Barclays, evolution and the neuroscience and psychology of greed

by Jul 7, 2012Altruism0 comments

Approx. Reading Time: 4 minutes
The latest scandal involving Bob Diamond and Barclays has alarmed swathes of the UK population, and many are asking if there no end to the damage that such unregulated financial power can do. Faith in our  institutions has clearly been steadily eroding, but this has accelerated in the wake of example after example of unscrupulous behaviour, the ripple effects of which cause pain and hardship to countless thousands but at the same time the many who are suffering feel increasingly powerless and  helpless. It can be no coincidence that this week saw the publication of a report showing that not only is membership of  political parties declining, and we are seeing a huge reductions in participation in  political activity of any kind, but  that this has come with the massive increase in corporate power which is seriously threatening democratic processes ( .

In the light of all this I have found Christopher Boehm’s new book [1] about the  origins of morality in our evolutionary past fascinating. He uses large anthropological samples, evolutionary research and geological evidence to suggest a compelling case for how morality, altruism and the mechanisms to control greed and selfishness would have evolved in our evolutionary history.  At the centre of the book is the selfish-selfless conflict which is so firmly rooted in our evolutionary inheritance and he makes the case for how via group level and social selection more altruistic traits would have become advantageous, creating a gene-pool in which they became stronger and able to effectively counterbalance and control our more competitive, selfish and domination-oriented ape-like  traits. He makes a compelling case for how for at least 45,000 years and maybe twice as long, social life was organised in small groups in which it was essential that no-one became too powerful. Some time after our ancestors had split from the line that we shared with chimps we began to become the hypersocial species we are now, and created social organisations which encouraged joining, sharing, empathy as well as altruism, albeit built on our earlier chimp like dominance and competitive traits. Sharing and fairness was necessary for group survival, selfish behaviour did not prosper as everyone knew how much they needed and depended on each other. While there have always been dominance hierarchies, all hunter gatherer communities have evolved systems whereby greed, selfishness and the lack of socially oriented behaviour was penalised, and he has found the same mechanisms in all the hunter-gatherer communities which are most similar to those in the Pleistocene, before settled pastoral or urban life began about 10,00 years ago. Mechanisms such as being mercilessly pilloried or teased are seen in each culture, as well as formal punishments, ostracism and after the most extreme acts it was reasonably common, for antisocial culprits to even lose their lives. He suggests that selfishness would have become a less and less favoured trait and that altruism and selflessness rather than selfishness would be the trait more likely to lead to reproductive success as the ‘fitness’ of the selfish would be compromised by social sanctions and ostracism.

Gossip and the fear of loss of reputation have been powerful motivators and remain so, as other recent research in Dacher Keltner’s Berkeley stable has shown [2]. It might have been such tendencies that have led to the resignation of the likes of Bob Diamond. The difference between now and when such traits evolved is that in small communities it is much harder to get away with things and hide, and ones actions are far more transparent than in more anonymous late capitalist economies where vital decisions are made behind closed doors. In hunter gatherer communities if someone became too powerful and dominant they were smartly put in their place by, often, other adults forming powerful alliances, and the residues of such traits are what we have maybe seen this week, as well as in all political insurgences, whether UK Uncut demonstrations or the Arab Spring.

Many researchers and commentators have drawn attention to other evolved mechanisms which might have gone into overdrive in the current climate. For example the study by Weaver and colleagues [3] is but one of many showing how males, particularly young males, when together in competitive situations tend to act unscrupulously and more recklessly, especially if there is any threat to their masculinity.  Power makes things worse. Joris Lammers from Holland has undertaken much research on this matter and found that when you induce powerful feelings in people they become less sensitive to others and more hypocritical. [4] . Dacher keltner in Berkeley similarly found that people with higher social positions were more likely to cheat and were less altruistic [5] and Debora Gruenfeld [6] and colleagues have published other compelling research about how power corrupts, and also, worrying, having more power not only makes people less virtuous, it also makes people less likely to believe in the virtue and kindness of others, and more likely to interpret such acts as self-interested. Of course these lessons are not new, we only have to look at Shakespeare or the bible for examples, but what maybe is new are the clear research findings, and the fact that society seems to have changed so dramatically so that it is much easier for the powerful to get away with corrupt and exploitative acts and not be noticed. Thankfully we have some recent counter-examples such as in the response to recent scandals about banking, tax evasion and phone-hacking and according to researchers such as Boehm and indeed also the sociobiologist E.O. Wilson [7], we do have selfless as well as selfish genes to call on.


[1]        C. Boehm, Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. Basic Books, 2012.

[2]        M. Feinberg, R. Willer, J. Stellar, and D. Keltner, ‘The virtues of gossip: Reputational information sharing as prosocial behavior.’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2012.

[3]        J. R. Weaver, J. A. Vandello, and J. K. Bosson, ‘Intrepid, imprudent, or impetuous?: The effects of gender threats on men’s financial decisions.’, 2012.

[4]        J. Lammers, D. A. Stapel, and A. D. Galinsky, ‘Power increases hypocrisy’, Psychological Science, vol. 21, no. 5, p. 737, 2010.

[5]        P. K. Piff, M. W. Kraus, S. Côté, B. H. Cheng, and D. Keltner, ‘Having less, giving more: The influence of social class on prosocial behavior.’, 2010.

[6]        M. E. Inesi, D. H. Gruenfeld, and A. D. Galinsky, ‘How power corrupts relationships: Cynical attributions for others’ generous acts’, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2012.

[7]        E. O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth. W. W. Norton & Co., 2012.

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