Greed is the desire to have everything for yourself and to prevent others from having a fair share. People are usually greedy for resources, money, or power.
Causes of greed include egocentrism, insecurity, and individualism. It’s a sign that you can’t empathize with others and are self-absorbed. It can harm other people, prevent them from having the resources they need to be happy and successful, and may cause poverty and hardship for others.
A simple example of greed is a child not sharing with other children in class. An extreme example is a government official taking taxpayers’ money to buy a mansion.
Simple Examples of Greed
1. Paying your workers a very low salary while making millions yourself.
2. Hiding leftover food from other people while they’re starving so you can eat it later.
3. A student refusing to share their pens with others even though they have more than enough.
4. Making an unfair deal with someone purely because they’re desperate.
5. Taking more than your turn on a theme park ride because you’re having fun while other people are left waiting and don’t get a turn.
6. A child who invites his friends over then plays video games all day long and doesn’t let his friends have a turn.
7. Firing long-time employees just to save a few dollars while making billions yourself.
8. Exploiting natural resources without regard for future generations or the environment.
9. Cheating people in business deals or stealing from them outright.
10. Taking all the firewood in a campsite to have a huge fire while all the other campers don’t get to have a fire because there’s no wood left.
11. Continuing to hoard money when you’ve got more than you could ever spend.
12. Prioritizing food, money, or other commodities over your family and their happiness.
13. Taking someone to court for a crazy amount of money simply because you think you can get a lot of money out of them.
14. Marrying someone for their money rather than for love.
15. Not telling your friends where you got the free icecream from because you want it all for yourself.
16. Taking all of the credit for the success of a group project and not acknowledging the hard work of the rest of your group.
17. Signing up for government food stamps even though you secretly have a lot of money hidden away.
18. Being more concerned with your individual happiness than other people’s basic needs.
19. Sitting on the last seat left on the train when elderly people are standing and in need of a seat.
20. Seeing someone drop their wallet and taking the money out of it instead of handing it back to its rightful owner.
21. A person who evades their personal income tax responsibility. While they may say “well, the government was going to waste it anyway”, the truth is that everyone needs to contribute their fair share in order to keep the roads maintained and keep the fire stations open.
22. A government official who takes hard-earned taxpayer money and hides it away to use on himself instead of spending them money on improving social services.
23. Inflating the price of life-saving medications just because you know people desperately need them and you want to get rich.
Real-Life Greed Examples
24. European Colonial Period – From the 15th to 19th Centuries, the Western European nations (namely Portugal, Spain, France, Holland, and Britain, among others) raced to conquest the world. During this period, they subjugated native populations and committed heinous acts all in the name of becoming the most powerful nation and controlling the whole world.
25. The Toilet Paper Incident of 2020 – When the global lockdowns happened in 2020, people flocked to the shops to hoard toilet paper. People took far more than they personally needed out of fear that it would run out eventually. These people’s panic shopping prevented others from getting toilet paper and caused the problem that they feared: artificial toilet paper shortages worldwide. Stores started limiting how much toilet paper people could buy at once. I remember in late 2021, after all the commotion calmed down, walking past a neighbor whose garage was open. They had floor-to-ceiling stockpiles of toilet paper that would last them years. Meanwhile, others went without.
26. Laisez-Faire Capitalism – Untethered capitalism encourages people to be greedy. The only thing that matters in hyper-capitalistic societies is who has the money. People with money can buy things like healthcare, better education, and just about any product or service. Meanwhile, poor people (who are often in desperate need) miss out because they are pushed to the back of the line. While capitalism can be great for creating market efficiency and lowering proces, it also encourages greed and allows greedy people with money to trample over the poor and needy without feeling guilty – “it’s just how capitalism works!”.
27. Anti-Competitive Market Behaviors – Big companies can make smaller companies go bankrupt by using anti-competitive behaviors. This allows them to hoard all the profits and forces the little guy out of business. For example, a large and profitable online retailer could sell products at artificially low prices temporarily until their competitors can no longer compete. Once the competitors are gone, the large online retailer raises prices, and gets all the profits because they’re the only people selling the product!
