GREED is one of seven basic character flaws or “dark” personality traits. We all have the potential for greedy tendencies, but in people with a strong fear of lack or deprivation, Greed can become a dominant pattern.
What is 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.
Selfish and excessive desire is widely considered immoral, a violation of natural or divine law. For example, “avarice” is one of the seven deadly sins in Catholicism (avarice: pleasing oneself with material acquisitions and possessions instead of pleasing God). And according to Buddhism, “craving” is a fundamental hindrance to enlightenment (craving: compulsively seeking happiness through acquiring material things).
As with the opposite chief feature of self-destruction, greed stems from a basic fear of life. To be exact, greed is driven by a fundamental sense of deprivation, a need for something that is lacking or unavailable.
When this feeling of lack is particularly strong, a person can become utterly fixated on seeking what they “need”, always trying to get hold of the one thing that will finally eliminate the deep-rooted feeling of not having enough.
That one thing could be money, power, sex, food, attention, knowledge … just about anything. It could be something concrete or abstract, real or symbolic. But it will be something very specific on which the entire need-greed complex becomes fixated.
Once that happens, life becomes a quest to acquire as much of it as possible.
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, perhaps enough to threaten the child’s survival.
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.
The situation could be natural and unavoidable, like the untimely death of a parent, or living through a time of famine. Alternatively, the situation could be deliberately imposed, 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, unfulfilled need, of never having enough.
Another common factor in the formation of greed is the availability of substitutes. Imagine, for example, a parent who fails to provide nurturing but – out of guilt – provides lots of gifts in the form of money, toys, chocolate, TV. In effect, the parent says “You cannot have me, you cannot have what you really need, but – hey – 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 love. But the child learns to make do with whatever is available.
From such experiences of deprivation and lack, a child comes to perceive life as being unreliable and limited — but also 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 can also manifest as criticism of others’ greed or selfishness. 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.
The survival instinct in greed
Because the compulsion of greed is usually driven by some early, traumatising sense of deprivation that may be lost to memory, it often manifests only later in childhood, adolescence and adulthood as one of our most essential survival instincts comes into play: competition.
Competition for resources is a universal instinct and one of the most important factors in biology. Different species can compete for the same watering hole, for example. Within the same species, males can compete for the same female, or for “top dog” position.
At an instinctive level we are still like hunter-gatherers who survive against the odds by making sure we have what we need. The cave-dweller within us is still primed to hunt, catch, gather and hoard.
We are also a tribal species who will instinctively take from other tribes as a desperate measure to feed our own. This is pretty much what all post-apocalyptic movies are showing us: take away civilisation, and we soon return to “acting like animals.” (Except that animals, of course, animals don’t usually take more than they need. It’s not a very efficient use of energy.)
Greed in action
Let’s now unpack the elements of greed in action to illustrate how it works and what it feels like.
By definition, greed is a compelling “need” to constantly acquire, consume or possess more of something than is actually necessary or justifiable. You would experience this subjectively as an all-consuming lust, hunger or craving for something (money, sex, food, power, fame, etc…). This might be triggered by suddenly seeing the object of your desire, or an opportunity to go after it. Underlying the desire, however, is a terrible insecurity, a primal fear of lack or deprivation, though this is likely to be more unconscious than conscious. On the surface there is just the compulsion to satisfy the need.
When the “need” is being strongly felt, you become compelled to commit a great deal of time and energy to seeking and acquiring your thing, setting all else aside. The only clear course of action, it seems, is to try and satisfy this longing because, after all, it promises to give you that long-lost sense of security.
Others might question your peculiar commitment and determination, given that it seems you are willing to risk everything over this personal obsession. But you can always find a way to argue the case: “This is important to me. It will make me happy. It will make you happy too. And if I do happen to end up with more than I need, I’ll just give some away… Everybody will thank me for it!”
Sometimes you might achieve success in getting what you seek. And in those moments when the elusive object of your desire is actually in your hands you experience truly intoxicating feelings of triumph and relief.
However, these gratifying moments are all too brief… You feel that the “win” was just not enough. In fact, there is no such thing as enough.
Despite all your best efforts, and despite every success, an abiding sense of security or fulfilment is never reached. The overwhelming desire is literally insatiable so long as the underlying fear is never addressed.
You may then experience frustration at the transience of such pleasure, especially given the investment of time and energy. (“Was it really worth it?”)
You may experience shame and guilt over the damaging effects of your actions upon your relationships, reputation, financial security, etc. (“What was I thinking?” “I’m hurting the very people I love.” “I’m ruining my life when it’s all been going so well.”)
You may feel overwhelming anxiety over the uncertain future (“I’m on a slippery slope to hell”).
All of this has the effect of evoking fear and insecurity, and a compelling need to fill that hole, and so the cycle begins again.
You might experience all these at some level at once, or have different ones in your foreground at different times. Still, it is very comparable to a cycle of addiction, in that the desire becomes harder and harder to satisfy, so the target level of a “win” or a “fix” keeps going up, which in turn requires more and more investment of time, energy and money.
There is also a greater cost to self-esteem, as you become more and more “enslaved” to the need. And of course, a greater cost to one’s other commitments, such as career and relationships, which compete for the same time and energy.
