The Great Motivator: Greed
I've lived through the best of times and the worst of times. A little over a decade ago, America was prosperous. Unemployment was at record lows. McDonald's was happily paying nearly $10 an hour to burger chefs. The government actually worried about how to spend its surplus tax revenue. There was talk of using the surplus to permanently secure Social Security for the aged or providing every American citizen with medical insurance.
Unfortunately that dream didn't last long, ending not coincidentally with the Supreme Court ruling that put George W. Bush in the Whitehouse on a technicality, despite losing the popular vote to Al Gore in 2000.
A decade of useless wars followed, designed to siphon trillions of tax dollars to military contractors like Halliburton and numerous mercenary armies like Blackwater.
Not wanting to be left out of the feeding frenzy, bankers and financial institutions designed elaborate schemes to rip poor people from their homes, decimating the finances and futures of millions of American families. Adding to the insult, these same bankers used our tax money to pay lavish bonuses to their executives who designed and implememted this financial rape. Then it was the energy corporations turn at the game. While gas prices soared to $5 a gallon for no logical reason, oil companies like Exxon announced 500% increases in annual profits. Today, America is technically bankrupt.
We're now faced with many years of austerity with double digit unemployment, homelessness and hopelessness. The gap between the extremely wealthy and the average struggling American has never been wider.
How bad will it get? Entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare -- designed to protect those who are most vulnerable -- are now on the budget chopping block because wealthy politicians and rich corporations arrogantly refuse to pay their fair share of taxes.
No, this isn't going to be a political story. I'm not going to be blaming anyone for the ills that are consuming the world. I want to make the point, however, that all of these ills -- and many more -- are the result of GREED.
Wars, genocide, starvation and corruption are all symptoms of human greed. But what causes this source of evil and suffering? Do we know?
The Psychology of Greed
Most people think that greed is just an extension of the survival instinct. Like animals, people are concerned about having enough resources to survive times when those resources are scarce. Squirrels hoard nuts for the winter and humans hoard wealth as a guard against an uncertain future. But this view is wrong.
Animals in the wild cooperate in hunting prey. The kill is then eaten by members of the pack in order of group hierarchy. While the pack leaders get the choice pieces, all of the group eventually get their fill. Only when the natural order is disrupted (i.e. being fed by humans in captivity), do we see competitive behavior that we interpret as greed. In reality it is the animal's fear that it will not get enough.
Human greed is inherently different. It is characterized by non-cooperation for the common good and the realization that the greedy behavior hurts others. Indeed, greed is uniquely human.
In the 1980s several experiments [1,2,3] were specifically designed to evaluate why people do not cooperate for the collective good. Is it because of selfish greed or, like animals, because they fear they will not get enough through the cooperation?
Humans have the intellect and empathy to realize when their behavior hurts others. This superior insight separates humans from animals and should foster a sense of social responsibility. Psychologists have tried to understand what motivates a person to ignore the social consequences of accumulating resources that go beyond reasonable future needs. Their studies have revealed some surprising facts about greed.
Greed and Self-Esteem
A breakthrough in understanding human motivation came by way of the Terror Management Theory (TMT) which proposes that humans, by virtue of our superior intellect, are uniquely capable of understanding our mortality. This fact directly opposes our survival instinct and sense of self-preservation to the extent that it causes subconscious terror. Terror is defined as an unresolvable conflict that causes anxiety.
Psychologists have evolved the Terror Management Theory  to include what they call the Anxiety Buffer . This buffer mediates the terror of mortality by cultivating self-esteem. The devastation of being a temporary being, with all of its ramifications of worth and purpose, is mediated by our sense of being a meaningful part of the world we live in -- our world view.
This theory has been well tested [7,8,9,10,11,12] by subjecting people to subtle reminders of their mortality, then measuring such things as their propensity for greed and their increased need to feel part of some larger culture that perpetuates a world view in which our mortality is insignificant. Our self-esteem is measured by the degree to which we conform to this cultural world view .
It has been argued that our present culture places a high value on greed, materialism and wealth (Greenburg 1990). It is only natural then that, when we are reminded of our mortality, we should unconsciously strive to achieve the goals of this culture. So potent is the terror of our mortality that we are blinded to the detrimental effects of our greed on others. All of this happens as a function of our Anxiety Buffer which minimizes death anxiety before it reaches consciousness.
Near Death Experiences: Death Reflections
Psychologists refer to subtle reminders of death as Mortality Salience. These can be questions about a dead family member, inquiries about our own funeral plans, photographs of dead people shown for only 1/24th of a second -- in one experiment, Mortality Salience was measured merely by interviewing subjects near a funeral home. In most experiments the subjects do not consciously know that they have been reminded of their own mortality and report feeling no change in emotions. But the effects of Mortality Salience on their behavior are sometimes quite dramatic.
In studies dealing directly with human greed [12,13,14,15], Mortality Salience has been found repeatedly to elicit selfish, non-cooperative behavior when dealing with finite resources. But psychologists were puzzled by the reactions of Mortality Salience on a particular group of people who have at some time had a near death experience (NDE). These people did not show the typical responses . Rather, they were characterized by unselfishness, cooperation towards the common good and were markedly non-material.
It is theorized that Mortality Salience elicits fear of the "unknown" in most people. But in people who have experienced death already, this is a known phenomenon -- what has been termed a Death Reflection. With the Death Reflection, the Anxiety Buffer is not needed, implying that the terror of death has been overcome.
Anxiety Buffers and PTSD
While we are faced with reminders of our mortality on a daily basis, properly functioning buffers are quite efficient at reducing or eliminating death anxiety before it reaches consciousness. But for a particular set in the population, this anxiety is more or less constant. Psychologists have postulated that this condition, known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is brought about by a disruption of the Anxiety Buffer, due to some horrific trauma, which has damaged one or both of the essential elements the buffer uses to divert attention on our mortality: self-esteem and faith in our world view.
We are perhaps most familiar with PTSD in war veterans who live with depression and anxiety -- often characterized by over-reactions to everyday stress. What we are just beginning to understand is that this condition arises from an extreme life event that has destroyed one of the most basic aspects of human self-esteem: that humans are superior to animals.
We generally regard the lives of animals as having less value. We use them for food and labor and take pride in our superior intellect and morality; however, in times of war we see many atrocities which can shatter this basic tenet. Human life is devalued. We see that we are no better - often worse- than animals and our self-esteem can be forever shattered.
Our faith in cultural institutions that form our world view can also be shaken by the dissonance of inhumane policies and practices. Patriotism can often conflict with religious beliefs; propaganda can conflict with reality.
With the disruption of one's Anxiety Buffer, death anxiety is unchecked. Sometimes the pain and depression results, somewhat ironically, in suicide or drug abuse as a means of ending the pain.
Resolving the Terror of Mortality
Religious beliefs usually provide an explanation of human mortality that includes a means to continue existence following death. Belief in a heaven or hell is the most common argument against mortality but other faiths describe a "soul" or spirit that will become part of a reality that we are assured will be adequate (although perhaps not understood in our lifetime).
Several studies have shown that religion is only effective in mediating death anxiety in intrinsic individuals (i.e. people who are introspective and internally motivated) and that it has only minimal effects in extrinsics (i.e. people who are externally motivated). 
Some religions do not address the afterlife and therefore foster world views where greed is the only functional means of coping with death anxiety. These religions contribute to the sequelae of war, racism, conflict, and materialism despite attempts to foster cultural morality.
Nationalism and patriotism strive to be effective buffers through the elevation of self-esteem. Pride in one's country or political group, belief that one is part of a "chosen" people or engaging in a social movement all serve to promote the idea that an individual can attain symbolic immortality and rise above the transient, insignificance of human mortality.
Psychologists have noted that people generally prefer to invest their self-esteem in an established group rather than individually. In fact, according to the Terror Management Theory, groups arise from the need to establish self-esteem. Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, Communists, Liberals, Conservatives -- all these serve to accommodate a particular world view that reduces the death anxiety while supporting greedy behavior. In other words, it becomes socially acceptable to behave selfishly and hurt others as long as the "others" are outside one's special group.
Could this explain the selfish acts that we see in the world?
Please share you comments and views on this topic.
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Great and timely story about Greed! Check this out:
Good job... but I don't think you really made the point about how Mortality Salience causes people within their specific cultural group to allow or even encourage atrocities against the vulnerable people who are outside their group. This would explain the things we see and hear about during war where enemy soldiers -- even civilians -- are raped, murdered and tortured for the "enjoyment" of the soldiers. We saw this in the recent Gaza holocaust a few years ago but it has been a phenomenon that has been repeated since human conflict has been recorded.
Yes, we see less violent versions of this today in US politics where rich republucans couldn't give a damned about the elderly or poor because they are the "other people"... but the human suffering is the same.
Anyway, nice try and hopefully, like me, other people reading this will get the point. Thanks.
Just read your story and then went to another site where I found this.
"A U.S. Marine task force is about to be deployed in the war against Somalia, where American drones are stepping up their predations. For the second time in four years, U.S. aggression threatens the lives of multitudes in the Horn of Africa. "A United Nations spokesman describes the food and refugee emergency in Somalia as the 'worst humanitarian crisis in the world,’ with millions at immediate risk."
Viewzone: I am a college student studying for my degree in Psychology. This is the first time I have ever been exposed to the Terror Management Theory. It blew my mind and explains so much more than the sexual motivation I have been taught by Freudian professors. I will surely research this. Thanks for the info.
Gary, BRAVO! This article brought tears to my eyes. I was reminded of Led Zep:
"Yes, there are two paths you can go by
Keep pumping out the truth.
Viewzone. How timely this article is! Look:
OK. A bunch of us were talking about this article and we have a question. Back in the late 60s the Vietnam War was going on and we were all in college and afraid of being sent over there and getting killed. This was what you cann mortality salience - right? But we didn't go with the cultural norm of the day. Instead we created our own. And it wasn't about selfish stuff -- in fact it was quite the opposite. Remember "summer of love" and "woodstock"? So how come that doesn't fit what normally happens. Someone said maybe it was drugs and psychedelic experiences that mimic what you wrote about as "death reflection"... any thoughts on this?
Old Hippy Joe
Gary Great story : http://www.viewzone.com/greed.html
But were you aware that Retired Bishop John Shelby, in his book published in 2001, A New Christianity for a New World, was onto TMT? The title of Chap 3 in this book says it all:
Self-Consciousness and Theism: Siamese Twins at Birth. Basically that the terror of self-consciousness lead humans to create theism (and religion) as a coping mechanism. But that coping mechanism is breaking down and creating the problems we are seeing now.