How Money on the Mind Changes Our Behavior

Just the thought of money can make us focus more on ourselves than on others.

Want to raise money for a good cause? Don’t mention money. If you do, a subtle but powerful effect, known as priming, will likely get in the way. Priming happens when we’re exposed to some kind of stimulus—a word, a picture or even a flavor. The stimulus fires through our brains, subconsciously changing our behavior. When money is the primer, it doesn’t stimulate altruism. Experiments show that money-primed subjects tend to sit farther away from others, are less inclined to donate money and more often choose solitary activities.

The effects of priming aren’t limited to financial situations. Consider the “Florida effect.” In a study, undergraduate subjects were asked to unscramble sentences that included words such as Florida, forgetful, old, gray and wrinkled. Meanwhile, other young subjects unscrambled sentences with no elderly theme. When both groups walked down a hallway after the experiment, those who were elder-primed walked much more slowly.

Another study showed that voters who cast their ballots in schools were significantly more likely to pass school funding measures. And subjects in an experiment who were asked to tell fibs either over the phone or in e-mails were affected by priming, too. When they later par­ticipated in a “marketing survey” in which they were asked how much they liked certain products, including mouthwash and hand sanitizer, those who lied over the phone were more likely to choose mouthwash, and those who lied in e-mails were more likely to choose sanitizer. This desire to cleanse the body part associated with the sin has been labeled the “Lady Macbeth effect.”

Subscribe to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance

Be a smarter, better informed investor.

Save up to 74%

Sign up for Kiplinger’s Free E-Newsletters

Profit and prosper with the best of expert advice on investing, taxes, retirement, personal finance and more - straight to your e-mail.

Profit and prosper with the best of expert advice - straight to your e-mail.

Sign up

Behavior Shift

Money is one of the most powerful primers. Simply reminding people about money—even just by showing them Monopoly money—causes people to work harder on tougher tasks and take on more work compared with those who are not money-primed. Money-primed individuals tend to be more self-reliant, and they feel stronger and more powerful.

But money does more than motivate. It also changes our behavior and how we relate to one another. In a series of experiments, professors Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota, Nicole Mead of Florida State and Miranda Goode of the University of British Columbia exposed subjects to some seemingly innocuous money and nonmoney primes. For example, subjects sat near a PC with a money-themed screen saver or a fish-themed screen saver.

Then, unbeknownst to the subjects, their interpersonal behavior was monitored. After being primed, they were asked to walk past someone who, say, had dropped a handful of pencils. Those who were money-primed didn’t help pick up the pencils as often as those who were not.

So does money make us greedy? Not necessarily, these and other studies conclude. Rather, the authors say, money makes us focus on our individual perform­ance, so we’re not so cooperative. Money can make us “socially insensitive,” Vohs says.

How can you use the powerful effect of money priming? Well, you could produce a reality TV show, such as Survivor or The Apprentice, where contestants must cooperate in tasks to win a big-money prize. Money-primed contestants are predisposed to be uncooperative, but they’re often measured by how well they get along. So it’s no surprise that backstabbing, bickering—and good ratings—ensue.

Money is obviously a great motivator in many situations. Where would capitalism be without it? But, as Vohs says, “If you’re doing any task where cooperation is crucial, you may have problems when money is at the fore.” In situations such as raising money for a good cause or motivating a team, “put the idea of money on the back burner,” she says. “Talk about such things as satisfaction, personal growth and building a community, but try not to talk about money.”

Bob Frick
Senior Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance