The Greed Syndrome

29 Pages Posted: 18 Apr 2016

See all articles by Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries

Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries

INSEAD - Entrepreneurship and Family Enterprise

Date Written: April 18, 2016


Starting with a case study, this article explores the topic of greed. Greed is looked at from various angles, highlighting the mixed emotions it evokes. Although hailed as a motor of economic growth and human progress, at the same time - especially when it is uncontrolled - greed is a major cause of economic crises (as recent history has amply demonstrated). Attention is given to the personal implications of greed. Unfettered greed is compared to an addiction, like drugs, sex, food or gambling. Furthermore, as greed encourages people to only focus on what’s important to them - at the expense of social conventions and values - it can be associated with dysfunctional patterns such as megalomania, callousness, arrogance, and unethical and immoral behavior. Greed may even lead to criminal activities that harm others.

From an evolutionary point of view, greed can be seen as an extension of the survival instinct. Like animals, Homo sapiens is concerned with securing enough resources to overcome difficult times. Although greed may have a neurological basis (referring to the “high” that greedy people experience in their monomaniacal pursuit of wealth), from a psychodynamic perspective its origins are often found in faulty parenting. Traumatic beginnings at the developmental stage, such as the untimely death of a parent, parental discord, divorce or other difficult experiences, can all contribute to the genesis of greed. Alternatively, its origins may be found in parental neglect.

In other cases, caregivers have the financial resources to provide for the developing infant but use the giving of “things” as a substitute for care and nurturing. In these dysfunctional forms of caregiving, the child is left feeling that he or she is not good enough - that something is missing. To compensate for this psychological void, some children (and later as adults) become fixated with the acquisition game, seeking comfort by constantly obtaining more. Acquiring wealth offers a way to eliminate feelings of insecurity and of keeping score; it becomes the only thing worth living for. But despite their pursuit of wealth, there is never going to be enough. Acquiring more becomes an end in itself.

From the point of view of personality structure, when observing greedy people we often see a cocktail of different character types: a sprinkling of the antisocial personality and the narcissist, with some obsessive-compulsive elements thrown in for good measure. In addition, this article offers advice on how to recognize the signs that we are dealing with greedy people, as well as various suggestions on how to help them overcome their compulsion.

Suggested Citation

Kets de Vries, Manfred F.R., The Greed Syndrome (April 18, 2016). INSEAD Working Paper No. 2016/26/EFE. Available at SSRN: or

Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries (Contact Author)

INSEAD - Entrepreneurship and Family Enterprise ( email )

Fontainebleau Cedex, F-77305

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