Study: Your Brain Thinks Money Is A Drug Handling money can make painful things feel less painful, a groundbreaking experiment shows. Researchers say it appears that the human brain sees cold, hard cash as a reasonable substitute for another pain buffer — love.
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Study: Your Brain Thinks Money Is A Drug

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Study: Your Brain Thinks Money Is A Drug

Study: Your Brain Thinks Money Is A Drug

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If paying taxes is painful for you our next story may offer a bit of relief. There is new research on the intersection of money and pain. A scientifically conducted experiment shows that counting money - just counting currency - can make things hurt less. NPR's David Kestenbaum, with our Planet Money team, has that story.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: Like many psychological experiments this one involved a lot of students and a certain amount of deception. Ok. Let's call it lying. Students were brought into the lab and told they were there for a test, not of pain and money but finger dexterity.

Professor KATHLEEN VOHS (Marketing, Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota): Yeah, right, exactly.

KESTENBAUM: This is one of the researchers, Kathleen Vohs.

Prof. VOHS: Associate professor of marketing at the Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota.

KESTENBAUM: The students were given real money and told to count it.

Ms. VOHS: So these experiments were run in China. Those were 100 Renminbi bills, the equivalent of a $14 bill.

KESTENBAUM: This was just to kind of tickle the brain with the idea of money, remind students that, hey, money exists. Now the pain part. About 10 minutes later, after filling out some forms to kind of put the whole money thing in the past, some of the students were asked to place their fingers in a bowl of hot water - 122 degrees Fahrenheit, not hot enough to do lasting damage, but I should point out it's hotter than the Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends for your hot water heater at home, though you can get there pretty quickly with the office microwave. I brought a bowl of water into the studio and it happened to be right at 122 degrees right now.

Ms. VOHS: Oh good, what's it feel like?

KESTENBAUM: Hang on a second. Ow, yeah. Well, yeah, if you keep your fingers in there, it's pretty uncomfortable.

Ms. VOHS: Okay, good, so it's like a hot-hot tub that's a bit uncomfortable, you really have to settle into it. Is that right?

KESTENBAUM: Yeah, that seems right, yeah.

Ms. VOHS: Good, okay. Boy, that's - you know, I never did that. That's a fault on my part.

ESTENBAUM: They asked the students to rate how uncomfortable the water felt. For comparison the researchers repeated the experiment with a second group of students. Instead of counting money, those students counted blank paper.

Ms. VOHS: Well, the subjects who had earlier been counting money and had their hands in the painfully hot water reported that the water didn't feel so hot to them relative to subjects who had earlier counted slips of paper.

KESTENBAUM: So you're telling me if I had just counted a bunch of dollar bills from my wallet, this water would not hurt me so much?

VOHS: Well, dollar bills - I mean don't know if dollar bills would work, but certainly twenties should work in this case. Yeah, that's the idea.

KESTENBAUM: That seemed sort of surprising.

Ms. VOHS: It is surprising. It surprises me still.

KESTENBAUM: So why would this happen? That's harder to explain.

Ms. VOHS: One thing we would ask our subjects is this whole litany of questions about how they feel, do they feel happier or sadder? And the only item, and it's just a single item, but it pops out in every single time we asked it, is this item of strong. So when subjects had been reminded of money, 10 minutes later they said inexplicitly they just felt stronger.

KESTENBAUM: So maybe being reminded of money makes you feel stronger, less vulnerable, which translates into feeling less pain.

Professor NICHOLAS EPLEY (University of Chicago): So it's a substantial finding. I mean it's a - in many ways has the potential to be something of a discovery, which we don't always have all that often in psychology.

KESTENBAUM: Nicholas Epley is a professor of behavioral science in the University of Chicago's business school. He says this appears to be an elaborate case of something called priming, where thinking about one thing can subconsciously trigger a related thing.

Prof. EPLEY: So think about old people and lots of associations are likely to come to mind, like walking slowly, for instance. It turns out that if you make people think about old people, lo and behold, they then walk more slowly in an experiment.

KESTENBAUM: That's true?

Prof. EPLEY: Yeah, that's true.


Prof. EPLEY: Bargh, Chen, and Burrow's 1996 journal of personality and social psychology.


Prof. EPLEY: Yeah, I know, crazy finding.

KESTENBAUM: The new research on pain and money was published in the journal Psychological Science. Economists have, of course, studied money for ages, how prices efficiently direct the flow of resources. But meanwhile, in our little heads, money appears to be acting a bit like aspirin.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

WETHEIMER: If the economy gives you a headache, find prescriptions on our Planet Money blog at the new

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: If the economy gives you a headache, find prescriptions on our Planet Money blog at the new

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