December 2, 2021 Leave your thoughts

The psychology of money

Jamal (Jimmy) Esmaily

Ludwig Maximilian Universität, München, Germany

A brief commentary on Vohs, K. D., Mead, N. L., & Goode, M. R. (2006). The Psychological Consequences of Money. Science, 314(5802), 1154–1156. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1132491

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Money is everything! Most of the human activities are – directly or indirectly – related to money. So, it is not surprising to see the influence of money on human behaviour. Even so, it is rare to see studies that examine this relationship in creative ways that give us new insights. Vohs and colleagues, in an extensive study with numerous experiments, asked how the idea of money affects human behaviour both toward herself and as well as towards others.

In experiment 1-2, people were divided into 3 groups and asked to finish a word descrambling task. People were given 5 words and had to make a meaningful sentence out of four of the five. For example:

desk, is, cold, very, outside.

The correctly generated sentence would be: “outside is very cold“. The difference between the 3 groups was in the meaning of the generated sentences. In the CONTROL group, the outcome sentences were not related to money at all, just like the example above. In the PLAY MONEY group, same things happened but with only one difference: pictures of Monopoly money were displayed on the screen while people put the words in the right order. In the third group, called MONEY PRIME, the sentences people had to make were directly about money. For example, the group of words:

am, so, paper, I, rich

would generate: “I am so rich“. The authors called this type of sentences “money reminders”. Afterward, people in all 3 groups were given a difficult but solvable LEGO problem. The experimenter told people clearly that if they needed help, they could simply ask her. The key question was: would people in different groups ask for help equally often or not?

I am rich, I need no help!

The results showed that people primed with money took significantly longer time than two other groups to ask for help! (Figure 1). The interpretation was clear: money triggers feelings of self-sufficiency.

Figure 1. People primed with money (squares), took longer to ask for help. Simply showing people the pictures of monopoly money (triangles) also had a similar effect.

Another question was whether any amount of money triggers the feeling of self-sufficiency or, rather, the amount of money plays a role too? Now, experimenters divided people into two group to do the word descrambling task similar to experiment 1. In the first group (Low Money) the sentences implied that the person has little money. In contrast, in the High Money group, money reminder indicated that the person had lots of money. People in the High Money group took longer to ask for help and overall, asked for help significantly less often than the Low Money group (Figure 2). The amount of money mattered!

Figure 2. Priming with more money decreased the probability of asking for help, presumably because high money reminder increased the feeling of self-sufficiency

I am rich, I help no one!

In 4 other experiments, the authors showed that the self-sufficiency feeling created by money reminders made people less helpful to others! The money prime group spent less time to help others. Moreover, they also showed that the money prime group donated less money to charities and became significantly more stingy!

I am rich, keep your distance!

The authors also studied the social effect of money. Experimenter asked subjects to get into a conversation of “get to know each other”. Participants placed their chair in desired distance to the experimenter’s. People who were reminded of by scrambled sentences increased their physical distance from others by sitting separately from them!

The 9 experiments in this study showed that money could impact the human behaviour both regarding to herself and others. But what could be the reason behind these interesting observations? The paper does not tell us much about HOW money changes human behaviour. At present, there is no straightforward clue about the possible neural or computational mechanisms.

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