Wired to want? Neuroscientists reveal that our brains may be programmed for greed.

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Is greed actually good, as Gordon Gekko famously declared in the movie ‘Wall Street’?

Biologically speaking, it may be. The negative character trait we now call “greed” was also a primal impulse that aided survival throughout our evolutionary history. That urge to work, fight, protect, and collect possessions, tools, food, meat, shelter, and even a mate kept people alive.

But at a certain points, we’re not being chased by hordes of barbarians nor in danger of being eaten by a lion every day. So just as the fight or flight reflex is still acute but often misdirected in our modern society, we can’t simply attribute our greed to Darwinian necessity.

In fact, studies reveal that people are happier as they earn more money but fascinating enough, only up to a point.  Tests performed by Ed Diener, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania, found that our happiness is “capped” after a certain point of material and monetary gain.

Of course the basic ability to provide food, clothing, shelter, security, peace of mind, and a modicum of comfort and stability contributes greatly to levels of happiness, but only up to about $70,000 in income. After that, there is a clear case of diminishing returns – called the ‘Futility Limit’ by Herman Daly in Scientific America – with reported levels of happiness actually declining the more money people earn after that. After we reach Daly’s Futility Limit, we are faced with a new set of feelings: stress, anxiety, and isolation created by social gaps.

In fact, scientists and researches have pinpointed to the chemical reaction in our brains that makes greed – or its manifestations, like acquiring money or material possessions – feel so good. Greed is fueled by dopamine released into the nucleus accumbens, the pleasure centers of our brains, the same hormone that aids various functions from voluntary movement to involuntary reproductive urges, and a lot in between.

How strong is the flood of dopamine into our brains when it comes to money, possessions, and gain? It’s downright addicting. By using magnetic resonance imaging, neuroscientists have found that monetary gain triggers the same brain chemical circuitry as when addicts partake in cocaine, heroine, nicotine, overeating, or gambling. After a while, it’s not just the dopamine release itself that drives our behaviors – even the anticipation of that dopamine release is something to strive for. And just like Pavlov’s dog salivating when a bell was rung in the famous classical conditioning experiment because he knew it meant chow time, we are motivated by the anticipation of a dopamine release – not just the after-effect.

Therein lies one of the fundamental reasons greed is so prevalent for human beings, especially when they already get a taste of success. Just like we are motivated by the anticipation of reward, we also feel let down, disappointed, or “empty” when the reward doesn’t show up. If Pavlov rang the bell but failed to feed his dog even once or twice, you bet he’d have one disappointed mutt on his hands. We may not be dogs, but our actions and unconscious responses to learned stimuli are just as strong – including our greed.

Soon, even the threat of financial loss or anticipation of being denied a monetary reward causes a shift of chemistry in our brains, initiating the same fight-or-flight circuitry as physical attacks that jeopardize safety, causing a release of adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream that elevates heart rate, blood pressure, and expands alertness.

Therefore, the saying “Once you fly first class, you can’t go back to coach,” isn’t just folly, taking on a new level of truth. Once we experience that dopamine rush from satiating our greed – making more money, closing the deal, winning the lottery, experiencing a better of living, etc. – we’re wired to want those rewards again and again, just like the aforementioned cocaine or nicotine addict. If we don’t get those things, we’re left feeling far worse than when we never had them before.

In short, greed begets greed. We want, but once we get, we want more, or else we feel really bad about it.

An article by Mark Buchanan in New Scientist explains our greedy nature in detail. According to Buchanan, money and material gain can be perceived in our minds as something with deeper significance or meaning, making people feel self-sufficient and powerful – attributes that come with a bevy of socially-accepted rewards in our modern society. One study found that “just handling paper money could reduce distress associated with social exclusion… acting as a surrogate friend.”

Scientists have even found a strong link between social status and greed, showing (according to the research) that “the upper classes are less cognizant of others, worse at reading other people’s emotions and less altruistic than individuals in lower social classes.” Now what we don’t know is if these people became wealthier because of they were more predisposed to greed than the average person, or if they became greedier the wealthier and more successful they grew.

Just like all addicts, those who are greedy go through an enabling process of justification, entitlement, ego self-aggrandizement, abandonment of the interests and feelings of others, and detachment from reality. Over time, the rewards and wins need to be bigger just to release the same amount of dopamine and recreate the same positive feelings. They need a bigger “hit” of money and financial success in order to maintain the same “high.”

While not excusing their behavior, this neuroscience of greed does explain why the newly rich often take head-scratching risks and partake in grossly unethical behavior to achieve rewards they don’t even need.

Considering this insight, it’s no surprise that of the 17 banking-related national crises around the world since 1974, almost all were preceded by periods of extreme financial growth and prosperity, real-estate booms and Bull stock markets, giving big-earners a shot of dopamine that sometimes drives them to literal madness. We have to look no further than the Bernie Madoffs and Too Big to Fail Wall Street CEOs who were knowingly and deliberately driving our economy to failure just to feed their insatiable greed, referring to themselves as “Masters of the Universe” along the way.

The good news is that while some of us may be more predisposed to greed and other narcissistic, ego-driven behaviors, we are by no means dominated by our brain chemistry. In fact, just like any addict can re-learn responses to the roller coaster of rewards and punishment to modify their behaviors, we can also identify our greed and learn new strategies that leave us happier and healthier, while still financially secure. 


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