When greed really is good

The 1987 film Wall Street made famous the expression ‘ greed is good ’. The myopic lead character Gordon Gekko, who is focused solely on making as much money as possible, claims that greed drives positive human behaviour. 

He argues that greed is the very root of success; without greed, people rest on their laurels and lack motivation to better themselves.

Gekko says: “Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms – greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge – has marked the upward surge of mankind.”

While Gekko’s morals and pursuit of riches at whatever cost are of course deeply unpleasant, his understanding of greed is not entirely false. Of course, many of us grew up with the tenth commandment governing our understanding of greed: “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbour’s.”

Yet as with all emotions, greed in and of itself is not ‘bad’. Rather, it is the brain’s way of providing important information to drive behaviour. Instead of seeing greed as either good or bad, it is critical that one listens to the message, understand what it is trying to tell us and then act appropriately.

Levels of greed

As we explored with shame and fear in earlier articles, greed has clear levels.

The first level is jealousy. This is where Gordon Gekko’s views are most plausible since jealousy can be a motivator to improve one’s lot. For example, if one sees a fantastic athlete achieving greatness at international level, one might feel jealous of their ability. The response might be to train harder and commit more hours to the gym. Similarly, one might see their neighbour with an incredible new car which encourages one to work harder, to seal more deals and ultimately to buy their own.

Therefore, the first level of greed is, as Gekko says, good since it drives positive behaviour.

The second level of greed is envy. At this point the emotion starts to drive more negative behaviours; not only does one want what our neighbour has, one does not want them to have it. This is where greed becomes more about wanting something because someone else has it, rather than because it reminds you of what you want. The envy is beginning to represent a feeling about your own misgivings rather than a desire to improve.

The third stage is more negative yet. This where greed makes you deprive others for your own selfish gain. Imagine you are in a car show room and you and a fellow customer are looking at the same vehicle. It transpires there is only one of this model in stock. Someone feeling greed at level three would not be able to bear the thought of the other person having the car. They would offer more than the car was worth simply to prevent the other person buying it. Greed has overwhelmed common sense and it is about ‘winning’ rather than fulfilling a true need.

Returning to the commandments, this level is coveting. The behaviour has less to do with attaining something one truly desires and more about diminishing others. One is no longer making rational decisions but instead doing anything one can to boost self-esteem. 

The fourth and final stage is called cupidity. At this stage logical thought has been abandoned in favour of a complete obsession, either with a person or possessions.

In the mid-1990s Nick Leeson became the poster boy for cupidity. Now known as the man who broke Barings bank, Leeson spent three years in a Singapore prison after costing his employer $1.2bn through fraudulent activity.

Leeson carried out numerous trades using an erroneous account. When these trades lost, blinded by greed, Leeson continued trading to win the money back. Inevitably this failed too, and Leeson brought the bank to its knees. 

In Wall StreetGekko’s greed sees him end up in the hands of the financial regulators and he too is sent to prison.

This kind of excessive greed is also apparent in stalkers. Individuals who obsessively follow, track and invade the life of another. In some cases, the greed drives them to take the life of their obsession, rationalising that ‘if I can’t have them, no one else can’.

Keeping it in proportion

At level one, greed is motivating but it is important to prevent jealousy from escalating further.

A good CEO recognises where their competitors have the edge and uses that jealousy to promote positive action within their own business. It can be easy to sit back when the business is doing well, but seeing another firm bring out new technology, or acquire additional premises can drive investment in one’s own enterprise.

However, it is important not to see a step forward by a competitor as an incentive to over-invest, or dangerously overstretch the finances, which will ultimately be counterproductive.

Greed, if harnessed effectively, is important in taking positive steps forward, but it can be highly destructive. Greed might well be good, but like all things it needs to be in moderation. 


Greed is not always a negative emotion. It can be incredibly helpful in driving self-improvement. The danger lies when the desire to be better than others, overrides rational behaviour. Like other emotions greed is telling us to respond but one must listen to the message and act appropriately. Greed can be used positively but if one is feeling envious or the emotion is about our one’s own self-worth, it is time to step back and allow rational thought to return.

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