That’s Men: Rules required to curb the instincts of powerful people

Tue, Mar 18, 2014, 01:00

We all have a touch of greed in us, I think, and certain circumstances activate it. Think of how otherwise-normal people make off with the cherished belongings of dead relatives after a funeral, for instance.

Greed seems to have no end. Greedy people don’t appear to reach a point at which they say, “That’s enough, I’ll stop now.”

Even when stuffed to the gills with whatever they are greedy for, they are apt to say (to quote Samuel Beckett), “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

Comforting assumption
When their greed is exposed, the rest of us get to indulge ourselves in the comforting assumption, perhaps delusion, that we would not be like that in similar circumstances.

Few of us would agree with the “greed is good” doctrine asserted by the Michael Douglas character in the movie Wall Street .

For instance, to say that a footballer is “hungry for the ball” is a compliment to a player who will work hard for the ball and make good use of it.

To say a player is “greedy for the ball” is a condemnation. Such a player will keep the ball even when all sense dictates that he pass it to another player who can do something with it.

A few months ago, Prof Ian Robertson of Trinity College Dublin, wrote in his blog ( that “greedy rich people are much more likely to lie, steal, cheat, behave unethically and break the law than lower-class people, research at the University of California at Berkeley showed.”

If it’s any consolation, “the more central money is to a person’s life and the more focused they are on material advancement, the less happy they tend to feel”, he writes. “Greedy people think about money a lot, but when people are made to think about money, even unconsciously, they give less money to charity.

“They are also less helpful to someone who trips and scatters pencils on the floor than people who don’t have money on their mind.”

A greed habit
But when Robertson puts on his neuroscience hat, it begins to look likely that many of us could develop a greed habit in certain circumstances.

It works like this, for people who combine power with greed:

First, power increases testosterone and that, in turn, increases dopamine in the brain.

Dopamine gives you a rush of reward when something good happens that you weren’t expecting. So if you get a €10,000 cheque from the Revenue Commissioners in the morning that you had not expected, you will also get a nice reward rush from your dopamine system.

If they send you €10,000 a week, the reward rush will gradually die away because it becomes expected.

Power also biases the brain towards approaching situations in which you might experience success. It puts you into “approach mode”.

Compromising view
If you spend a long enough time in approach mode, your capacity to see what might go wrong becomes compromised.

For instance, your ability to be aware of facts that suggest you might be heading for a fall diminishes – hence some behaviour that led to the economic crash.

So you get used to approaching situations and getting rewards from them. If, on top of all that, you happen to be greedy then, the research suggests, you are more likely to be hypocritical and to cut ethical corners.

You will apply more stringent rules to those below you on the power ladder than you apply to yourself.

And because the dopamine system works best for unexpected rewards, the search for new rewards never ends – the new quickly becomes the familiar and must be followed by the next good thing.

All of this underlines the necessity for rules to curb the excesses of those for whom power and reward are a way of life.

And the finding that those who are greedy for money and material rewards are less happy than the rest of us isn’t really much consolation, is it?

Padraig O’Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His mindfulness newsletter is free by email .

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