Money Mentality

Money Mentality

If you're trying to make money, will that make you motivated and driven, or greedy and selfish? A recent study found some truth in both sides.


How cash changes behavior. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Does money encourage self-sufficiency, or selfishness? Yes and yes, according to University of Minnesota consumer psychologist Kathleen Vohs.

In a series of experiments, Vohs and her colleagues found that the mere suggestion of money—through word games, pictures, or play money—made people work longer on challenging tasks before asking for help. But it also made them less inclined to help others on similar tasks, donate spare change to charity, or even pick up somebody's dropped pencils.

Kathleen Vohs:

So it suggested that they just thought that everyone should be working toward their own goals without wanting help, just like they had done in the other experiments.

She says the bottom line is that money appears to promote self-reliance, which has positive and negative social consequences. I'm Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Making Sense of the Research

It's not hard to imagine that money changes people. What's unique about Vohs' research is that it doesn't look at the effects of actually being rich or poor in the real world. Instead, she studied the effects of just thinking about money, in very controlled and limited environments. In fact, her subjects stood to gain or lose either no money at all, or very little, as a result of their behavior. Yet the mere suggestion of money affected them in striking ways.

Vohs and her colleagues conducted several experiments. They exposed some of their participants to the idea of money in a variety of ways, including giving them Monopoly money, asking them to read stories about wealthy characters, having them complete word puzzles with money-related answers, or even running a screensaver with pictures of dollar bills nearby. Other participants worked under similar conditions, except money wasn't mentioned.

She found that when people were reminded of money, they spent more time working on difficult brainteasers before asking for help. They also were more likely to choose to work alone on an assigned project, rather than with a partner. When they were asked to meet another participant in the study, they even set the chairs further apart than people who hadn't been reminded of money—creating more physical distance between themselves and the new person. These results suggest that thinking about money makes people more independent and self-sufficient.

However, it appears that the thought of money makes people expect others to be self-sufficient, too. In one experiment, someone would interrupt the participant and ask for five minutes of help on a different project. Those in the “money” group were less likely to help at all, and when they did, they volunteered less of their time than people who hadn't been reminded of money. In another, an experimenter walked through the room and created a fake accident by dropping a bunch of pencils on the floor. People who had been reminded about money were less likely to help pick them up. In another situation, participants were asked to donate a small amount of money to a fictional charity on their way out. Those who had been reminded of money gave less than those who hadn't.

In all of these experiments, it didn't matter whether the participants actually were rich, poor, or in between. Their true socio-economic status had no effect on their behavior. This suggests that money, as an idea, can motivate people in all walks of life. Furthermore, it implies that if you're constantly reminded of money—by working in a bank, for example—your behavior may be affected even if you don't have a lot of money yourself.

The study speaks to a larger debate that goes back for centuries: whether a money-oriented, capitalist society is a good or bad thing. It seems to confirm the basic arguments of both sides: that a money-driven society stimulates independence, innovation, and self-reliance, but also tends to make people turn their backs on those who do need help. It's not an easy problem to solve, but just knowing about it may encourage us to keep an eye on our own behavior.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What are the pros and cons of thinking about money, according to Vohs' research?
  2. How does the suggestion of money, in her experiments, differ from actual wealth?
  3. Can you think of situations in which a person might have money, but not be reminded of it very much? Is this possible?
  4. In what real-life social situations have you seen examples of this behavior?

You may want to check out the December 8, 2006, Science Update Podcast to hear further information about this Science Update and the other programs for that week. This podcast's topics include: Your birthday greetings to us, hopeful news about malaria in Africa, robots that can recover from injury, news about Neanderthals, the truth about lie detectors, and money brings out the best and the worst in us.

For Educators

The video Capitalism Redifined, from the EconEdLink-reviewed Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy, focuses on the failure of the benefits of capitalism to reach the world's poor. On the flip side, the video Communism on the Heights, from the same site, details the spread of socialism and the economic effects of communism in the early 20th century.

The same site offers a profile of Adam Smith, the man credited with writing the first great work on political economy. His treatise, The Wealth of Nations, describes the evolution and political organization of civilizations, from hunter-gatherer societies to commercially interdependent ones.

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