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Kathleen Vohs, CSOM

A new study led by Kathleen Vohs suggests that having money in mind can change people's behavior toward others.

The root of all effort?

New research suggests that having money in mind can change behavior

By Deane Morrison

Nov. 21, 2006

An abundance of money, it's been said, stimulates the urge to acquire even more loot while stifling the spirit of generosity. Myth? Maybe not. A new University study suggests that the very idea of money can prompt people to behave in a self-sufficient way--wanting neither to receive nor to give help--and to expect the same of others. Led by Kathleen Vohs, a psychologist and assistant professor of marketing in the Carlson School of Management, the study was published Friday (Nov. 17, 2006) in the journal Science. Scholars, says Vohs, have viewed money as both an incentive for personal advancement and an agent of discord, and that's why she, along with colleagues at the University of British Columbia and Florida State University, wanted to probe the mechanisms by which money can change people. "Money enables people to achieve goals without aid from others," the researchers wrote. "Therefore, we predicted that reminders of money would lead to changes in behavior that suggest a feeling of self-sufficiency. When reminded of money, people want to be free from dependency and also prefer that others not depend on them." The researchers performed nine experiments, for which they recruited students at all three universities. The students, who were told nothing about the real nature of the experiments, were first exposed to either neutral themes or to the concept of money. The concept of monetary abundance was suggested by various means, such as placing the subjects where they could see a computer screensaver with images of currency bills or making them unscramble words to form simple phrases like "She paid the bills" or "a high-paying salary." In some experiments, two groups of people were exposed to the idea of money. For one group it was monetary abundance, achieved by reading an essay about a rich person or being given $4,000 in Monopoly money. For the other group, it was monetary scarcity, achieved by reading an essay about a person of marginal means or getting to keep $200 in Monopoly money. Then, said Vohs, "We asked if being around the concept of money affected people's behavior." After the students had been exposed to monetary or neutral concepts, the researchers tested their willingness to ask for help; their willingness to help others, either by lending aid or by making donations to a fictitious student fund; and their preference for social closeness or distance.

The study results also agree, says Vohs, with research elsewhere showing that people with a strong drive to get more money have trouble with relationships.

In general, the stronger the money message at the beginning of the experiment, the more likely the students were to withhold help, refrain from asking for help and choose a more solitary setting for work or play. For example, those exposed to neutral concepts ended up donating an average of $1.34 to the fictitious fund, while people in the "money" group donated only 77 cents. Also, exposing students to the concept of money significantly reduced the chances that they would ask for help on a difficult puzzle and increased the likelihood that they would opt to work on a task alone rather than with a partner. Taken together, the experiments "provided support for the hypothesis that money brings about a state of self-sufficiency," said the researchers. "Relative to people not reminded of money, people reminded of money reliably performed independent but socially insensitive actions." Why this should be so may go back to money's ability to help people get what they want with minimal social contact. For example, if you're moving and you have money, you can hire professional movers. "But if you have no money, you ask friends to come over and help with moving," says Vohs. "It's harder than hiring people, but you have a few laughs and make memories." The study results also agree, says Vohs, with research elsewhere showing that people with a strong drive to get more money have trouble with relationships. "Nowadays, some people in extreme circumstances may use money to substitute for friends by hiring a therapist to solve their problems," she says. Vohs plans to investigate whether the effects of exposure to money stem from changes in one's ability to take on the perspectives of other people. She is also seeking support for similar studies on elderly populations to see if exposure to the concept of money will help maintain or even boost a sense of self-sufficiency in these relatively vulnerable people. For now, Vohs suggests that people might be able to motivate themselves or others to work harder and more independently by keeping the concept of money in the crosshairs. Or not. "If you want [others] to work cooperatively, downplay the concept," she says. "Don't talk about commissions or bonuses--talk about pleasing a client or growth of the company, or talk in terms of performance."