This two-part article was developed from a program I delivered for the Unitarian Fellowship of Houston on Aug. 5, 2012.
We humans are hard wired for greed and envy because, back in our hunter-gatherer days, these traits helped us survive, both as individuals and as a species. But in modern life, these hard-wired traits can do us a disservice, in ways that might surprise you.
Before discussing that disservice, it’s important to understand the evolutionary benefits of greed and envy.
Imagine two prehistoric women, Ethel and Lucy, living next cave to each other. During the summer, Ethel gathers enough nuts and berries to last through the winter and stores them, then turns her attention to painting pictures on her cave.
But Lucy is greedy. She gathers more than enough food for winter, even though her cave isn’t as pretty as Ethel’s cave. Most years, Lucy doesn’t need all her stored food in the winter.
But one year, spring arrives late and rain is scarce. Ethel runs out of nuts and berries and can’t find fresh ones. She comes across one lone, straggly berry bush, but a bigger woman is there before her. Ethel throws caution to the wind and tries to move in on the other woman, who fights and wounds Ethel. She limps back to her cave and dies, and her children starve. So her non-greedy genes don’t get passed down to future generations.
But Lucy and her children survive on her excess food stores until rainfall returns to normal. So she passes her greedy genes along to her three sons, Larry, Curly and Moe.
Larry doesn’t know how much food he will need, so he acquires all he possibly can. He stores so much food that, every summer, more than half of it rots. His wealth of food is somewhat attractive to potential mates, but he spends so much time hunting and gathering that he never grooms himself, and he has so much to eat that he grows obese. Being less attractive, Larry has to settle for a small, weak mate with narrow hips. She dies giving birth to their only child. So when Larry dies, fat and happy, he has only passed on his genes to one other person.
Curly’s greed for the best mates runs stronger than his greed for food. He works out and builds up big muscles. He puts feathers in his hair, paints his face, and walks to the pond to check his reflection in the water before going courting. He doesn’t know how attractive he must be to attract a good mate, so he makes himself as attractive as he can.
One day, Curly comes across the biggest, healthiest woman he’s ever seen. He flexes his big muscles and flashes his head feathers and wins her over. They have four big healthy babies. But during an especially harsh winter, Curly’s mate and three of the four children starve because Curly spent so much time on his sex appeal that he didn’t acquire enough food. So he, too, only passes his genes on to one child.
While Larry and Curly benefited from their greedy genes, they would have done even better if they’d had a simple standard for deciding when they had enough, but not too much, food and sex appeal. But their brother, Moe, not only inherited Lucy’s greedy gene, he also has a mutation that causes him to compare what he has with what his closest competitors have and try to get just a little more. In other words, Moe is wired for envy, and thus, for competition.
Moe spends just enough time and energy acquiring food so that he has more than the best hunter among his neighbors. This leaves him time to improve his appearance just enough to be more attractive than his most attractive neighbor.
Moe attracts a fine mate. She’s not the biggest and healthiest in the region, but she’s healthy enough to survive childbirth and produce four strong children. Moe and his mate supply enough food for the family to survive even in bad times.
By spending just enough time and energy competing for food and mating, but no more, Moe gains a little extra time to invent improvements in his hunting and gathering equipment, which he teaches to his children. So Moe passes along his greedy gene, his envy gene, and his new technology to four children.
Fast forward to the present. We’ve all descended from Lucy and Moe and inherited their greedy envious genes. One of us, Matt, is a high school junior in the running for a college scholarship. He learns that his closest competitor is going to take Advanced Placement English and Advanced Placement calculus. So Matt signs up for AP English, AP Calculus plus AP Physics. He works just hard enough to get the same grades as his competitor, but since each student gets an extra grade point per AP class, Matt gets three extra points to his competitor’s two and wins the scholarship. So far, greed and envy are still paying off.
After Matt graduates from college, he lands a good job, earning enough to support himself in comfort and save for retirement. Plus, he loves his work as a technical writer. One day, Matt learns that his company will offer one employee the opportunity to advance into lower management. His fellow tech writer, Julie, intends to apply for the promotion.
Meanwhile, Matt’s neighbor buys a Lexus and puts in a pool. Somehow, Matt feels compelled to compete for the management position.
In addition to working harder, Matt hobnobs with higher ups in the company, touts his achievements, and finds subtle ways to call attention to Julie’s weak points. He gets the promotion, buys a Mercedes Benz, and puts in a bigger pool than his neighbor’s plus a hot tub.
But Matt dislikes management and starts growing stomach ulcers. His wife files for divorce because she feels neglected and lonely. His greed and envy genes are now doing him a disservice. But why?
Behavioral economist Dr. Dan Ariely tells us that the human mind needs short cuts for making decisions. We just don’t have time to carefully analyze every decision we have to make. That’s why we evolved our envious comparison test for when we have enough.
That test worked well for Matt with respect to the college scholarship because there was only one scholarship, and two students wanted it. In fact, the envy test actually prevented Matt from getting excessively greedy and neglecting other aspects of life while doing everything he possibly could to surpass his competitor. He took just one more AP course and worked just hard enough to get the same grades as the other student.
But Matt didn’t have to compete for the management position in order to satisfy his true interests. His original job as a tech writer met all his financial needs. With modern medicine available, he didn’t have to win a big, healthy, wide-hipped woman in order to have children. But Matt’s biological hard wiring doesn’t know that. Envy drives him to view life through a win-lose lens, and therefore, to compete with others.
Envy was, and still is, adaptive when resources are truly inadequate to supply everyone concerned. But the more complex a society becomes, the more situations we find where supplies can meet all demands, so competition is unnecessary. And in those cases, the envy test can be counterproductive to our interests. In Matt’s case, his interests in enjoyable work, good health and a happy marriage were disserved when his hard-wired envy drove him into management even though his financial interests were met by his original job.
Ariely also tells us that, as we increase our wealth, we shift competitors. When Matt was a tech writer, his closest competitor was fellow tech writer, Julie. Once he became a manager, his comparisons shifted to other managers at his level or just above. The more we have, the more we want because our standards of comparison continually change.
As an example of shifting standards of comparison, Ariely cites the fact that, in 1993, the average CEO earned 131 times as much as the average worker, and statistics showed that gap was widening. A federal regulation was passed requiring companies to disclose their top executives’ compensation. The thought was that public disclosure would curtail growth of the wage gap.
However, the effort backfired. Once executives could learn how much their counterparts earned, they demanded even more in an upward spiral. By 2008, the average CEO earned 369 times as much as the average worker.
Fortunately, humans evolved other traits besides greed and envy, such as the ability to reason logically, and thus, recognize those situations where competition is unnecessary. Many of us, unlike Matt, make a conscious choice to forego trying to get more than our neighbors and lead simpler but more satisfying lives.
Many of us realize that we no longer have to fight over everything. Instead of looking for the win in a win-lose paradigm, we try to negotiate and build consensus.
Next week, in Part II, we’ll see how the desire for consensus can actually drive us to seek, not a win-lose, but a lose-lose. And we’ll learn how to move past that to the true win-win.