Two sides of the same coin: Money spurs changes for better and worse

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Money changes everything, and that includes changing people's motivations for the better and their behavior toward others for the worse, according to a new study published in the international journal Science.

Florida State University psychology graduate student Nicole Mead in Tallahassee, Fla was among a group of researchers who found that the concept of money brings about a state of self-sufficiency that allows people to work harder and more independently to achieve personal goals but makes them more socially insensitive in the process.

"Money changes people's motivations," Mead said. "They want to work really hard to achieve their goals. Consequently, they are less focused on other people. In this sense, money can be a barrier to social intimacy."

Kathleen Vohs, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota, is the lead author of "The Psychological Consequences of Money," which will be published in the Nov. 17 issue of Science. Mead and Miranda Goode, a doctoral student at the University of British Columbia, are co-authors.

Mead helped design and conduct five of nine laboratory experiments, most of which involved having participants complete a number of different tasks while being exposed to "play" money or other visual references to money. The researchers found that those exposed to reminders of money worked longer on tasks before asking for help and were less helpful toward others. They also preferred to play alone, work alone and put more physical distance between themselves and a new acquaintance.

"Although the pattern of results were as predicted, we were somewhat surprised about the strength and consistency of the effects with such subtle reminders of money," Mead said, noting that money was not an unusual concept for the participants, most of whom were college students born in Canada or the United States.

In one experiment, two groups of participants were given $2 in quarters. They were told the quarters were a supplement to their regular payment for participation, although in reality, they were given to ensure that everyone had money on hand when a donation opportunity arose later. After the participants performed a word scramble exercise, the experimenter casually mentioned that a box by the door had been set up for those interested in making a donation to a university student fund. The researchers found that participants in the group that unscrambled phrases having to do with money donated significantly less to the student fund. They contributed 77 cents compared to the $1.34 given by those who unscrambled words that did not contain money-related concepts.

Another experiment involved a game of Monopoly in which the participants were left with $4,000, $200 or no money. The researchers then staged an accident in which a person walking through the lab spilled a box of pencils, creating an opportunity for the participants to help pick them up. Participants in the high-money group gathered fewer pencils than those in the low-money or no-money groups.

To test social intimacy, the researchers designed another experiment in which participants sat in front of a computer while completing questionnaires. After six minutes, one of three screensavers appeared: one depicting currency floating underwater, one depicting fish swimming or a blank screen. Afterwards, participants were asked to move two chairs together while the experimenter left the room to retrieve another participant for a get-acquainted conversation. Participants who viewed the floating money placed the two chairs farther apart than did the participants who saw the fish and the blank screensavers -- 118 inches compared to about 80 inches.

"The self-sufficient pattern explains why people view money as both the greatest good and evil," the authors concluded. "As countries and cultures developed, money may have allowed people to acquire goods and services that enabled the pursuit of cherished goals, which in turn diminished reliance on friends and family. In this way, money enhanced individualism but diminished communal motivations, an effect that is still apparent in people's responses to money today."

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The research was supported by grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Canada Research Chair Council.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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