Money brings self-reliance, selfishness, study says

November 18, 2006|By Karen Kaplan | Karen Kaplan,Los Angeles Times

A team of psychologists has discovered why money can't buy happiness.

Pictures of dollar bills, fantasies of wealth and even wads of Monopoly money arouse feelings of self-sufficiency that result in selfish and often anti-social behavior, according to a study published yesterday in the journal Science.

"The mere presence of money changes people," said Kathleen Vohs, a professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota and lead author of the study.

Money makes it possible for people to achieve their goals without having to ask friends or acquaintances for help. Therefore, Vohs and her colleagues theorized that even subtle reminders of money would inspire people to be self-reliant - and to expect such behavior from others.

A series of nine experiments confirmed their hypothesis. In one of the experiments, 52 University of Minnesota students were divided into groups and asked to make sentences out of a scrambled group of words. For one group, the sentence referred to "a high-paying salary," while others got "it is cold outside."

Then they were asked to arrange a set of discs into a square and told they could ask for help if they needed it. Some of those who had made sentences not mentioning money were placed so they could see a stack of Monopoly money.

The students who had unscrambled the sentence about money worked on the puzzle an average of 5.2 minutes before asking for help. Those who had made the neutral sentence but could see the play money worked on it an average of 5.1 minutes.

But students who had no money-related prompt turned to others for help sooner; they worked just over 3 minutes before asking for help.

In another experiment, 44 students at Florida State University were each given $2 in quarters - which they were told was left over from a previous experiment - and asked to unscramble sentences that divided them into two groups: one that was reminded of money by the sentence and the other that was not.

When they left, the researcher noted that there was a box by the door for donations for needy students if they wanted to chip in, but they didn't have to.

On average, students who had read neutral sentences donated $1.34, while those whose sentences reminded them of money kept more for themselves, giving an average of 77 cents.

In another test, 61 students at the University of British Columbia sat at desks to fill out questionnaires. Some desks faced a poster showing money, some saw a poster of flowers and others saw a seascape.

They were then asked to choose between group or individual recreational activities, such as a dinner for four or individual cooking lessons. Those who had seen the money poster were more likely to pick individual activities than those looking at the other posters.

"Money changes people's motivations," said co-author Nicole Mead, a psychology graduate student at Florida State University. "They are less focused on other people. In this sense, money can be a barrier to social intimacy."

The experiments indicate that even quite trivial exposure to money changes peoples' goals and behavior, Carole B. Burgoyne and Stephen E. G. Lee of the University of Exeter in England said in a commentary on the paper.

"Subjects exposed to the idea of money subsequently show a more self-reliant but also a more self-centered approach to problem-solving than subjects exposed to neutral concepts," said Lee and Burgoyne, who were not part of Vohs' research team.

Karen Kaplan writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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