Marriage and Family Therapist
Cyndi Sarnoff-Ross is a licensed psychotherapist with almost twenty years of clinical experience in the fields of clinical psychology and organizational management. She has worked extensively with a wide variety of…
Are Humans Basically Greedy?
Posted in Healthy Relatio... by Cyndi Sarnoff-Ross on Dec 26, 2012
We want to believe that people are basically good and that when they experience good fortune, they will choose to pay it forward. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, amidst all the Holiday spirit, but according to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, this just isn’t the case. The results showed that people are more likely to return greed with greed than they are to reciprocate generosity.

Previous studies have centered on good behavior but this study focused on the entire spectrum of behaviors. They discovered that when people were the recipients of generosity they were no more likely to act in generous ways themselves than those who had been treated normally or equally. Of particular interest was the fact that those who were targets of greedy conduct tended to pass on that negative behavior to someone else. So the greediness became somewhat contagious. The results were the same for both men and women.

After conducting a number of different experiments the authors concluded that sadly, being treated negatively had more of an effect on future behavior than being treated well. This notion is consistent with a number of other psychological theories, which are based on the idea that negative stimuli have a longer and more significant effect than positive stimuli. This doesn’t mean that positive reinforcement is completely ineffective. As a clinician, I am a strong believer in positive incentives both in parenting and within the context of a relationship but apparently when it comes to generosity and greed the dark side wins out.

People sometimes say that if they won the lottery they would take care of everyone in their extended family or donate most of the money or share it with their friends. Unfortunately this rarely, if ever, happens which seems to go to the point of the study. The larger issue here is that those who feel slighted seem to be more likely to slight others, which doesn’t bode well for human nature in general. The study’s authors said that, “To create chains of positive behavior, people should focus less on performing random acts of generosity and more on treating others equally – while refraining from random acts of greed.”

I happen to be an optimist and so despite what this study says I will still encourage my kids to act generously and to reap the personal satisfaction that ultimately comes from being a kind person.

- Cyndi


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Maybe if we weren't bombarded with messages that greed is good(our self esteem is based on what we own), and the reality that if one cannot provide for one's self(and family) that one is a parasite and undeserving, maybe we'd be more generous.

We are a product of our environment.
By loneralone  Jan 02, 2013
I know that religion should never be mixed with science, but I remember reading in the Holy Book that, "Man was created restless. Touched by adversity, he is fretful. Touched by good, he is ungenerous. Except the prayerful."
By drwho546  Dec 28, 2012
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