NPR logo Money And The Brain: More Weirdness

Money And The Brain: More Weirdness

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You may have caught our story this morning about a curious experiment showing that if you count dollar bills then put your hand in hot water, the hot water is likely to feel less hot than if you had just counted blank paper. It doesn't even have to be your cash. Just being reminded of money makes things hurt less. That's the idea, anyway.

One of the scientists, Kathleen Vohs, published another surprising paper a few years ago with two colleagues. If I can summarize the findings non-scientifically it would be like this: money can turn people into selfish jerks.

In one experiment, they had students play games of Monopoly. At some point the game was stopped and cleared away except for a certain amount of money. In some cases, $200, in others $4,000. Then, as a test, the researchers had someone walk into the room and spill some pencils as if by accident. Result? The students who had been left with more money helped pick up fewer pencils.

"Even though gathering pencils was an action that all participants could perform, participants reminded of financial wealth were unhelpful," they write in the paper.

And it was just play money! The weirdness continues...

In another experiment, students were given busywork to do while sitting in front of a computer. The computer started showing a screen saver, in some cases fish swimming under water. In another setup, the screen saver showed dollar bills wriggling around under water instead.

"Afterwards, participants were told they would be having a get-acquainted conversation with another participant. Participants were asked to move two chairs together while the experimenter left to retrieve the other participant," they write in the paper.

Students who had sat in front of the money screen saver put the chairs farther apart than the students exposed to the fish screen saver.

It seems, the researchers say, that money makes people feel more self-sufficient. And that simple idea, they write, could neatly explain why people see money as both good and, sometimes, the root of all 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," they write. "In this way, money enhanced individualism but diminished communal motivations, an effect that is still apparent in people's responses to money today."