In Reality and Fiction, Greed Is Good

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It is one of the seven deadly sins but, as Gordon Gekko says, greed is good. Researchers in Switzerland recently found a moderate level of greed is favorable for society – or at least, the researchers’ model society.

Common wisdom leads us to believe greed is bad, that self-interest does not work for the greater good of a society or group. In fact, that is exactly what game theory tells us. In a public goods game, where optional contribution to the common good improves the well-being of participants, greed is problematic. Game theory predicts a free-loader problem where participants stop contributing because they will reap the rewards through others’ contributions. The outcome is known as the tragedy of commons: eventually, no one contributes. 

But a large number of experiments have challenged this theory, including the findings from Dr. Carlos P. Roca and Prof. Dirk Helbing, the authors of the study from Switzerland. Roca and Helbing, both Chair of Sociology, Modeling and Simulation at ETH Zurich, studied a low-information model society to determine how greed affected the emergence of social cohesion, as characterized by levels of cooperation (defined as contributions to the common good) and agglomeration (defined as the number of social ties between participants). 

Notably, the model eliminated greenbeard effects, which would allow individuals to distinguish favorable gains in advance, as well as future forecasts, reputation and punishment, which have been known to support cooperation in similar models. Yet, even if with low-information assumptions, the model promoted cooperation, and a moderate level of greed supported social cohesion. In the moderate greed model, “cooperation and agglomeration emerged, reaching a stationary state where clearly more than one-half of the population is cooperative and individuals tend to agglomerate and form cooperative clusters.” Also, the behavioral changes in the model were very low, which implied that “a large majority of subjects are satisfied with their payoffs.”

So, moderate greed is good for social cohesion. But what about low greed or high greed? Roca and Helbing tested those models as well, with some surprising results. Low greed, the pinnacle of a utopian society, is bad for social cohesion. The study found a model society with low greed “lacked the drive to develop effective cooperation and agglomeration.” In short, individuals with low greed were easily satisfied and held no desire to contribute to the common good for a greater gain. The low greed individuals did not contribute, so social cohesion did not emerge in the model. High greed was also unfavorable for the model society as individuals were “dissatisfied and prone to change their strategy and social neighborhood” which led to an unstable society.

Greed in Television and Film

"Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works." - Gordon Gekko in 'Wall Street'Even though Roca and Helbing’s study was published last month, the findings are not new. For decades, screenwriters have known that greed, at varying levels, has certain effects on society, effects they happily jot down for television and film plots. Think about your favorite television show or movie and try to determine what motivated the characters to do what they did, or say what they said. The motivation will, most likely, boil down to greed or selfishness.

The opening sequence of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a great example of how greed works to build characters and story. A young Indiana Jones has stolen a historical artifact from thieves, and as they chase him across desert plains and then the top of a circus train, Indiana yells, “This belongs in a museum!” The thieves are driven to chase Indiana through their own selfish want of the artifact, which creates tension between the thieves and Indiana, as well as a rather cool chase sequence. It also reveals something about Indiana’s character. He’s not selfish for his benefit but he is selfish for the museum’s benefit, which is exemplary of Indiana’s character in all of the Indiana Jones films.

Similar to the study, screenwriters understand a moderate level of greed is good for the story. Like in the Indiana Jones example, greed can build motivation or reveal something about a character. Whenever a character is greedy, it creates a pull-and-push effect in the storyline and gives the viewer a glimpse into the character’s personality. Screenwriters also know levels of high greed or low greed can create good and bad storylines. In War of the Worlds, there’s a spine-chilling scene in which hordes of people, driven by selfishness, attempt to steal the main character’s car. One of the individuals shoots his gun to drive everyone off the car and take it for his own, even though a child is sitting in the backseat. If the mob of people weren’t motivated by high levels of selfishness and greed, the scene would not be nearly as powerful. Too low a level of greed can dim the emotional impact of storylines. On the other hand, high levels of greed can be the driving force behind great television and film by raising the stakes of the fictional world – something you often see in catastrophic fiction like The Walking Dead or Falling Skies.

Impact of Game Theory

The study does not tell screenwriters anything new about greed and society but there is potential in game theory for character development. While Roca and Helbing are hoping models such as the one in the study eventually give way to behavioral experiments to determine the causes behind human behavior, the studies also have practical knowledge for television and film. 

Observation is one way screenwriters learn to produce realistic characters driven to act by realistic motivations, and experiments with human behavior are no less useful than everyday observation. Getting to the root of a character’s psychological choices and understanding how they operate depending on the stakes is valuable for screenwriters. The science behind why we make the choices we make can help build a scientific basis for characters’ actions, which helps the fictional world we see on television and film become more real. 

Homepage image credit: Muffet

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.