Greed and Global Burnout

When Resources Run Out in the Global Garden

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Greed is good.”

Too much ain’t enough.”

Greed is the root of all evil.”

These are just a few examples of our society’s polarized attitude towards greed. The human brain is genetically wired for greed, which can become compulsive and addictive, altering our ability to deal with the painful realities of life.

And any addiction can lead to individual, family, or communal burnout. When chronic, toxic stress hijacks human systems, from the nuclear family to the global village, greed drives massive self-sabotaging behaviors, such as the overuse and abuse of natural resources.

When resources dry up in our global village, socio-cultural debates and political conflicts will be meaningless. However, what is meaningful right now is recovery from compulsive, self-destructive patterns. Such recovery requires changes in our attitudes and behaviors, including (1) acceptance of our limitations to change others; and (2) gratitude for our ability to rewire our brains, thereby creating new circuits for self-regulation.

Accepting that our planet has limited resources requires us to become mindful caretakers to sustain the “global garden” that is our home. Can we awaken a so-called gardener-mind to regulate greed and our more damaging impulses?

Masters of the universe

The human conflict between creativity and greed continuously reverberates from our genetic structure to our world’s cultural systems. Promoter genes in DNA activate replication and resilience to life’s stressors. We know that secure parent-infant bonds stimulate promoter genes, making it clear that positive emotional connection literally keeps our species alive.

Despite the strength of the positive emotional connection, this is tested when different values contradict what our promoter genes have prepared us for. A good place to see this play out is in the running of financial markets. Financial markets are largely overseen by men seeking to attain “master of the universe” status—they are driven by ever-perpetuating greed.

Science reveals that testosterone and dopamine drive the hunt for profit, just as they drove our ancestors to pursue animals for food. In the life of a Wall Street trader, for example, high morning testosterone levels drive confidence and winning trades spikes testosterone levels. This triggers grandiosity and increases risky behavior. The emotional high impairs judgment and drives greed at any cost.

Patrick Messel from Freie Universität Berlin states that “Greed predicts selfish economic decisions…at the expense of others. This effect was amplified when individuals strived for obtaining real money, as compared to points, and when their revenue was at the expense of another person, as compared to a computer.”

The science

Brain studies distinguish two centers at play in financial evaluation: the nucleus accumbens and the anterior insula. The nucleus accumbens is activated by high risk-taking traders when they “go for the kill.” This causes a surge in nature’s feel-good chemical, dopamine, which reinforces risk-taking behavior.  

On the other hand, risk-averse investors activate the anterior insula, the brain center that responds to a rancid smell or a coiled snake. The resulting ‘freeze’ response can paralyze mindful reflection and careful risk analysis, leading to missed opportunities.

Neuroeconomist, Paul Zak studies how oxytocin, the “calm and connect” hormone and neurotransmitter, affects moral attitudes and behavior. He found that “People who are greedy have brains that work differently…their character traits are similar to those of psychopaths…and the dysfunctional processing of oxytocin in their brains appears to be one reason for this.”

Women produce much higher levels of oxytocin than men, predisposing them to be potentially better decision-makers for the group. With the current surge in active female empowerment movements like Time’s Up and #MeToo, we may actually see significant cultural shifts—including attitudes towards greed—with more widespread women’s leadership in government and business.

The Global Mind project

The internet models as a global emotional brain and invites the imagination to explore possible ways to promote sustainable cultural evolution. This can help us move past greed, as well as be more mindful of our resources and for each other. Designing such an ambitious Global Mind Project (GMP) will require a sustained effort with many layers of socio-cultural collaboration. Before it can be implemented, though, the essential ingredients need to be linked.

The GMP requires a coordinated integration of neuroscience, artificial intelligence (AI), and social media. Translational social neuroscience and evolutionary biology can offer a scientific foundation. AI is needed to address technological complexity. And social media must deliver a unifying story of purpose to ignite urgency throughout our global village.

When the built-in creativity of the brain drives social connectivity into a “we-team” narrative, we will become more capable of solving the most challenging problems that threaten our survival.

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