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.

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Bob Frick
Senior Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance