How can greed destroy a family?

Secret of greed: Why it drives us, but can also destroy us

Members of the Bundestag earn an above-average amount of money - despite this, members of the CDU and CSU have recently made headlines with questionable sideline jobs.

“Everyone is greedy to a certain extent,” says folklorist Paula Lutum-Lenger, who organized an exhibition on the subject of greed.

The Viennese business psychologist Erich Kirchler explains why greed also needs the right conditions in order to be favored - and how you can protect yourself from it.

High commissions for the mediation of masks and medical equipment, advertising for dictatorial states, lobbying for companies: members of the CDU and CSU have made headlines with questionable sideline jobs and income in recent months.

Members of the Bundestag such as Philipp Amthor, Georg Nüßlein or - until their resignation - Mark Hauptmann regularly earn EUR 10,083.47 gross per month. In addition, there are other payments such as a tax-free expense allowance, with which, for example, a second home in Berlin can be financed. This income should be enough for a good life. Why did politicians nevertheless risk their most important asset, their credibility, with dubious deals?

“Everyone is greedy to a certain extent,” says Paula Lutum-Lenger. She is an ethnologist and director of the House of History in Stuttgart. There she has just opened an exhibition on the subject of greed in all its facets. From a collector who collected 153 shoes and who himself describes his passion as greed, to the theft of Jewish property during the Nazi era.

“We wanted to represent a broad spectrum of greed, including ambivalence. From curiosity or thirst for knowledge to lust for power and greed, although they are essentially completely different, ”says Lutum-Lenger in an interview with Business Insider. Greed, she says, can also have positive connotations. "In soccer reports, for example, it says: 'The team is greedy'."

"Greed can be the drive for positive developments for society"

In the famous “Greed is good” speech in the movie “Wall Street”, Michael Douglas as stockbroker Gordon Gekko says: “Greed - in all its forms - the greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has the development of humanity shaped. ”So is greed also an engine of progress?

"I would sign Gordon Gekko's sentence," says Lutum-Lenger. “Greed can be the driving force behind positive developments for society. A certain curiosity is good, but when does it tip into excess? When is it at the expense of others or when do others come to harm? "

So greed has a certain ambivalence in it. A good example of this is the behavior of Fritz Haber. The chemist was the first scientist to discover the synthesis of ammonia - which in the long term enabled the production of artificial fertilizers. With this, Haber created the basis for modern, efficient agriculture and the basic nutritional basis for many people. In 1919 he received the Nobel Prize for this. “But he also used his knowledge and his thirst for research to use poison gas in World War I,” says Lutum-Lenger.

Greed drives human behavior in many cases. Scientists today assume, for example, that most of the members of the NSDAP in the Third Reich did so less for ideological and more for opportunistic reasons. Those who got on well with the government of Adolf Hitler could, for example, benefit from the expropriation of Jews, like the entrepreneur Günther Quandt.

The grandfather of the major BMW shareholders Stefan Quandt and Susanne Klatten enriched himself through Aryanization and the employment of forced laborers. But “normal” citizens also took action when Jewish shops were looted. "Sometimes the temptation is perhaps too great, not everyone can handle it confidently," says Lutum-Lenger. “But when you harm other people, it's about existential things. Everyone has to think about that for themselves. "

Which factors encourage excessive greed

Erich Kirchler, head of the Institute for Work, Economic and Social Psychology at the University of Vienna, deals with why and when a desire becomes excessive. “The question that arises is where greed begins,” says the psychologist. Striving for more is not reprehensible individually and socially as a whole, but stirs up the motivation to achieve. But greed and greed or greed and vindictiveness are negative - and it is not for nothing that these words clearly refer to addiction and its causes and effects. "Greed," says Kirchler, "is the violent and excessive desire for possession and the fulfillment of one's own desires, and sometimes 'all means seem right' to satisfy the desire."

Kircher's research focuses on tax evasion and the tax ethics of citizens. According to him, there is no such thing as a “typical” tax evader. According to studies, however, older people tend to be more honest than younger people and women tend to be more honest than men. However, if you have more opportunities to save taxes in a marginal way, you also take advantage of them more often. Greed therefore also needs the right environment in which to establish itself.

Even among high-paid athletes, managers and entrepreneurs, there are many who want to make even more money for themselves through tax evasion and unfair business. But if they are exposed, they not only lose money, but also their reputation - and sometimes even their freedom. Uli Hoeneß, Alice Schwarzer, Klaus Zumwinkel, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Theo Sommer, Boris Becker, Silvio Berlusconi - the list of prominent tax evaders is long.

Why do even people with an above-average income risk being harmed by tax evasion or corruption? “Essential factors are the illusion of control, the feeling of having things under control; the opinion of being above average and the feeling of being inviolable. Excessive narcissism and the feeling of having a right to more can also be the basis of greedy behavior, ”says the Viennese business psychologist.

The temptations in the situation, offers up to corruption, the comparison with others and the resulting envy and greed, the underestimation of the probability of detection and the illusion of controllability of the event up to the feeling of being inviolable in a high position can lead to behavior according to him, which not only express greed, but are simply illegal.

Those who value property are more likely to succumb to the seductive power of money

But sometimes there is only a short path from wealth to bankruptcy. The Thomas Middelhoff case could serve as a cautionary example. Born in Düsseldorf, he was initially a research assistant at the university before he achieved a spectacular rise. In his mid-40s he became CEO of Bertelsmann AG, met US presidents and German chancellors for dinner and celebrated with world stars at parties.

Bonuses in the hundreds of millions would have made him greedy, Middelhoff later admitted: “I thought I could walk on water. I thought nobody could say anything to me anyway. ”As head of KarstadtQuelle, later renamed Arcandor, Middelhoff was very generous with company money, while at the same time the group's employees had to suffer severe cuts. In 2014 Middelhoff was sentenced to three years in prison for embezzlement and tax evasion. A few months later he went into personal bankruptcy.

Middelhoff had lost his grip at the height of his career. For a long time he was the epitome of the greedy manager - and in the end he also harmed himself. Those who value property and want to be admired will succumb more quickly to the seductive power of money, according to economic psychologist Kirchler. "Money not only gives the feeling of material security, but also social recognition, power and even an erotic charisma."

In society there must therefore be rules that are also demanded, and sanctions if these rules are not adhered to. But trust in the community and the “administrators”, such as politicians, is also important, says Kirchler. If you don't want to be seduced by money yourself, you can take precautions, says the psychologist. "To protect against greed, frugality, critical reflection on your own behavior, having a mirror held up by others - and getting honest feedback."