Study Finds Greed Breeds Greed in Participants

The media loves to cover stories about a hero. The kind stranger who gives a $1,000 tip to a struggling waitress, or the generous shut-in who leaves her entire fortune to the less fortunate, are heralded in the news, but not often enough. Is it just that the media likes covering stories of greed more than good? Or are people greedier than they are generous? To answer this question, Kurt Gray of the Department of Psychology at the University of North Carolina conducted a series of experiments to determine which actions people would be more inclined to pay forward: greed, equality, or generosity?

For his study, Gray first had the participants receive acts of greed, generosity of equality, in the form of monetary or labor divisions. Then, the participants were instructed to pay it forward to an anonymous participant. In essence, they had a choice of passing on the greedy, generous, or equal division of money or labor to someone who had never done anything, good or bad, to them. Gray discovered that perhaps the news coverage we see, depicting more greedy acts than generous ones, are accurately capturing the attitude of our society. He said, “Equality is paid forward in anonymous situations, suggesting that people will act fairly even when no one is watching—if they have first been treated fairly.”

Instead, he found that when someone received a generous portion, they were only inclined to treat the next person fairly, not generously. Specifically, when a participant received more money or less labor than they were supposed to get, they did not pass that generous portion on. Instead, they rationed an equal portion, the portion that was expected, to the anonymous recipient. When someone received less money or more labor, greedy portions, they were more likely to pass on even greedier portions to the next person. This effect occurred more often than the generous/equal or equal/equal effect. Gray believes that perhaps people are fearful of being shortchanged, or they feel angered by the acts perpetrated on them and react by passing on that aggression or anger in the form of greed. Regardless of the reasons behind the acts, Gray’s study shows that true acts of generosity occur far less often than acts of greed, and he believes that these results are significant to the field of social psychology.

Gray, K., Ward, A. F., and Norton, M. I. (2012). Paying it forward: Generalized reciprocity and the limits of generosity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0031047

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  • Jimmy


    January 3rd, 2013 at 5:37 PM

    its more of a business mind at play here.nothing of morality or anything.think of it this way – you buy and sell goods. now if you pay the right price for a good then you will tend to sell it with a rightful margin. if you get it at a discount you will still sell it at the same price (bigger margin for you, but it doesn’t make a difference to your buyer). but if you have been charged too much then you will push up the prices to your buyer as well. its as simple as that!

  • Sally u

    Sally u

    January 4th, 2013 at 4:07 AM

    I would have hoped that since someone has been generous to us then our inclination would be to be more generous with the next person who came along for us to give to and help. Apparently that’s not so, that’s not the way many of our greedy psyches work. What a shame because this would be the perfect example of that whole pay it forward mentality, but I really think that most of us are missing it.

  • victoria


    January 5th, 2013 at 10:28 PM

    most people would think its fair that they short-change someone because they have been short-changed themselves.but they don’t apply the same rule when they have been rewarded.maybe it is greed but that is how most of us would react.

  • Siobhan


    January 6th, 2013 at 11:32 AM

    so sad to read that greed takes precendence over acts of kindness pretty much all of the time
    i guess that even times when it appears that someone is being generous and kind, they are really just doing it for their own gain and what could be in it fror them versus just doing something good for the sake of doing the right thing

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