Karlijn Hoyer: ‘Greedy people are more likely to be lonely’

Karlijn Hoyer: ‘Greedy people are more likely to be lonely’

Greedy people are lonelier, less satisfied with their lives, and use their friends to achieve their goals. This is apparent from PhD research by economic social psychologist Karlijn Hoyer. “Greed is seen as a bad thing because there are often negative consequences for others attached to it.”

Image: Jaap Joris Vens

Hoyer, originally a behavioral economist, saw that people became interested in greed after the banking crisis in 2008. It also became a popular topic in the scientific literature. Hoyer did PhD research in the Psychology Department. “After all, greed is also linked to the economy, that combination makes it very interesting to me.”

What exactly is greed?

“Greed is the insatiable desire for more. This can include both material things, such as a phone, car, or money, and non-material things, including friendships, sex partners, or status. Everyone knows examples of greed. Think of people who are always first in line at all you can eat buffets and tower food on their plates .”

Why do we tend to see greed as a bad thing?

“It has a very negative connotation. You see this within religions, among others: in Christianity, greed is one of the seven deadly sins, and in Buddhism, there is also a negative image about greed. The 2008 banking crisis and someone like Sywert van Lienden influenced public opinion about greed. It is mostly seen as something bad because it often has negative consequences for others. So because I am preoccupied with my own gain, you have less. We abhor that kind of greed. A little greed is not bad, as long as it does not take extreme forms and has no negative consequences for society and the person him/herself.”

In what situations do we think it is justified?

“Many economists think greed is good because it promotes economic growth. The idea behind this is that greedy people want more and more. To achieve that, they have to be creative and entrepreneurial and start a business, for example. As that business gets bigger, more staff is needed. In this way, it stimulates economic growth. In addition, there are evolutionary theories that speak for greed. Evolutionarily, in times of food scarcity, it is to your advantage to eat and gather as much as possible so that you have better chances of survival.”

According to your research, greed is also the desire for more friends and social contacts. What impact can greed have on friendships?

“People who are greedy are less satisfied with their lives because they want more and more. You can also see that in their friendships. What I personally think is the nicest finding in the study is that greedy people objectify their friends. That means they don’t think: I’m going to the pub with you tonight, but: my house needs painting, which friend can I use for that? Friends are seen more as tools and objects than as something enjoyable or social.

“The study also shows that greedy people score higher on the loneliness scale. So despite using their friendships, they are not happy with them. They also talk to their friends more, but at the same time their friendships are not as close and rather short-lived. These friendships may break down at some point because other goals arise that again require new friends. These new friends are chosen strategically. On the other hand, friendships can also end when the non-greedy friends realize that they are being used and have had enough of it.”

What causes greed?

“For a long time there were two theories about that. One says that if you grow up in scarcity you become greedy later in life because you no longer want to make do with less. The counterpart is the so-called luxury theory, which states that if you grow up with a lot, you get used to it and, therefore, become greedy later in life. In research, we found evidence for the luxury theory. Furthermore, factors such as upbringing and perhaps genetics play a role in the development of greed.”

Can the degree of greed change over a person’s lifetime?

“Definitely. It seems that the peak on the greed scale is during and just after puberty. In general, older people are less greedy than younger people. For example, I think when you have children your priorities change. You can still be greedy then, but for your family instead of for yourself.”

Are there work environments in which it is more prevalent than in others?

“The greed scale was included during the 2015 National Salary Survey. Then it was found that people working in sales and financial sectors are much greedier than healthcare or education personnel. The question, of course, is whether certain positions make people greedier or whether it is actually greedy people who are attracted to these sectors.”

Is greed prevalent in academia?

“Interesting question. It has not yet been researched, but I can imagine that there is quite a bit of greed at the top of academia. That manifests itself, for example, in the urge to publish more and more.”

Finally, what about your own greed?

“During my research, I was talking to my parents about this. “I don’t think I’m greedy,” my mother said, “but if a supermarket has a promotion with soccer cards or pan stamps, I have to have them all.” I do recognize that. I think there is a parallel to be drawn between greed and ambition. So that as soon as one ambitious goal is achieved, you’re already pursuing the next one. If you call that greed, then I’m a little greedy myself.”


Author: Karlijn Hoyer
Title: Insatiable Desires: How Dispositional Greed Affects Everyday Life
Supervisor: Marcel Zeelenberg
Co-supervisor: Seger Breugelmans

Translated by Language Center, Riet Bettonviel

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