The beauty of greed

financial greed

December: the month of shopping and exquisite cooking. Time for a desire theme. Watching two documentaries on capitalism (Doughnut Economics and Saving Capitalism), I asked myself: why do people who own so much already stay so greedy? Neuroscience saved me from misanthropy. It let me realise that the mechanism that drives capitalistic greed also produces art. But let’s explain the sad part first.

Reward fades over time

The brain is wired to seek reward, as I also discussed in my blogs on motivation. By itself that doesn’t cause us to always want more. As long as we don’t know that bigger reward is out there, we won’t seek it. But the human brain reduces its responses to rewards that it is used to; your partners’ compliments, the expensive bread from the boutique bakery. Moreover, unexpected rewards provide a neural kick that far exceeds the kick of expected reward.

reward adaptation
When used to a reward, it’s value decreases over time

Because we get bored with the rewards we are used to, we tend to seek ever-higher reward to get the same level of brain stimulation. You may recognise the mechanism from addiction. Moreover, when we once feel the bliss of an unexpected reward, we know that bigger reward is out there. This increases the level of reward that satisfies us and drives us to seek this level of reward in the future.

We explore when reward drops

There is beauty to greed however. Because greed causes the value of reward to fade over time, we repeatedly experience drops in the amount of reward we experience. Besides making us seek for more, these drops make us explore new possibilities.

Sarah Pekny, researcher at John Hopkins University, demonstrated this in a simple experiment that worked a bit like reaching for a light switch in the dark. Participants pointed to dots on a computer screen while they could not see their own hand. They thus had to guess the direction in which they had to move. Sarah rewarded some of the movements with a small amount of money. The participants changed the direction in which they moved much more when they hadn’t been rewarded than when they had been rewarded. This indicates that people explore more when they receive less reward.


Ultimately, varying how you do something forms the basis of creativity. A creative solution can be defined as a solution that is both novel and effective. Exploration makes sure you get the novelty part right. Trial and error learning, in which you try different solutions and elaborate on the ones that work lets you achieve the efficiency part.

So I’d propose that the brain mechanisms that cause greed are also the mechanisms that facilitate creativity and art.

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