Simply touching money makes us less helpful

I’m working on a project with the artist group, Larks and Ravens, on the topic of money – what is it?, where did it come from? what’s it doing? And how on earth did we get to a point where inequality has grown to a point where 62 billionaires own as much as the poorest half of the world’s population?

Two independent pieces of information caught my attention today  – both relate to the effect money has on how we behave. The first was a quote from a speech which Boris Johnson made to the City back in 2013 when he was still Mayor in which he said “I stress – I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.”

The second  is a series of psychological studies demonstrating how thinking about or handling money increases people’s people’s motivation and problem solving persistence in ways that make them more successful but it also makes them less aware of and helpful towards others.

The results of nine experiments suggest that money brings about a self-sufficient orientation in which people prefer to be free of dependency and dependents. Relative to participants primed with neutral concepts, participants primed with money concepts preferred to play alone, work alone, and put more physical distance between themselves and a new acquaintance. In one experiment, a pedestrian close to a cash machine dropped a bus pass. Passersby who had just taken cash from the machine were less likely to stop and help the person than people who had not used the cash machine.

More startling is the discovery that the effect of handling money holds for children as young as 3 years old.  In one experiment, young children were instructed to sort money by denomination, while others sorted buttons by color. They were then given a maze to solve and were told they could quit at any time. Money sorters worked longer and were more successful at solving the maze than button sorters. In another experiment, 3 year-olds sorted either coins and banknotes, or buttons and paper slips before being asked for their help tidying up materials ready for the next child to take part.  Money sorters were less helpful than button and paper sorters.

So, Boris, you might indeed be right that money (or the desire for money)  motivates activity which leads to further financial reward but, if it simultaneously makes the people dealing with money ever more self-sufficient and less aware of or willing to help others, then maybe no wonder we end up with the level of inequality we have in the world today.

About Alison Kidd

Research Psychologist
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