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Money Can Change Your Behavior Toward Others

In 2004, researchers James Heyman and Dan Ariely (author of Predictably Irrational) devised a set of deceptively simple experiments that illustrated that the moment money enters a social relationship, it can change the very nature of our expectations and the relationship.

In the first experiment, they asked three different groups to perform a simple but menial task – drag as many circles as you can across a computer screen in 5 minutes. The groups only differed in what they would get for completing this task: $5, $0.50 or nothing. For the group that got nothing, the task was framed not as a task per se, but as a ‘favor’ to help out the researchers.

If you read the book, you already know that the group that performed the task as a favor dragged the most circles across the screen – significantly more than those who were paid $0.50.

What Ariely suggests is that when approached to help do something, we put things into one of two primary contexts (or “comparative norms”). We are either putting it into the “business” norm (I perform a task, you pay me for that task), or the “social” norm (I’m doing this task as a favor to you).

In the second part in the above experiment (Heyman & Ariely, 2004), they mixed these two norms up by offering free gifts when a person completed the task. Ordinarily, a gift would provoke a social response. But the researchers put a price on the gift (a “50-cent Snickers bar” or a “five-dollar box of Godiva chocolates”), which resulted in people performing again as though they were working for money. So gifts are not a good substitute for cash when their value is noted, as they bring out the “business” norms in us.

The upshot from these experiments illustrates how, according to the researchers, people are willing to work for free (as a “favor” or volunteer effort), and they are willing to work for a fair wage. But their performance will significantly suffer if you underpay someone for their work.

Money changes the way we perceive things, and it’s not just how we work. In Ori and Rom Brafman’s book, Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, they described how Swiss townspeople were fairly willing to have a nuclear waste depository built near their town. Perhaps out of a feeling of social obligation or national pride, 50.8% of the townspeople agreed to such a facility being built. This wasn’t quite as high as the government had hoped for, so they added some incentives to help swing more votes their way. They decided to offer a compensation of 5,000 francs to each resident for agreeing to have the facility built near their town.

Once money was introduced into the equation, people moved the decision out of the social norm into the business norm. And from a business perspective, you’d want a lot more than 5,000 francs to live next to a nuclear waste deposit. So the percentage of townspeople willing to have the facility built next to their town dropped to only 24.6%! Even after the government offered to double or triple the amount of money given to each resident, it had little effect on the vote. They had inadvertently moved the discussion from the realm of social obligation into the realm of money and business.

New research just published this month shows that money has a far greater sway over us than we may imagined. Kathleen Vohs and her colleagues (2008) conducted a series of experiments to gauge the influence of money on our social obligations and relationships.

Money Can Change Your Behavior Toward Others

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Money Can Change Your Behavior Toward Others. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 19, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 9 Jul 2008)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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