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Is Greed Really Good?

September 5, 2013

By Christopher Burris (St. Jerome’s University, Canada) & John Rempel (St. Jerome’s University, Canada)

“Personal growth” has long been a buzzword and a sought-after goal in self-help circles. Over the years, the concept has gained traction and credibility within both positive psychology (e.g., Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005) and the social psychology of close relationships (e.g., Aron & Aron, 1986). In both contexts, “growing the self” has been viewed as a good thing – a process that benefits not only the self but also others. The more we thought about this, however, the more we questioned whether motivation to “expand the self” must be yoked to concern for others’ well-being. Indeed, we found it rather easy to imagine situations wherein those who are focused on enlarging their perceived domains of influence would find regard for others’ well-being to be irrelevant at best, and a hindrance at worst. Thus, an unchecked desire for self-expansion could well have negative consequences for others. As the late social commentator Edward Abbey once put it: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”

The cellular metaphor was particularly interesting to us, in that we had previously developed Amoebic Self Theory (AST; Burris & Rempel, 2010), which proposes that fundamental human motives can be understood as psychological articulations of basic physiological needs. That is, just as a single cell must “eat, retreat, and excrete” to grow and survive physically, so must the human self acquire stimulation and sustenance, resist external threats, and forcibly expel internal threats in order to grow and remain psychologically viable.

Guided by AST, we developed a self-report measure, the Engulfing Self Scale (ESS), and used it to explore the implications of a form of self-expansion in which self-benefit takes priority over the well being of others (Burris, Rempel, Munteanu, & Therrien, 2013). Paralleling previous AST-inspired research that explored individual responses to threat (Burris & Rempel, 2004), the ESS was designed to measure acquisitive tendencies across AST’s three domains of the self: seeking out diverse sensory experiences (bodily engulfment), having an impact on others (social engulfment), and carving out a niche in the world that is “one’s own” (spatial-symbolic engulfment).

Although we suspect that humans need some minimum gratification of the self-expansion motive in all of these domains to remain psychologically healthy, if the desire for “more” in any domain trumps regard for others’ well-being, we also suspect that problems – at least for others – will arise. Indeed, as we undertook our research, we anticipated that the potential negative implications for others would be more abundant when the domain under consideration was more expansive. Thus, because much sensual gratification can be pursued with relative independence, we expected the least negative implications for others associated with stronger bodily engulfment motivation. In contrast, because what we refer to as the spatial-symbolic domain extends well beyond the physical body – potentially encompassing a broad range of objects, places, and resources – we expected stronger spatial-symbolic engulfment motivation to be associated with the most pervasive negative consequences.

Across four studies (Burris et al., 2013) we found bodily engulfment to be generally benign as expected, and that the problematic aspects of social engulfment were generally restricted to interpersonal contexts. In contrast, spatial-symbolic engulfment motivation was positively correlated with a breadth of problematic indices such as psychopathy, Machiavellianism, narcissism, a sense of entitlement, willingness to justify group inequality (economic and otherwise), greed, and valuation of power. It also predicted reluctance to expose a cheating group leader when doing so would threaten one’s own positive outcomes, greater justification of a looter’s behavior when prompted take his/her perspective, and greater justification of self-serving reward allocations after defeating an ostensible competitor. Moreover, spatial-symbolic engulfment was negatively correlated with the personality traits of agreeableness and conscientiousness, the endorsement of other-oriented values such as benevolence and universalism, motivation to improve oneself, and (for those involved in an intimate relationship) acknowledgment that one’s partner enriches one’s life.

These results seem to offer clear support for our intuition that a desire to expand the self can be pursued without regard (or, perhaps, with willful disregard) for the well-being of others. In reflecting on this research, one of the most academically interesting – and personally chilling – aspects is the fact that the items comprising the Spatial-symbolic subscale of the ESS are quite tame, even mundane. For example, the highest loading item (that is, the one that consistently tapped the “core” of spatial-symbolic motivation in our research) was: “No matter what I’ve got, I always want more – I’m just that kind of person.” This speaks volumes, for it suggests that much of the interpersonal and intergroup nastiness wrought by individuals may stem from a simple, unquenched (unquenchable?) appetite for “more.”

Thus, our research strongly questions the interpersonal or societal benefits of an ideology that finds virtue in self-serving acquisition. Remember Gordon Gekko’s (as played by Michael Douglas in the film Wall Street: Pressman et al., & Stone, 1989) charismatic proclamation: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures, the essence of the evolutionary spirit”? His appeal to Darwinian survival principles notwithstanding, our findings suggest that a self-serving appetite for (especially material and territorial) acquisitions that facilitate the symbolic expansion of the self has consistently negative implications for the world beyond the acquisitive individual. To put it simply, greed is NOT good.


Author Information

BurrisChristopher Burris is a Professor of Psychology at St. Jerome’s University, in the University of Waterloo. In addition to research stemming from Amoebic Self Theory, he is involved in ongoing projects concerning such diverse topics as consciousness and transcendent experiences, evil and hate, religious apostasy, and concealment of sexual impulses.

RempelJohn K. Rempel is an Associate Professor and Chair of Psychology at St. Jerome’s University, in the University of Waterloo. In addition to his research on the self, he studies a wide range of relationship processes including trust, power, love, hate, attributions, empathy, evil, sexuality, sexual violation, and partner influence on health decision-making.


References

Aron, A., & Aron, E. N. (1986). Love and the expansion of self: Understanding attraction and satisfaction. New York: Hemisphere.

Burris, C. T., & Rempel, J. K. (2004). “It’s the end of the world as we know it”: Threat and the spatial-symbolic self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 19-42.

Burris, C. T., & Rempel, J. K. (2010). If I only had a membrane: A review of Amoebic Self Theory. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4, 756-766.

Burris, C. T., & Rempel, J. K., Munteanu, A. R., & Therrien, P. A. (2013). More, more, more:

The dark side of self-expansion motivation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 578-595.

Pressman, E. R., Lustig, B., Donner, R., Milchan, A., Kopleson, A., Marshall, F., et al. (Producers), & Stone, O. (Director). (1989). Wall street [motion picture]. United States: 20th Century Fox.

Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.


Image Credit:  © Christopher Burris & John Rempel

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