Have you ever felt torn over parting with a dollar bill that you know, deep down inside, could be better used by a beggar on the street? Perhaps you stopped for a moment to ponder the question, ultimately shoving the bill down into your pocket and heading on your way. After all, you don’t know the other person, right? While Mardi Gras gives us reason to indulge our senses, Lent forces us to reflect on our greedy habits. Now social scientists are figuring out how greed works.
What Makes Us Stingy?
Kind acts motivate us to be generous, but greedy acts motivate us to be greedy even more toward the next person down in the “greed chain”, according to recent research by Harvard associate business administration professor Michael I. Norton and colleagues. People who are treated fairly are more likely to treat others fairly. For instance, if somebody splits $6 evenly with another person, that person is more likely to split $6 evenly with the next person. Even if a person receives all $6, they are still likely to pay at least $3 forward to the next person. When a person receives nothing, however, they are likely to pay only a little more than $1 forward to the next person.
This shows that greed leaves a much stronger impression on us than generosity. One would think that if receiving everything means meeting the next person halfway, receiving nothing would too, yet it doesn’t. Generosity at the very least begets compromise, but greed just begets greed. This might make sense if we are returning the favor to the person who shortchanged us, but we also pay forward their greediness to the next person, who might be genuinely needy. In other words, we visit our resentment toward the greedy on complete strangers who may not deserve it.
Norton offers some valuable advice on how to treat others when we have been the victim of greed. We are less likely to be generous among people with whom we are unfamiliar, unfortunately, so we should be careful how we react to greedy people, lest we adopt their traits and treat innocent strangers the same in a perpetual chain of negativity. Having people focus on something positive, like somebody blasting music and singing along to it, has been shown to alleviate greediness and increase generosity, he points out.
Lent is about reflection and self-restraint. During this time, perhaps we should think more about what makes us greedy and how we can shake the habit. At the end of the day, we might be giving somebody else what they truly deserve—a break—and this is a reward in itself.