Aside from Ebenezer Scrooge and John D. Rockefeller, most rich people probably wouldn't bother to pick up a stray quarter on the sidewalk. Now an experiment confirms that the well-off don't perceive small change as being as valuable as poor people do.
Psychologist Philippe Tobler and colleagues at the University of Cambridge, U.K., told 14 volunteers that they would get a monetary reward, a 20 pence coin (worth about 40 cents), every time they passed a test on a computer. The researchers showed a volunteer one of two abstract images. The correct image would be followed by the picture of the coin (and the payoff); the wrong one, by a scrambled image of a coin. The researchers instructed the volunteers to show they knew the coin image was coming by pressing a button and holding it down longer to signal how sure they were. The researchers reasoned that how fast volunteers learned the task revealed how large a reward they perceived 20 pence to be.
The volunteers' income ranged from nothing to roughly 30,000 pounds (about $60,000), with an average of about 10,250 pounds (about $20,500). The researchers found that volunteers on the lower end of the scale learned how to score 3 times faster on average than their richer peers, they report this week in the journal Neuron. Tobler's group repeated the experiment while scanning the brains of the volunteers with an MRI machine. Three areas of the brain lit up during learning, and they took longer to do so in the richer volunteers than in the slower ones. The results suggest that rich people don't value small coins as much as poor people do, Tobler says.
"The finding is really quite an interesting one--how rich you are affects how your brain responds to a 20 pence coin," says psychologist Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University in New Jersey. He adds, however, that he would like to know whether rich people will learn faster if the reward is larger.