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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 life?

This age-old question came up once again in an article circulated by Bloom berg News, the big business news service. (bloomberg.com)

The 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.

The findings 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 experiences.

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.”

A 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 you’re hungry.

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 dinner.

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.

Under a 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.

The scientific 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.

Seeking 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 pleasure.

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 relatives.

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 distinctly human.