Money, perhaps more so than any other modern symbol, can elicit a vast array of emotions (depending to a large degree on its abundance in one’s life), including yearning, anxiety, pride, greed, envy, depression, and happiness. Of course there is not simply a direct correlation with money and any one of these emotional states, such as more money equaling more happiness or vice versa. In fact, past research has found that the effects money has on one’s well-being can be very disparate. On one hand, having more money may be good for your health and emotional state. On the other, people who place a high value on money have been found to have poorer social relationships than those who are more moderate in their view toward the attainment of wealth.
A group of researchers recently conducted a series of experiments to explore this paradoxical aspect of affluence. They formulated two hypotheses about the dual nature of money in the modern world. First, since money is the basis of most exchange in today’s society, they suggested that the thought of money should make people more focused on cost-benefit analyses and a market-pricing view of their environment. They thought that this perspective might encourage more emphasis on individual performance, since money is often correlated with the completion of personal tasks in our business-based economy. They predicted people with money on their mind would think of life in terms of inputs and outputs, with an awareness that greater input should result in a greater output.
They also hypothesized that the market mentality, while beneficial for personal performance, might hinder one’s ability to interact socially. Because it fosters a focus on individual performance, it might cause a decrease in sensitivity towards the needs of others.
To test their hypotheses, they used several different methods of exposing participants to money-related cues, while attempting to make the cues subtle enough that the subjects wouldn’t be aware of their presence. In one experiment, some participants sat at a desk with a screensaver that depicted money, while others saw screensavers of fish or flowers. In another, participants had to organize phrases that were or were not related to money, such as “I cashed a check” or “I wrote the letter”. Several other methods of exposure to money cues were used.
After being exposed to the cues, the participants were put in various social situations that tested their desire to be helpful, generous, sociable, or industrious. For example, to test willingness to help, a confederate would walk by and drop a handful of pencils (27 to be exact). Or, in another situation, a confused colleague would ask for assistance in understanding a task they were attempting to complete. Those who were exposed to money cues picked up fewer pencils, and those who weren’t spent 120% more time helping the confused colleague.
When given an opportunity to donate a portion of $2 the participants were given at the start of the study, those who had been reminded of money donated 39% of their payment, while those who hadn’t been donated 67%. They also, when allowed to situate the chairs in a room while waiting for another person to arrive, put more distance between their chair and the other person’s than the money-naïve group. When given a list of solo vs. group activities to take part in, the money-exposed group chose more individual activities than the control group (even when some activities included family members and friends).
With the choice of working on a task alone or getting help from a peer, the money-reminded participants chose to work alone, even though it meant doing more work. When faced with a challenging task, they spent 48% more time working at it before seeking help from the experimenter.
The researchers suggest these results may appear because a money-oriented person is focused on the inputs and outputs of the market, a view that tends to lead to an emphasis on individualization and self-sufficiency. They found no changes in emotion between the two groups, and thus assert that the differences in behavior are probably not due to a distrusting of others. Additionally, the fact that those who were reminded of money chose to persist on a task before asking for help indicates the results are not based purely on selfishness, as a selfish person would not have been so eager to do more work than necessary.
Regardless, the results do suggest that money can inspire an aversion to social interaction and a focus on the self. In modicum, however, this may be a necessary part of a capitalistic society, where one is forced to place an emphasis on ensuring they are treated equitably and compensated fairly for their work—and where they are forced to compete for their livelihood. An interesting follow-up to this experiment would be to use neuroimaging to see what is going on in the brains of participants when they make decisions after exposure to money cues, and how it is different from controls.
Vohs, K.D., Mead, N.L., Goode, M.R. (2008). Merely Activating the Concept of Money Changes Personal and Interpersonal Behavior. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17(3), (in press).