Greed is one of seven basic character flaws or negative personality traits. We all have the potential for greedy tendencies, but if they become an enduring, dominant pattern then one is said to have a “chief feature of greed”.
Greed is the tendency to selfish craving, grasping and hoarding. It is defined as:
A selfish or excessive desire for more than is needed or deserved, especially of money, wealth, food, or other possessions 
Other names for greed include avarice, covetousness and cupidity.
Greed is generally considered a vice, and is one of the seven deadly sins in Catholicism—a greedy person is one who values material acquisitions and possessions more than God.
Less judgementally, but in the same ballpark, Buddhists regard craving as a hindrance to enlightenment. Craving is a delusional state of seeking happiness through acquiring material things.
As with the opposite chief feature of self-destruction, greed is a faulty approach to life. The person with greed is driven by a fundamental sense of deprivation, of something lacking within, and becomes fixated on seeking comfort by getting the one thing that will eliminate that feeling.
That one thing could be money, power, sex, food, attention, knowledge … just about anything. But it will be the one thing on which their entire greed complex is fixated. The greedy person’s basic strategy is to dedicate himself or herself to acquiring as much as possible of that thing.
Components of greed
Like all chief features, greed involves the following components:
- Early negative experiences
- Misconceptions about the nature of self, life or others
- A constant fear and sense of insecurity
- A maladaptive strategy to protect the self
- A persona to hide all of the above in adulthood
Early Negative Experiences
In the case of greed, the early negative experiences typically consist of insufficient or inadequate nurturing in early childhood.
The situations causing such experiences could be natural and unavoidable, such as the death of a parent or living in a time of famine. Alternatively, the situation could be deliberately imposed on the child, such as willful neglect. Another example would be a mother who is too off her head on drugs to look after her child.
Whatever the circumstances, the effect on the child is a sense of deprivation, of never having enough.
All infants are born with a natural desire for love, nurture, care, attention and interaction. In some cases, however, the source of such things—notably the caregiver—may be absent or unavailable. Perhaps not all of the time, but enough for the infant to experience the lack. Enough for the child to become terrified of never getting enough of what he or she needs.
Another factor in the origin of greed is the availability of substitutes. Perhaps the parent, out of guilt, perhaps, repeatedly provides gifts in the form of money, toys, chocolate, TV. In effect, the parent says “You cannot have me but you can have this instead.” Ultimately, the substitute is always inadequate. No amount of TV can make up for lack of human contact. No amount of chocolate can make up for lack of genuine love. But the child learns to make do with whatever is available.
From such experiences of deprivation and lack, the child comes to perceive life as being unreliable and limited, but containing the missing ingredient for happiness:
My well-being depends on me getting all that I desire.
I cannot truly be myself, a whole person, until I get what has always been missing.
Life is limited. There isn’t enough for everyone. I miss out because other people are taking my share, getting what is rightfully mine.
Once I have it all, I will never lack anything ever again.
Over time, the growing child might also become cynical about what life has to offer:
All I ever get are unsatisfactory substitutes.
I cannot trust anyone to give me what I need.
If I am given a gift, there must be something wrong with it.
Everything falls short of my requirements.
Based on the above misconceptions and early negative experiences, the child becomes gripped by a specific kind of fear. In this case, the fear is of lack—of having to go without something essential as there may not be enough of it to go around.
What exactly “it” is depends upon the individual’s own idea of what it is they really need, but it will be something specific like love, attention, power, fame, money, and so on.
Because of this constant fear, the individual will obsessively crave the “needed” thing. They will also tend to envy those who have that thing.
The basic strategy for coping with this fear of lack is to acquire, possess and hoard the “needed” thing. Typically this involves:
- obsessively seeking the chosen substitute for the original lack;
- compulsively acquiring it;
- hoarding it;
- preventing others from acquiring it;
- criticising what is available (in the hope of eliciting something better);
- blaming others for failing to provide enough.
Finally, emerging into adulthood, the chief feature of greed puts on a socially-acceptable mask which says to the world, “I am not selfish. I am not greedy. I am not doing this for me. See how generous I am. See how my possessions make other people happy.” In fact, the greedy person is never happy so long as the possibility of lack remains.
The mask of greed also manifests as envy. The chief feature thinks to itself: If it isn’t socially acceptable to crave and grasp and hoard, I shall go around criticising others who crave and grasp and hoard more obviously than me. That way, people won’t suspect how bad I really am.
All people are capable of this kind of behaviour. When it dominates the personality, however, one is said to have a chief feature of greed.
Positive and Negative Poles
In the case of greed, the positive pole is a state which may be referred to as DESIRE, EGOISM or APPETITE, while the negative pole is one of VORACITY or GLUTTONY.
+ desire / egoism / appetite +
– voracity / gluttony –
Egoism (not to be confused with egotism) is state of self-centred acquisitiveness: I will have what I want and need. It is the opposite of altruism.
Why is this a positive pole? Because in moderation, satisfying one’s own needs and desires is part of what life is about. We are not all here to be self-sacrificing saints. We are here to make choices, and most of our choices will be driven by our own needs and desires. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with having a “healthy appetite”. In fact, it is healthier to be driven by one’s desires rather than one’s fears.
Voracity or gluttony is a state of excessive egoism, unjustified acquisitiveness. Not only does it cause one to acquire more than is ever going to be necessary, it can also lead to others being deprived of the same thing.
Moreover, once the negative pole of greed takes control of the personality, it does not care who it hurts in the process of getting what it “needs”. All things are secondary to the fear of lack. This is why, of all the chief features, greed is the hardest on others in one’s life.
For an excellent book abut the chief features and hw to handle them, see Transforming Your Dragons by José Stevens.