Does Money Make You Antisocial?

Money leads people to play alone, work alone, and put more physical distance between themselves and a new acquaintance, according to a study published in Science magazine. Even very subtle reminders of money appear to exert a tremendous influence on our behaviour and attitudes.

I was fascinated to read about a set of experiments published last month in Science magazine (and which has also drawn some comment in the financial press) about the psychological consequences of money.

In a series of nine experiments, researchers used subtle ‘mental priming’ techniques to remind participants about money, but without those reminders becoming the subject of conscious awareness. (For example, some participants were asked to perform phrase decoding tasks, some of which involved money, while others were placed in rooms which had a pile of Monopoly money just visible in their peripheral vision.)

The differences between subsequent outcomes for those who had and had not been primed with money awareness were huge: those who had been primed with money images worked alone much longer before asking for help (a full 70% longer than the control group), and they were much less likely to offer help when they were asked for it. Participants in another of the experiments were shown a collection box for a fund for needy students. The money-primed participants donated an average of just 77 cents out of the $2 in change they had been given for participating in the reserach, compared to an average of $1.34 for the control group. Another experiment found that primed participants who were asked to move two chairs together for a chat tended leave them physically farther apart than those in the control group, while another found that those primed with money images were more likely to choose solo events rather than social events from a list of leisure activities.

The researchers summarised their results:

The results of nine experiments suggest that money brings about a self-sufficient orientation in which people prefer to be free of dependency and dependents. Reminders of money, relative to nonmoney reminders, led to reduced requests for help and reduced helpfulness toward others. Relative to participants primed with neutral concepts, participants primed with money preferred to play alone, work alone, and put more physical distance between themselves and a new acquaintance.

Overall, the suggestion appears to be that money prompts people to focus on achieving their own goals in preference to helping others. The lead author Kathleen Vohs, from the University of Minnesota, suggests, “I think it has a positive side — being self-sufficient and goal-driven, and achieving something without relying on other people is a good thing”. On the other hand, those primed with money images apparently also expect others to be just as self-sufficient, and therefore wind up being less likely to help.

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