Do you have greedy genes?

More, more, more

Can you inherit a tendency to be greedy, to work your proverbial arse off to get ahead financially, or is it something else? You never got enough atta-kids when you were young so you maintain your self-worth through accumulation of valuable stuff? I wondered about it recently when I read a column by economist, Paul Krugman. He argued the recent tax reform proposal, which benefits the super wealthy, wouldn’t make them any happier,  I’ve heard the argument before. After some people have so much money they don’t know what to do with, they continue to seek more and more not because they need another yacht, but because it’s a way to keep score.
If you’re the CEO of Snicky Snacks and make 10 million per annum, you’re not happy since the average CEO earns 12.2 million per year. Everyone thinks they are above average so believe their salaries should reflect that. Krugman argues Scrooge McDuck won’t be happier because all  wealthy get the same advantage.

Many personalities are genetic as every parent knows and behavioral science agrees.  I was aware that traits like optimism vs. pessimism, outgoing vs shy, and fearful vs. courageous, were well-studied. But, I thought who would do a study on greediness?

I was wrong..A gene has been identified that correlates with selfishness.   I found a book by Richard Dawkins called The Selfish Gene.  He explores genes for selfishness and altruism, written in 1972 and updated twice. I ordered it as it sounds interesting.

In fact, scientists  search for genetic evidence for all kinds of traits. As an example economists are  interested in spending habits. If it’s true that money is a way of keeping score for the wealthy, then perhaps it’s due to a competitive gene.

In the past the study of separated identical twins dominated the research, and in fact, income is more closely correlated with identical twins vs fraternal twins than IQ. I’m not sure income disparity is due to greed, but there’s likely a correlation. However,  with more information about our DNA, we may one day be able to predict all kinds of behavior.

I recall one savvy saying , “it doesn’t matter whether it’s nature or nurture, either way the parents are to blame.”

Take advantage of your irrational mind!

What was she thinking?
By National Photo Company Library of Congress npcc.06771

We may think we are rational, but behavioral science says otherwise. We are strongly influenced by emotions, identity, and our social environment. A member of the medical profession confesses to paying more attention to drugs and practices his colleagues prescribe than to well researched medical literature.1

Our choices even depend on how options are presented to us. You are about to undergo elective surgery. You are told a) you have an 80% chance of successful surgery and gaining a pain free life or b) you have a 20% chance of no change, becoming worse off, or even death. The first description makes most people feel good about going forward while the second gives pause.

Perhaps the difference is a consequence of the curious fact of behavioral science: that we are more motivated to stave off a loss than we are to make an equivalent gain. Studies show that people feel twice as bad at losing $100 as winning $100 feels good. Professional golfers are more likely to make a putt to avoid a bogie than they are to make a birdie.

When given a choice, people are overwhelmingly likely to stick with default options. This is hugely important to governance for a better society. In countries where you are an assumed organ donor unless you opt out, over 90% are organ donors compared to 4% to 27% in opt-in countries. In California, a program designed to promote use of renewable energy by allowing communities to purchase electricity for their citizens was specifically designed to be opt-out. As an environmental activist I fought a bill designed to kill the program by changing it to opt-in.

I recognize myself in the discovery that people are less likely to buy if there are dozens of options rather than a few.  I’ve walked into a department store and been overwhelmed by too much merchandise. It took years to buy my first computer. When I did, I ordered the same system as a techie friend.

People prefer instant gratification even when the rewards are greater for waiting. One free coffee now or two free coffees later?

OK, how can we use this information to better lives? Individually, we can avoid succumbing to our emotional brain and promise to pay a friend if we don’t keep a resolution. As parents we can influence our children’s behavior. Our institutions can employ positive default practices. The motivating article for this blog discusses employing paying patients for healthy behavior with the proviso of returning  the money for non-compliance. I was surprised by how many patients fail to take their meds (with 125,000 resultant annual deaths) , not surprised at the difficult of losing weight, exercising, and quitting smoking.


  1. Dr. Dhruv Khullar, author of article below.

How  Behavioral Science can lead to better health care