Home » Blog » Money Can Change Your Behavior Toward Others

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.

In one experiment, they exposed participants to one of three screensavers – a blank screen, a screen of fish swimming, or a screen of money falling. Then they were asked to pull a chair over while the experimenter went to get someone for a “get acquainted” conversation. The people exposed to the money screensaver put a significantly greater distance between their own chair and the chair they pulled over than either other screensaver. Simply being reminded of money was enough to create a greater social separateness.

The screensaver exposure in another experiment also predicted whether a person would want to work alone on a task, or with another person. Those who saw the money screensaver overwhelmingly chose to work alone than those who saw one of the other two screensavers (72% versus 16%). Keep in mind, the participants weren’t asked to stare or even make note of the screensaver – it was just there on the computer at the desk they happened to be sitting at.

And it wasn’t just the money screensaver that changed people’s behaviors. Sitting underneath a poster of money, participants in another experiment more often chose solitary activities from a list of activities they would find most enjoyable, rather than social activities with their friends or family. People sitting under a floral poster more often chose the social activities.

See a pattern here?

Even a small reminder of money can apparently change our mindset, our behaviors, and our focus. It seems that our brains activate this concept of “money,” suddenly we look at the world around us and prioritize things very differently. It appears to make a person more self-interested and more socially isolated.

Money is a very powerful but often invisible force in our lives. We should not be surprised to learn that money causes a lot of problems in marriages and long-term relationships, because it appears to activate a different mindset in ourselves that may be incompatible (or at least in conflict with) our social mindset and norms. Such a force should be recognized, working within our social relationships to identify when money is playing a negative role. And we may need to re-evaluate how we handle money in such situations if we value the strength of the future relationship.


Ariely, D. (2008). Predictably Irrational. HarperCollins: New York.

Brafman, O. & Brafman, R. (2008). Sway. Currency Doubleday: New York.

Heyman, J., & Ariely, D. (2004). Effort for payment. A tale of two markets. Psychological Science, 15(11), 787-93.

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), 208-212.

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.

7 comments: View Comments / Leave a Comment
APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Money Can Change Your Behavior Toward Others. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 26, 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
Published on Psych All rights reserved.