The Psychology of Greed

wolf of wall street scene best picture nomination

In The Wolf of Wall Street, stockbroker Jordan Belfort gains a massive fortune by committing crimes in the financial sector. Eventually his greed backs him into a corner. The F.B.I.’s pursuit leaves him with a choice: relinquish control of his company and give up his career in finance or risk losing everything. Despite words of caution from his father and the fact that he already has money and opportunities to last a lifetime, Belfort continues his pursuit of even more wealth. This mistake ultimately leads to his demise.

What exactly was running through Belfort’s mind when he made that decision? What about his innate characteristics and experiences made him so insatiably greedy, willing to put the desire for more income and assets over family and his own freedom?

There are millions of people like Belfort who have inspired researchers to explore the psychology of greed. Here is what psychologists have learned so far:

The Addiction Connection

Addiction is often about the pursuit of a reward in the face of risk. For dangerous or illegal substances, the reward is a high and the risk is bodily damage, dependency, or legal consequences. No matter how many times they use, people who live with addiction cannot fill the void that attracted them to drugs to begin with. If they don’t find treatment, they gradually up the dosage because the body develops a tolerance to the substance. The high isn’t high enough anymore.

Certain types of greed operate on similar principles. Think of Wall Street scammers like Belfort who reveled in swindling and breaking the law to make an extra million, despite knowing their crimes could land them in jail. Enough was never going to be enough. Belfort had to continually raise the stakes.

Greed and drug use activate similar pleasure pathways in the brain, according to psychologist Victor Shamas, Ph.D. Unsurprisingly, gambling addiction has a particularly strong connection to avarice. In both scenarios, the feeling of pleasure comes from the process of pursuing the reward, Shamas said, not only the final result.

In an article for Psychology Today, psychologist Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., argued that greed, like addiction, is often a coping mechanism for unresolved mental health issues. By obtaining incredible wealth or success, people with deep insecurities strive to feel like they are finally good enough, or at least better than their peers. The logic is similar to how substances can provide temporary relief for emotional and physical pain.

More to Be Remembered By

The more people impact the world, the more likely future generations are to remember them. People die, but achievements and possessions can be eternal.

“People like to have a lot of stuff because it gives them the feeling of living forever,” said social psychologist Sheldon Solomon.

Think about some of the names we remember: Carnegie, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt. These men invested in ensuring their memory would live forever. Charity was most likely not their only motivation for donating portions of their fortunes to various institutions.

Greed Can Cause Other Issues

Wealth often leads to higher levels of narcissism and entitlement, according to a study from the University of California, Berkeley. People of high economic status tend to be self-centered and believe those with fewer assets are lazy. This mindset often causes a lack of empathy that has a negative impact on society.

Why Greed is the Hardest Illness to Treat

Society typically regards greed and related traits as desirable rather than potential mental health concerns. Ambition and success are attractive to most people. This pervasive attitude makes it difficult for greedy people to acknowledge their behavior and beliefs as potentially harmful to themselves and others. To combat the epidemic of greed that has left so many in the dust, we need to emphasize the value of being at peace; wealthy in spirit, not monetary gains or accolades. If you feel like the desire for more is ruling your life, considering working with a therapist, particularly one who specializes in addiction and issues related to ambition.

Published by

Joseph Rauch

Staff Writer at Talkspace