28. The 2008 Financial Crisis – One of the factors causing the 2008 financial crisis was the liberalization of mortgage lending. Banks would give out mortgages to people who should not have qualified for a mortgage. The banks did this because they were greedy. They wanted more and more people locked into paying them loan repayments for the rest of their lives! But the banks’ greed came back to bite them in 2008 when so many people couldn’t pay back their mortgages that many banks and insurance firms went bankrupt, causing a global financial crisis.
29. Riba Anasiya – In Islam, there is a belief that charging interest on loans in immoral because it’s the greedy taking advantage of the needy. They use the term riba anasiya to refer to this practice. In many Islamic countries, charging interest on loans is prohibited.
30. Imelda Marcos – The wife of former Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos is reported to have gone on $5 million shopping sprees and owned 3000 pairs of shoes. All the while, the people of her country lived in abject poverty throughout the Marcos dictatorship.
31. Charles Ponzi – The inventor of the Ponzi scheme, Charles Ponzi would ask investors to give him money and he would guarantee a 15% return on their money. He was never able to give that return, so he got more people to give him money, which he used to repay the first people (and spend on himself!). This scheme relied on him swindling money off more and more people rather than actually investing it. His lust for money overcame him, but was his eventual downfall when people caught wind of what he was doing.
Examples of Greed in Movies and Literature
32. Veruca Salt (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) – When Veruca Salt hears that Willy Wonka is giving away golden tickets hidden in chocolate wrappers, she gets her father and his employees to buy out the chocolate bars until they find a ticket. She wins a ticket and gets to go to visit the chocolate factory. In the factory, she sings of her greed: “I want the world. I want the whole world. I want to lock it all up in my pocket.” But fortunately Willy Wonka sees her greed and expels her from the factory.
33. Smaug (The Hobbit) – Smaug is a dragon and the antagonist in the book The Hobbit. Smaug raids the kingdom of Erebor and steals all the gold. He then hoards it deep in a mountain where he hides for 150 years. Due to this, Thorin (a dwarf and protagonist in The Hobbit) describes him as “a most spectualarly greedy, strong, and wicked worm.”
34. Jordan Belfort (The Wolf of Wall Street) – This film follows a man, Jordan Belfort, in his early 20s who starts out in an entry-level job on Wall Street. As Belfort gets a taste for money, he starts taking riskier and riskier bets. He oversteps the line when he starts defrauding investors in order to feed his greedy desire for money.
35. Ebenezer Scrooge (The Christmas Carol) – Ebenezer Scrooge had more money than heart. He wouldn’t give his employees time off for Christmas and refused to donate to charity! But, thankfully, the book (and movie) embraces the Christmas spirit and gives him a chance to reform his ways.
The Causes of Greed in Society
1. Resource Scarcity and Insecurity
Resource scarcity refers to the fact that there are only finite numbers of resources in this world. In fact, there’s often not enough to go around.
As a result, people scramble to gather enough resources to care for and protect themselves. They feel insecure about their futures because they worry the tap will run dry.
So, many people don’t just stop when they have enough to fill their stomachs – they hoard resources for their future, which often prevents others from having any resources right now. This leads to hunger and poverty for some and wealth and riches for others.
2. Narcissism and Egocentrism
Narcissism is the extreme belief in your own self-importance and lack of empathy for others. For narcisists, it doesn’t matter what happens to anyone but themselves. They want to be the best and the most powerful.
At the core of narcissism is egocentrism. This is a behavior where you can only see things from your own perspective. You don’t think about how others feel or what they need.
3. Individualism in the West
In Western cultures like my own, individualism is prioritized over the common good. This has many great benefits and has caused great prosperity throughout much of society.
People are encouraged to desire money, fame and power. This motivates them to go out there and produce products, start businesses, and find ways to sell their time and skills to the highest bidder. It generates a lot of industry and money.
But, it also causes people to forget to care for the vulnerable around them.
Sadly, too many people in Western society have used an ideology of individualism to wash their hands of the need to ensure others in their communities have healthcare, homes, and food.
Unfortunately, greed is all around us. But reflecting on the definition of greed and exploring some examples, we can reflect on our own behaviors and whether we’ve been compassionate enough lately. By showing compassion and sharing with the people around us, we may have less power, resources, and money, but we will have a community to care for us and a greater sense of purpose in life. You’ll probably feel much better about yourself as a person as well!
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.