Show them the money - and then?

Just exposing them to cash changes people's behavior, experimenters find

December 03, 2006|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,sun staff

The holiday-bonus season is upon us, and admit it - you expect your boss to add a little something to your paycheck. And not just because you need extra funds for your holiday shopping list.

It's about the almighty dollar. The dollar has a social value that goes well beyond what it can buy. It dictates our self-worth. It settles our legal grievances. It goes a long way toward alleviating friction at home and in the workplace.

That's why it's not surprising that a recent study at the University of Minnesota concluded that merely showing money to people can change their behavior.

Kathleen Vohs, the University of Minnesota marketing professor who initiated the study, says that the experiment suggests that money promotes a me-first attitude.

She says during her experiments, the mere mentioning of money made subjects less likely to ask for help and less likely to offer it.

"Money is a real incentive and a true motivator. Someone has said it's the only true motivator," said Vohs.

In tests conducted with students at Minnesota, Florida State and the University of British Columbia, Vohs and her colleagues chronicled differences between those who had been prompted to think about money and those who had not.

The two groups performed a series of puzzles and tasks, the results of which revealed striking behavior differences.

Those who were prompted to think about money exhibited a greater sense of self-sufficiency but were likely to be less sociable.

For example: More than 50 students at the University of Minnesota were divided into two groups - those primed with money-related concepts and those who were not. Then, each group read a list of words and was to create 30 phrases.

A group that had been primed with money-related concepts created 15 money-related phrases. The group that had not been primed made no money-related phrases.

Then the groups were asked to arrange a set of discs in a square and told to ask for help if needed. Also, the group that had not formed a phrase about money was subdivided into two groups, one that worked where its members could see a stack of Monopoly money and one that worked out of sight of the money.

The group that made money-related phrases worked an average of 5.2 minutes before asking for help. The group that hadn't made a phrase about money but was subsequently exposed to Monopoly money worked an average of 5.1 minutes before requesting help.

But the group that had no exposure to money and didn't make phrases about it worked just over three minutes before requesting help.

"Money disrupts interpersonal relationships," said Vohs.

Sometimes to the point of being less charitable.

At Florida State, 44 students were each given $2 in quarters, which they were told was left over from a previous experiment. They were asked to unscramble sentences that divided them into two groups, one that was reminded of money by the sentence and others that were 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 just 77 cents.

"In these studies we find that the concept of money is a two-sided coin, that it has positive consequences," Vohs said. "It encouraged persistence in the face of a difficult task, but it also seemed to make people less socially sensitive."

Vohs added that the studies "found no difference in the reactions of those who grew up wealthy or with meager resources, no differences between men and women or with country of origin."

The findings come as no surprise to Peter Morici, a University of Maryland business professor who says that in academic settings self-worth has much to do with how much people make compared to the salaries of those around them.

"Money has enormous symbolic value," said Morici. "It means success, security. ... It's protection from the vagaries of life and the symbol of accomplishment.

"In universities, money is withheld to symbolize displeasure and rewarded to people you're pleased with."

George Washington University economics professor Robert Dunn said the study mirrors many that have been conducted about people's attitudes toward money.

"There is no question that cash excites almost all of us - maybe not monks," he said. "It would have been interesting if they had put a brain scanner on these people to see which parts of the brain became very active when the cash appeared."

Vohs said she initiated the study in part because of changes in her own behavior after going from a "very poor post-doctoral" position to her first faculty job, one that paid very well.

She noticed that she began to get things done more efficiently.

But simultaneously, she found less time for getting together with friends. "I felt less connected to others," she said. "I started reading literature on how money can change behavior."

Her study doesn't say specifically why people respond to money as they do, though it does say that the effects of being exposed to money diminishes within 30 minutes.

Since releasing her findings, Vohs said, she's had more than 100 hits to her Web site and conducted dozens of interviews about the topic.

"I think we've touched on a nerve," she says, "because a lot of people can see [such responses to money] happening in their everyday lives."

joe.burris@baltsun.com

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