Grinch or Giver? The Psychology of Greed, Gratitude, and Inequality

It is definitely difficult to not be envious of others and the things that others have that we do not. When, however, does envy cross over into greed? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines greed as “a selfish and excessive desire for more of something (such as money) than is needed”. Are some people more susceptible to become greedy than others? And what is the psychology behind the trait of “greediness”? Learn how you can combat greed with self therapy app LIFE Intelligence.

The Difference Between Good Greed and Bad Greed

Although the word “greed” has a negative connotation, there is both good greed and bad greed. Good greed includes self-assertion in a healthy way, with an appreciation of social organization, social cohesion, clear boundaries, and a collectivist outlook. Bad greed includes manipulation, deception, exploitation, and self-entitlement. Many of those who partake in bad greed may continuously desire more and be envious of others. They are also less likely to be constrained by boundaries, and may view people as tools to accomplish their goals. 

Is Greed Dispositional or Situational? 

One study was done to assess whether or not individuals’ perceptions of greed are a unitary trait that affects all situations equally, or whether it is highly variable based on situational factors. In other words, is greed dispositional or situational? 

An assessment tool was created, where eight scenarios were presented that involved potentially greedy behavior. At the end of each scenario, the same five questions were asked with the answer choices being Yes, No, and Maybe. The questions were: (1) Is this person’s behavior greed in your opinion?, (2) Is this person’s behavior morally acceptable?, (3) Would you engage in the same behavior as this person if you knew that you could get away with it?, (4) Would your decision to engage in the same behavior as this person possibly change if you knew that your behavior was hurting others?, (5) Would your decision to engage in the same behavior possibly change depending on your relationships to those affected?

These questions allow the subject to make an initial judgement about the degree of greed present in each scenario. Further, these questions allow subjects to indicate whether or not their decision about the greedy behaviors might change based on various situational factors, such as being caught or harming others. 

Results suggested from the forty eight people that participated in the study that greed is indeed a situational factor. Many respondents also indicated that liking the person or having positive feelings about the organization would reduce their likelihood of engaging in similar greedy behaviors, and that not liking the person or organization might increase their likelihood of engaging in these greedy behaviors. One can also suggest that greed is not perceived uniformly by all people, as participants responded differently to the situational factors in the study. 

The Traits of Greedy People 

According to research, there are some elements that frequently appear in greedy people. One element of greed that appears to be a general belief is that the individual’s happiness is more important than the happiness and well-being of the group. Depending on the situation, a group can be anything, including one’s family, company, or society.

Another element of greed is ignoring or avoiding signs of greed riddled environments. When greedy behaviors are treated as “normal” in an environment, most individuals do not want to be the only ones that point this out. Therefore, in greed riddled environments, people may be more likely to act greedily. A third element in greed is the presence of accomplices. With enough social support and contributors, one can justify many of their behaviors, including greedy behaviors. Another element in greed appears to be viewing people or customers as mere instruments and puppets to be used for their needs and then discarded when finished. Each of these elements increases greedy behavior. 

In other words, people who engage in greedy behaviors separate their needs from those of their group. Their need to acquire more becomes their primary focus over any obligations that they have to society, family, or company. Greed develops in environments where it is considered normal to do such things. In companies, managers and employees alike support and express the loose application of moral and ethical standards in the pursuit of more. In seeing customers as instruments rather than as people, the person places himself outside the confines of normative morals in most societies. In organizations like these, the corporate culture is ripe for fraud.

people who engage in greedy behaviors separate their needs from those of their group

Do “privileged” people act differently towards those that are not as “privileged”?

A fascinating study was done with a typical game of Monopoly. With a flip of a coin, one random participant out of the two were given many more advantages than the other player and was designated as the rich player. The “privileged” player was given twice as much money, when they passed “Go” they collected twice the salary, and they got to roll both dice instead of one, so they were able to move around the board much more. Researchers watched them for fifteen minutes through hidden cameras. The game was clearly rigged, and the two players were quickly able to tell. 

Even though they knew the game was rigged, the rich players started to demonstrate certain qualities as the game progressed. They moved around the board much louder, and actually slammed their pieces down on the board as they moved. The rich players also started to display signs of dominance and verbal celebrations. 

