Are humans naturally greedy?
Published Feb 19, 2006 7:55 PM
Are human beings “naturally” greedy?
Is greed so much a part of human biology that it will always shape human social
This age-old question came up once again in an article circulated
by Bloom berg News, the big business news service. (bloomberg.com)
article highlights the work of Stanford University psychology professor Brian
Knutson who has used modern brain-imaging technology to try to associate regions
of the brain with specific behaviors. In experiments by Knutson and colleagues,
volunteers pretend to buy and sell stocks while the imaging machine called a
functional MRI (FMRI) records the brain areas activated.
suggest a connection bet ween activity in “pleasure center” areas of
the brain and the action of making a profitable stock sale and even risk-taking
behavior in anticipation or hope of gain, such as gambling. (Brain areas
considered pleasure centers have been linked to activities such as sexual orgasm
and cocaine use.)
In the experiments, losses and fear of loss activated a
different area of the brain— one that has been associated with painful
The researchers believe their findings may help explain why
investors, like gamblers, often take irrational risks in the same way that
people will often carry out what they know is risky and even dangerous behavior
for a pleasurable high from sex or drugs.
The Bloomberg business editor
commented: “At a neurological level, our species’ desire for money
may resemble our desire for sex…” and “our brains lust after
money, just like they crave sex.”
In this interpretation,
capitalist greed is biological—-“hard-wired” by our brains
neural circuits. But this view is just a high-tech version of the very old, and
mistaken, notion that greed is part of “human nature.”
scientific basis for solidarity
Human beings are able to experience
pleasure and pain, and for the most part, we pursue activities that give
pleasure or lead us to anticipate pleasure, and we avoid activities that give
pain or fear of pain.
But we must separate the question of how we feel
pleasure and pain (the biology of the brain) from the question of what
stimulates those feelings.
Burn your finger with a match and you’ll
feel pain. Pleasure can come from a drink when you’re thirsty or food when
But under capitalism people learn that money can buy
almost anything. Making money can become associated with pleasure just as surely
as a bell can make a dog salivate, once the dog has learned that the bell means
For the big capitalists, greed—the desire for more and more
wealth beyond the necessities of life—is what made them capitalists in the
first place. If that did not drive them, then they would not have succeeded as
capitalists, or they might pursue some more useful occupation.
different social system that valued equality rather than inequality, getting
satisfaction from accumulating more wealth than one person could ever use would
be considered a sickness—something like kleptomania.
finding that greed (under current social conditions) can stimulate feelings of
pleasure similar to sex or drugs does help explain why capitalists seem to
actually lust after profit and power, and why this lust will lead them to seek
short-term gratification even if the long-term results of their action may be
disastrous. The experiments by Knutson offer one explanation for corporate
opposition to environmental controls, as the tycoons of oil industry and other
capitalists risk global warming and the long-term destruction of human life on
earth rather than give up even a portion of their current profits.
pleasure and avoiding pain is a biological part of human nature. Greed is not.
But seeking pleasure and avoiding pain are not uniquely human. This behavior is
shared by all living things that can experience the sensations of pain and
Are there, then, any characteristics of human biology that let
us behave in a way that is substantially different from other animals? That
perhaps give us hope for human solidarity?
About 10 years ago,
neuroscientists discovered a type of neuron (nerve cell) in the brains of
monkeys that the scientists labeled “mirror neurons.” These
specialized neurons activated the very same way whether a monkey did something
itself or simply saw another monkey do it.
In other words, these
specialized nerve cells allowed monkeys to imitate others and even to share the
experiences of others. With further study, scientists found that humans have
even more highly developed mirror neurons than monkeys.
These cells help
humans learn by watching others—an enormously useful ability that enables
human social interaction. Even more importantly, these cells may be the
biological basis of human empathy, of the ability to experience someone
else’s emotions, including pain or pleasure, as if the emotions were
one’s own. Human language and other social and cultural tools appear to
depend on these neurons.
It may turn out that the number and
sophistication of human mirror neurons are an evolutionary
development—along with an opposable thumb—that has enabled humans to
develop a social and cultural life far beyond our closest animal
If so, then the truly essential biological part of human nature
is the capacity to experience the feelings of others as much as our own
feelings. Rather than greed, this capacity for solidarity may be what makes us
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