyond the merely personal.
For example, in a capitalistic culture, income and wealth determines social and economic status. This is signalled, or becomes visible to others, through ownership and display of expensive and prestigious objects.
The desire for more therefore becomes a strong striving for status.
So one psychological account of greedy people is that they are chronically insecure and constantly need more, to prove to others how worthwhile and deserving of respect they are.
This new psychological study published in the ‘Journal of Research in Personality’ used a variety of risk and economics experiments to explore the personality of the greedy.
The investigation found the greedy scored low on the personality trait of ‘agreeableness’, which could be interpreted as a tendency to be compassionate, cooperative and helpful, as opposed to being argumentative. Because of these more unpleasant aspects of personality perhaps the greedy become less popular – so are they compensating by trying to impress you with having more stuff?
Greedy people were also found in this study to be more assertive (which may explain why they rise to the top of organisations and society), but greedy people also had a strong tendency to be more mean and selfish.
The authors of the study were surprised at how strongly greed was linked to certain aspects of psychopathy, including in particular, deficient empathy, disdain for and lack of close attachments with others, rebelliousness, excitement seeking, exploitativeness and empowerment through cruelty.
This study finds that greedy people therefore pursue pleasure and satisfaction without regard for, and at the expense of others.
This perhaps explains the trail of disaster and suffering that greedy people leave in their wake following their rapaciousness, producing not just a personal catastrophe but a disaster for others. This was the case with the financial crisis, with all the consequent unemployment and personal suffering involving millions across the globe.
Then there is also the suffering that must be the lot of those in close relationships with the greedy when everything suddenly goes bad and a previously glittering career ends in ruins and humiliation.
This new study has also uncovered that an avaricious appetite for desirable stuff appears incompatible with a solid desire for interpersonal closeness, empathy or altruism.
This appears at odds with conventional economic views where greed is seen as a desirable and an inevitable feature of a well-regulated, indeed, well-balanced economy.
Previous research found that greed is positively associated with competitiveness and being more productive, suggesting that greed may be helpful for getting ahead.
If earning a lot of money is an indicator of success, surely it is because this accomplishment implies desirable personal qualities such as autonomy and independence. We admire people who have a lot because it looks like they deserved it, having struggled nobly for it.
However, if constant striving for yet more stuff is at the expense of others, this now starts to look greedy.
Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen are podcast editors for the Royal College of Psychiatrists and also now have a free app on iTunes and Google Play store entitled “Raj Persaud in Conversation.” See: itunes.apple and play.google. Also, Raj Persaud’s new novel is ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’.