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Alpha Investors

Is Greed an Addiction?

Leonardo DiCaprio stars in The Wolf of Wall Street

Photograph by Mary Cybulski/©aramount Pictures/Everett Collection

Leonardo DiCaprio stars in The Wolf of Wall Street

We know that wealth can make you selfish, but does it make you an addict?

This weekend in the New York Times, a former hedge fund trader named Sam Polk argued that earning multimillion-dollar bonuses causes something akin to an alcohol or drug addiction—prompting rage and an uncontrollable desire for more. It’s an intriguing theory and one that would explain the sometimes inexplicable behavior of certain folks on Wall Street who seem willing to destroy themselves and their companies rather than be satisfied with the millions or billions they already have. Polk provides a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of a trader in the throes of money-lust, but there’s little scientific evidence to back up the addiction theory.

Polk was one of many young men who read Michael Lewis’s book Liar’s Poker about his time as a bond salesman at Salomon Brothers in the 1980s and was inspired (to Lewis’s horror) to head to Wall Street to seek his fortune. “When I walked onto that trading floor for the first time and saw the glowing flat-screen TVs, high-tech computer monitors, and phone turrets with enough dials, knobs, and buttons to make it seem like the cockpit of a fighter plane, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” Polk writes. He wanted to be rich.

He spent several years lurching toward that goal, eventually becoming a bond and credit-default-swap trader who made a fortune when the economy crashed, earning a $3.6 million bonus in 2010. Still, it wasn’t enough, and the fact that guys sitting next to him had made more drove him crazy. “Ever see what a drug addict is like when he’s used up his junk? He’ll do anything—walk 20 miles in the snow, rob a grandma—to get a fix,” Polk writes. “Wall Street was like that. In the months before bonuses were handed out, the trading floor started to feel like a neighborhood in The Wire when the heroin runs out.”

While there may be similarities between the behavior of a junkie and certain hungry young men on Wall Street, chemical addiction has both physiological and genetic roots, while the uncontrollable desire for money that Polk describes is more environmental. It’s called greed.

Kolhatkar is a features editor and national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow her on Twitter @Sheelahk.

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