By way of illustration, I came across this NY Times article by a guy called Sam Polk , a former hedge-fund trader, who describes the greed pattern in his own experience:
“In my last year on Wall Street my bonus was $3.6 million — and I was angry because it wasn’t big enough. I was 30 years old, had no children to raise, no debts to pay, no philanthropic goal in mind. I wanted more money for exactly the same reason an alcoholic needs another drink: I was addicted.”
An obsessive pursuit of wealth not only taps into our competitive survival instinct very neatly — seeking, hunting, catching, hoarding, winning, stealing if necessary… It also MAGNIFIES the sensations involved (desperation, excitement, thrill, triumph, reward) and it ACCELERATES the whole cycle, from what may have been days, weeks and even months (to acquire enough food to get through winter, say) to hours, minutes or even seconds (to win a jackpot).
“When I walked onto that trading floor for the first time and saw the glowing flat-screen TVs, high-tech computer monitors and phone turrets with enough dials, knobs and buttons to make it seem like the cockpit of a fighter plane, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. It looked as if the traders were playing a video game inside a spaceship; if you won this video game, you became what I most wanted to be — rich.”
The satisfaction, he says, wasn’t just about the money. Soon, it was more about the power.
“Because of how smart and successful I was, it was someone else’s job to make me happy.”
Note the sense of entitlement to being looked after, a common factor in many forms 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.
How to handle greed?
Greed isn’t simply naked selfishness. It is multi-faceted and multi-layered, with elements that may be buried far below the level of everyday awareness. So if one is to get on top of a pattern of greed then one ought to consider this complexity.
Here are some suggestions, in no particular order:
- Understand that greed while is a compulsion, you still have free will. You have many choices available you you. Try not to justify or rationalise your actions by saying that you have no other choice. You do have other choices, it’s just that you allow the intensity of “need” and the fear underlying it to hijack your mind, overriding your ability to step back and ask yourself, What are my options here?
- Identify how the cycle of greed works within you, if you can. What triggers the craving? How conscious are you of your options? How do you convince yourself and others that your compulsive striving isn’t irrational? What happens when you actually achieve success? Does it always turn out to be just too little, and the elation too brief? Does it soon turn into frustration? Does it deepen your insecurity? Each part of the cycle is a falsehood, a weak link that can be broken.
- Get a hold of the idea “There is no such thing as enough.” See if you can feel its presence in your own mind, or some variation of it. Then affirm to yourself how illogical and destructive it is. See if you can decide for yourself what “enough” is – a specific level of income, for example. Notice any resistance to that and see where it’s coming from (competitiveness? fear of losing? fear of insufficiency?)
- Try to reduce the time you spend looking for opportunities to satisfy the craving. Avoid spending time looking at the things that turn your craving on. Avoid stimulating the desire with thoughts of competing for the prize. For example, who cares what your neighbours earn? — it’s none of your business. Avoid hanging out with friends, relatives or colleagues who boast about their own achievements. Try not to feed any thoughts about getting more and more.
- Instead of giving your attention to things you want but don’t have, be mindful to take real pleasure in what you do have. In other words, don’t just tick the boxes for the things you’ve acquired, then focus on what’s next on the list, but relish the things that you already have, with gusto. If you have a private swimming pool, love swimming in that pool! One of the factors in greed is a disappointment even in great success because of the background thought that there is always more to be had. To avoid that, immerse yourself in the sensory and visceral pleasures of what you do have — let your instincts know that they have been well met at a physical level!
- Also, notice any good things in your life which you did not acquire through your own striving. Some people with an obsessive need for intimacy, for example, may be born into great wealth but not even notice it because they are so fixated on resolving the lack of intimacy. So, pay attention to what you have. If gratitude works for you, express gratitude as a daily exercise. If not gratitude, then appreciation — express (just to yourself is OK) your appreciation for the good things you have. Let the appreciation grow — you will find yourself feel happier.
- Address the underlying dread. See a therapist if necessary, or just try introspection and journal-writing if you have the self-discipline. See if you can identify the “lack” or whatever it is that you fear so terribly. Naming things is empowering. Find the association between this anxiety and your greed-type actions. Know that you have the choice not to act on that fear. You may also be able to shed a realistic light on the fear so that it diminishes – “I used to crave food because I got so little. Now I can afford to feed myself, I know that I’m not going to starve to death as an adult, and so there is no need to gorge on food at every opportunity.” Bring the light of conscious awareness and choice to your inner drives and conflicts.
- Finally, if you are aware of having a compulsion towards greed, try, try, try not to judge yourself too harshly for it. Greed is one of the traps that anyone can fall into. It’s not as easy to embrace as, say, self-deprecation because it so outwardly and blatantly selfish, which is socially unacceptable, even if the individual doing it hates himself for it. But just hating yourself for it solves nothing. However, being able to come to terms with it — to say “I have this problem. It’s like an addiction, but I’m dealing with it. I’m getting on top of it. I’m bigger than this thing. And I’m going to make sure no one is ever harmed by it again, including me.” — that’s heading towards a solution.
For an excellent book abut the chief features and hw to handle them, see Transforming Your Dragons by José Stevens.