Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Is Money the Arbitrator of the Fine Line Between Self-Interest and Community Spirit?

Does money serve as a great incentive and motivator or does it serve to undermine relationships? At the heart of the debate for society, this is akin to the perennial capitalism vis-à-vis communism conflict. And perhaps the truth is that they are both right.

Vohs, Mead & Goode's (2006) nine experimental studies, which culminated into an illuminating piece of work titled The Psychological Consequences of Money, found that both characteristics of money - a great incentive or an underminer of relationships - emerge from the same underlying process: money makes people feel self-sufficient and therefore behave accordingly.

In Experiment 1, participants were assigned randomly to three conditions. In two conditions, participants were reminded of money (Play Money and Money Prime) while in the control condition, participants were not reminded of money. In each condition, participants were instructed to unscramble jumbled up words to form sensible sentences, and therein lay the prime. In the Money Prime condition, the scrambled text contained concepts of money. In the Play Money and Control conditions, the scrambled texts were neutral, but participants in the Play Money condition were exposed to Monopoly money in their peripheral visual field.

Next, participants were given a challenging but solvable problem to work on. As the experimenter left the room, he offered that he was able to provide assistance if the participant wanted. How long the participants persisted before asking for help became the dependent variable to be measured.

It was observed that participants who were reminded of money (both Play Money and Money Prime) worked on the problem longer than control participants before requesting for help. The difference between the two money conditions (Play Money vs Money Prime) was insignificant.

Experiment 2 was a modification of Experiment 1 such that the constructs being measured were an abundance of money (High Money) against restricted amount of money (Low Money). Participants then had to read aloud an essay in front of a video camera. The video camera was used in place of an experimenter so as to remove the potential confound that might result from status differences between the experimenter and the student.

Participants in the High Money condition read about growing up with abundant financial resources, while participants in the Low Money condition read about growing up with meagre financial resources. Participants were then, like in Experiment 1, unknowingly tested on how long they would take to solve an unsolvable puzzle before requesting help.

Once more, participants in the High Money condition worked significantly longer than participants in the Low Money condition before asking for help. This experiment also confirmed that the effects of money did not depend on relative status differences between the participant and the experimenter/helper.

Given the findings thus far and the overall hypothesis, the authors predicted that people who value self-sufficiency would be less helpful than others because they will tend to expect others to be self-sufficient as well. The authors do not elaborate on this aspect, but a few reasons why this is a reasonable stipulation include:

  • the tendency for people to project their own personalities onto others in order to form more efficient judgments and anticipate behaviours of others,

  • the fact that schemas associated with ourselves are more accessible and thus more easily activated, and

  • the possibility that we have evolved psychological mechanisms to assume that when we are rich, the environment allows for it because we are in a resource-rich area, and we are more likely to be dealing with other rich people residing in our local environment.

Thus, in Experiments 3, 4 and 6 (all involving different sets of randomly selected subjects), the authors sought to test whether participants primed with money would be less helpful relative to control participants.

Using the word descrambling methodology from Experiment 1 to manipulate the priming for both money and neutral conditions, the DV - willingness to provide assistance - was then measured. Experiment 3 tested participants on their tendency to help out in a future task (willingness to help code the data sheets of the current experiment), while Experiment 4 tested their helpfulness on an immediate helping situation (willingness to help a fellow 'latecomer' participant, who was really a confederate, figure out the experiment's instructions). Experiment 6 assessed how willing participants were in donating their participation payment to a university student fund.

It was found that participants in the money condition volunteered to help code fewer data sheets (Experiment 3), spent half as much time providing help to the latecomer on the instructions (Experiment 4) and donated less money (Experiment 6) than participants in the control condition.

In Experiment 5, participants were made to play Monopoly with a confederate. After a few rounds, the game was cleared except for differing amounts of play money. Participants in the High Money condition were left with $4000 (participants will be aware that this is a large sum of Monopoly money having been sensitized to the game), while participants in the Low Money condition were left with $200. Control condition participants were left with no money. For High Money and Low Money participants, the money was kept in conscious sight for the second step of the experiment. At this step, High Money participants were asked to imagine a wealthy future while Low Money participants were asked to imagine a financially insecure future. Control participants were asked to imagine their plans for the next day.

This was followed by a staged accident where a new confederate, who was both blind to the condition the participants were in and carrying a lot of things, walks across the laboratory and drops his pencils (27 in total) in front of the participant. The number of pencils picked up by the participant became the measure of helpfulness.

Participants in the High Money condition helped gather significantly fewer pencils than participants in the Low Money and Control conditions. Helpfulness did not differ between the Low Money group and the Control group.

To ascertain self-sufficiency as the construct that is really being tested, the final three experiments tested the effects of money on social intimacy, desire to engage in leisure activities alone and preference to work alone.

In Experiment 7 involving screensavers, participants were randomly assigned to either the Money condition, Fish condition or No Screensaver condition. All participants were made to fill in questionnaires while sitting in front of an idle computer screen. After a few minutes, one of three screensaver types would appear - one depicting various denominations of currency floating underwater, one with fishes swimming underwater, and one with just a blank screen.

After some degree of exposure to the screensaver, participants were told they would get acquainted with another participant in the same experiment, but the experimenter would require some assistance to arrange the chairs for the session. Participants primed with the Money screensaver placed the two chairs for him or herself and the potential acquaintant farther apart compared to participants in both the Fish group and the No Screensaver group.

Participants primed with money appeared to place more social distance between themselves and others.

Experiment 8 tested whether money-primed participants would prefer being alone even when choosing leisure activities that are potentially of a social nature. The priming manipulation was similar to Experiment 7, except that instead of screensavers being used, participants were now facing posters. The Money condition participants faced a poster showing various denominations of currency, while the two control groups faced a poster showing either a seascape or a flower garden.

Participants were next given a nine-item questionnaire that asked them to choose between two leisure activities per question. Within each item, one option was an experience only one person could enjoy while the other option was for two or more people. Money-primed participants chose more individually-focused leisure activities than participants from the control groups.

Money primes thus appear to lead people to become less social.

Experiment 9 provided a more rigorous test of the self-sufficiency hypothesis by directly assessing social preferences. Participants were put through the screensaver primes from Experiment 7 before being asked whether they preferred to work alone or with others. Once more, participants desired to work less with a peer when exposed to money primes.

The nine experiments provide support for the proposed argument that money activates psychological mechanisms that bring about a state of self-sufficiency. It might even appear somewhat surprising that such minor tweaks in environmental and social conditions towards a heightened sensation of financial resources might induce a person to be more independent and socially insensitive.

As the authors sum up well, "The self-sufficient pattern helps explain why people view money as both the greatest good and evil. As countries and cultures developed, money may have allowed people to acquire goods and services that enabled the pursuit of cherished goals, which in turn diminished reliance on friends and family. In this way, money enhanced individualism but diminished communal motivations, an effect that is still apparent in people’s responses to money today."

So ultimately, perhaps whether you believe money is inherently good or evil might begin with what inclinations you have towards social dynamics and morals to begin with.
Vohs, K., Mead, N., & Goode, M. (2006). The Psychological Consequences of Money Science, 314 (5802), 1154-1156 DOI: 10.1126/science.1132491

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