An old man was nearing his death. He had spent his life hoarding riches and was panicked at the thought of leaving it behind. So he began to pray and lo and behold, an angel appeared before him. She said, “I’m sorry, but no one is allowed to bring earthly goods into heaven.” The old man was used to getting what he wanted and insisted that she intercede with God on his behalf. A few days later she returned. “God will make an exception for you. When your time comes, you may bring along one suitcase full of goods.” The man was thrilled. He found his largest suitcase and stuffed it full of gold bars.
That night he died in his sleep. He awoke to find himself standing at the gates of heaven, suitcase in hand. St. Peter appeared before him and said, “Please open your bag so that I might inspect its contents.” The man opened his case, and the archangel peered in, curious to know what the man had deemed too precious to leave behind. Seeing only the gold bars St. Peter exclaimed, “You brought pavement?”
When we indulge our greed, the benefits we receive are rarely as satisfying as we had thought they would be — and sometimes the costs are stunning. With the holiday season approaching, I’m reminded of the horrific tragedy last year in which Jdimytai Damour, a 34-year-old seasonal Wal-Mart employee, was trampled to death by stampeding shoppers as they battled to get first grabs at Black Friday deals.
Acts of greed-driven mayhem have become commonplace on this busiest of shopping days. Ironically, Black Friday follows on the heels of Thanksgiving, the one day each year that we set aside to give thanks for our blessings — although we spend most of our time overeating. What might compel people to exhibit such avarice? The same thing that compels people to gorge themselves: a mismatch between our evolved nature and our current environment.
As I have said many times before, life requires a constant supply of energy, and the acquisition of energetic resources is the primary job of our behavioral intelligence system — the part of the brain that gives rise to our mind. Because life is completely dependent upon a consistent influx of energetic resources, acquisition is our default mode. We seek the objects of our desire and when we acquire them, the behavior that just got us the goods is reinforced by an internal mechanism that also triggers an endogenous opiate-induced sense of satisfaction. Put simply: we seek, we get, we feel high. A few moments later, however, our contentment fades, and another want arises in its stead.
This recurrent craving fuels both our greed and our gluttony, but there’s another process at play that amplifies the problem. When we repeatedly get what we want, our system establishes a new threshold of satiation. As a result, just like a junkie who’s adapted to his fix, we need more of whatever it is that we seek in order to feel the same high.
Why would natural selection have crafted us to be such voracious consumers? We’re built this way because ancestral humans evolved in scarcity. Food and other goods would have been extremely hard to come by on the savannah, so having a behavioral intelligence system that would quickly revert to seeking mode would have been a boon to our ancestors’ survival. What’s more, natural stopgaps to gluttony and greed were built into their nomadic hunter/gather lifestyle. Excess food would have spoiled and personal belongings would have had to be carried from place to place, so it made sense for our ancestors to behave cooperatively, to share food and supplies with others. Also, anyone behaving in an antisocial manner would have been ostracized from the group; in an environment teeming with predators and other dangers, this would have meant certain death. But things have changed since the early Plio-Pleistocene era.
Contemporary life in an industrialized society provides very few impediments to rampant gorging and hoarding and quite a few prompts. Not surprisingly, 34 percent of the US population is obese. And while we might think of hoarding behavior as relatively rare — only 2 to 5 percent hoard physical belongings — this is owing to the fact that we’ve created currency that veils the hoarding of wealth. Recent estimates suggest that 20 percent of the population sequesters 84 percent of this country’s privately owned resources.
Our tendencies to over-acquire and consume resources are adversely affecting both the physical health of individuals and the social health of our society. Sadly, the sense of scarcity and fear created by the economic crisis has made hoarding even more attractive, even as it makes the problem worse. This holiday season, as we consider whether or not we really need that extra piece of pie, perhaps we might also consider how much “pavement” we’re carrying.