Science

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After seeing a screensaver featuring floating bills (vs. floating fish), people put more distance between themselves and a stranger.

Money and Me, Me, Me

California News Correspondent

It's often said that money changes people. Now a team of experimental psychologists has found that just thinking of money changes people. With money on their minds, experimental subjects became more focused on themselves--in both good ways and bad.

Psychologist Kathleen Vohs says she started thinking about the psychology of money when she moved from a postdoctoral position to her first faculty job. The big salary increase meant she could hire a mover instead of relying on help from friends. It certainly made the move easier, Vohs says, but she missed the camaraderie of sharing pizza and beer after a big group effort. The experience led her to hypothesize that while money makes people more independent, it can also act as an isolating social barrier.

To examine this idea in a more controlled setting, Vohs, now at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, and colleagues recruited several hundred college students to participate in a variety of experiments. In each experiment, the researchers subtly prompted half the volunteers to think of money--by having them read an essay that mentioned money, for example, or seating them facing a poster depicting different types of currency--before putting them in a social situation. In one experiment, the researchers gave volunteers a difficult puzzle and told them to ask for help at any time. People who had been reminded of money waited nearly 70% longer to seek help than those who hadn't. People cued to think of money also spent only half as much time, on average, assisting another person who asked for their help with a word problem and picked up fewer pencils for someone who'd dropped them.

The antisocial behavior didn't end there. Volunteers reminded of money preferred working alone even if sharing the task with a co-worker resulted in substantially less work. They also chose solitary leisure activities on a questionnaire--preferring a private cooking lesson, for instance, over a dinner for four. And when asked to set up two chairs for a get-to-know-you chat with another volunteer, subjects who'd seen a money-themed computer screensaver placed the chairs further apart than subjects who'd seen a fish screensaver, Vohs and colleagues report in tomorrow's issue of Science. Taken together, Vohs says, the findings suggest that thinking of money puts people in a frame of mind in which they don't want to depend on others and don't want others to depend on them.

"It's a provocative set of findings," says Tom Gilovich, a psychologist at Cornell University. "The notion that you can prime people, even subliminally, and get these effects is kind of stunning." The study may have implications for routine decisions such as whether to give your children an allowance, adds Stephen Lea, an economic psychologist at the University of Exeter, U.K. An allowance might foster self-sufficiency, Lea says, but it might discourage cooperation at the same time. "It's not an easy decision, but you need to recognize that if you monetize a relationship, you change it."

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