There was also a bowl of pretzels on the side of the table, so the researchers could watch their consummatory behavior. The participants wondered whether or not it was a trick, but the power of the situation surpassed these reservations that they had. The rich players consumed increasingly more pretzels than the poor players. 

As the game went on, the rich players also became ruder to the poor players, and started to belittle them and their measly amounts of money. They were less and less sensitive to the plight of the poor players, and would dramatize their large vats of money. 

At the end of the fifteen minutes in which the participants played Monopoly, the researchers asked them about their experiences during the game. The rich players spoke about their intellectual prowess that helped them to win those specific properties, and became far less attuned to the situation. They did not speak about the random flip of the coin that gave them their win. This was a fascinating experiment, because it signified how the mind makes sense of advantage. 

Even though they knew the game was rigged, the "rich" players started to display dominance

Greed and Implications for Inequalities in Society

This game of Monopoly can be used as a metaphor for understanding society. Some people have a lot of money and status, and some people don't. Dozens of studies have signified that as a person’s level of wealth increases, their compassion and empathy levels decrease, and their feelings of entitlement and self-interest increase. Wealthier individuals are more likely to moralize greed being good, and that the pursuit of self-interest is favorable and moral. This is not to say that only the wealthy are capable of greedy behavior. We all struggle day to day with competing thoughts, of when or if to put our interests above the interests of other people. The key for both personal and professional equality is to be kind and practice empathy for one another.

as a person’s level of wealth increases, their compassion and empathy levels decrease

How to cope with greedy thoughts

Although it may be difficult, or nearly impossible, to get rid of our greedy thoughts, there are some ways to keep it under control. Controlling your mind is the key to controlling greed. It is not your eyes, or your hands, or your mouth that wants what you are craving to have, eat, or enjoy. Your mind creates elaborate images of what your life would be like with the thing that you want, and until you have it, your life is not perfect. Therefore, controlling your mind controls your greedy tendencies. Self therapy apps such as LIFE Intelligence can promote self awareness to help you catch yourself when you're getting greedy, or remind you to practice gratitude when you're feeling lacking in some way.

This concept can be reduced down to innumerable studies that illustrate that the people that are content with their lot in life are the happiest people. Harvard Business Review surveyed a group of 100,000 working adults. Consistently the participants who were willing to give up earning more money in favor of regaining free time experienced more satisfying careers, more fulfilling social relationships, and more joy. They overall reported higher rates of general satisfaction. 

people that are grateful are the happiest people

Small psychological nudges and interventions can actually restore people’s feelings of egalitarianism and empathy. Research has shown that reminding people about the benefits of cooperation or the advantages of community has caused greedy people to be just as egalitarian as non greedy people. 

reminding people about cooperation and empathy can decrease greed

In one study, participants were shown just a forty six second video about childhood poverty, reminding them how some people are extremely less fortunate. The researchers then wanted to see willing people were to offer their time to a complete stranger in the lab, who was in distress. Results indicated that people that had described themselves as greedy and not greedy alike were more likely to help this stranger after watching this video. Greed is clearly malleable to slight changes in people’s values and perceptions. We all have it within ourselves to give more of our time and energy to other people who are less fortunate than ourselves. This holiday season, remember to give, for your good, and others.


LIFE Intelligence is a DIY therapist, career coach, and relationship counselor in one. A scientific guide to your self, career, and relationships, as iOS or Android.

Elisheva Hoffman
December 21, 2020


Elrod, M. C. (2017). Willingness to participate in greedy behaviors: A situational or constant construct?

Long, S. (2009). greed1. Psychodynamic Practice, 15(3), 245-259. doi:10.1080/14753630903024465

Piff, P. K., Stancato, D. M., Côté, S., Mendoza-Denton, R., & Keltner, D. (2012). Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences - PNAS, 109(11), 4086-4091. doi:10.1073/pnas.1118373109

Whillans, A. V., & Dunn, E. W. (2018;2019;). Valuing time over money is associated with greater social connection. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36(8), 2549-2565. doi:10.1177/0265407518791322

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