Greed is the desire to get or keep more stuff than you need, either accumulating money or possessions (“whoever has the most toys wins”) or just to feel better than someone else does.
Greed happens when people pursue their own agenda at the expense of others, leading to selfish or spiteful behavior. Paul Piff, a social psychologist at UC Berkeley, found that people who “had more” (those in higher social classes) were less ethical, and more likely to lie, cheat, or steal. Interestingly, it wasn’t that more greedy people made it to higher social class, but that getting to a higher social class reinforced those behaviors, making people more likely to be greedy. As Piff puts it, “Upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes towards greed.”
The reverse is also true. In another set of studies, Piff found that people in lower social classes are more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful even at cost to themselves. This helpful have-not behavior is classic altruism. Others in Piff’s team ran a study that found lower-class individuals were more compassionate and less selfish.
Altruism and cooperation happen when individuals are made aware of the needs of others in their community. Selfishness and spite happen when people are surrounded by similar others who also don’t need help, leading to the assumption that nobody else in the community needs assistance.
Companies can use this same effect of separating people from reality to develop systems that amplify greed. It’s possible to change the anchor points of what people consider to be “normal,” and to change the comparison items that they use when making decisions, by either creating or removing coherence with other items.
Use a partial reinforcement schedule: You’ll keep people playing for longer.
Make it into a game: Turn onerous tasks into a game by providing (minimal) rewards for participation.
Customers should “win” rather than “finishing” or “buying”: Tap into the fear of losing out by describing events as competitions rather than as lotteries.
Further inflate peoples’ (already overconfident) feelings of skill/mastery: Unskilled individuals have “illusive superiority” – they feel they can perform better than they really can. Easing them in to a task with some “quick wins” will enhance this feeling for them, thus making them more likely to continue when the stakes get higher.
Make rewards seem due to skill, not luck: Make the free things people can through your interface act more like an auction than a lottery.
Own the anchor: Create the anchor point that describes the value of your offering so that you control the terms.
Move from money to tokens: Tokens can have an arbitrary value. People respond to price points (99c rather than $1), so if you move them to a token-based currency, you can charge 99 tokens even if that equates to $1.50.
Encourage breakage: If unredeemed tokens have a value in your jurisdiction, profit by requiring purchase of more tokens than are necessary for immediate redemption, but not sufficient to purchase more items.
Make it expensive: Increasing cost can increase people’s appreciation of a product.
Show your second-best option first: Create a frame of reference and contrast for the best option.
Break coherence to justify prices: Make the new option appear sufficiently different that it shouldn’t be compared to other options.
Normally we rely on comparisons to keep greed in check: comparison with what we have now, with what our neighbors have, or with what we can afford given our budget. By warping or removing our capacity to use these reference points of what’s rationally correct, companies can set new anchor points for us that make us think it’s OK to do things we’d otherwise consider spiteful or selfish.
Greed happens when we lose sight of reality to the degree that we forget charity. It’s reinforced by companies changing our comparison points from ones that benefit the community at large to ones that benefit us as individuals, and which in the process might just happen to benefit the company as well.