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Money changes everything

It might seem obvious that dwelling on money (or lack thereof) makes people focus more on themselves and less on others – after all, even the Bible says the love of money is the root of all evil. But is that the square root or the cube root? Experiments detailed in this week’s issue of Science quantify how thinking about money, even subliminally, affects our behavior for good or for evil.

The researchers behind the study - University of Minnesota marketing professor Kathleen Vohs, Florida State University graduate student Nicole Mead and University of British Columbia doctoral student Miranda Good - started out with the proposition that thinking about money leads people to behave more self-sufficiently and less cooperatively. So they designed nine psychological experiments aimed at testing whether reminders of money would lead people to focus more on their individual tasks and less on what others were up to.

In some cases, the references to money were built into the experiment: For example, some subjects were asked to put together phrases like "a high-paying salary." Others read essays about growing up rich or poor, or played a game of Monopoly. Sometimes the reminders were more subliminal: Subjects filled out questionnaires while they sat in front of a computer screen that displayed dollar bills floating past, or worked at desk facing a poster showing different denominations of currency.

The experiments' control groups did the same tasks, but without encountering references to money. The screensaver showed fish floating past, or the poster showed a flower garden.

The point of each experiment wasn't usually the task itself, but how the references to money changed the way people behaved as they did the task.

The money-conscious groups consistently worked longer at their individual tasks than the control groups (or the people who read about growing up poor). But they also put less effort into helping out others, based on manufactured situations where assistance was requested.

For example, they donated an average of 77 cents to a "University Student Fund," compared with $1.34 for the control group. When a box of pencils was spilled "accidentally" on the floor, they picked up an average of 18 pencils, compared with 20 for the control group. They even kept their chairs farther away from each other (118 inches vs. 80 inches for the control group).

In all, about 450 people participated in the experiments, Vohs said. "We found no differences as a function of country of origin, no differences between men and women, no differences with respect to whether they grew up with wealthy or meager resources," she told me today.

The bottom line is that dwelling on money changes things for better or for worse, depending on the situation. Here's how the researchers put it in the last paragraph of their Science paper:

"The self-sufficient pattern helps explain why people view money as both the greatest good and evil. 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."

Is there any way to put this philosophy to practical use?

"Certainly you can use these results to one's advantage," Vohs observed. "As a business owner or a manager, if you would like people to work cooperatively on a project, you would be better served by minimizing the references to money. But on a personal level, if you want to motivate yourself to achieve a goal, you might want to use that concept of money."

It doesn't even have to be real money.

"It's the mere presence of money or the activation of the concept of money, but it wasn't anything about earning money, it wasn't about rewards, it wasn't about salaries," she said. "It was about activating the concept of money, even at a level that's beneath awareness."

So let's say you'd like your teenage daughter to be more diligent about cleaning her room or doing her homework. Could you get away with putting up a poster or giving her a screensaver rather than promising to raise her allowance?

Vohs chuckled at that, but agreed that "it doesn't have to be about the attainment of money, just monetary reminders." Now she and her colleagues are looking at how to apply that insight in the real world. "One of my next goals is to look at vulnerable populations, like the elderly, and see if we can promote self-sufficiency for them," she said.

And that finding - about the power of money as a concept as well as hard currency - might not be so obvious. "I certainly don't think that it was something everyone knew about."

For more perspectives on the research, you can check out the news releases from the University of Minnesota and Florida State University, as well as The Associated Press' story and this report from ScienceNow, the journal Science's news site.