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The Limits of Money

Study on how the idea of money affects behavior produces some odd ideas in the press

Last week, Science magazine published an article on how money can affect behavior. In a series of experiments on college students, lead author Kathleen Vohs of the Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota, found that students exposed to money before or during an experiment tended to exhibit more self-reliance than those exposed to similar but neutral stimuli.

News accounts were, overall, accurate in their description of the study, but we found several mistaken conclusions and editorial inserts. They include:

The Evolutionary Theory
In the Associated Press account of the story, evolution plays a role in the influence that the presence of money has on people’s behavior. The author begins by quoting Vohls:

“’The underlying idea is that at some point early on in human evolution everyone probably needed someone else to help them achieve their goals,’ whether building a home or catching food. Eventually systems of exchange came along, and then money, which could be exchanged for things, allowing people to pursue their own aims without the aid of others. So, over time, people with money didn't need other people so much.”

The suggestion that money produced evolutionary change is a big leap from what the study actually said. And this was underscored by a commentary on the study, also published in Science in the November 17 issue, which explicitly denied that evolutionary change was possible. In “Money Is Material,” the authors point out that money has been in use for at most a few thousand years. They add, “It seems unlikely that any brain mechanism could have evolved in this time specifically to handle money.”

More likely, according to their view of current scientific literature, money plays on brain processes that had already evolved “to deal with the things money is exchanged for”. The other possibility is that money involves brain processes that are “maladaptive”, similar to how drugs operate on the brain.

The “Money Motivates” theory
The studies conducted by Vohs specifically looked at how exposure to the idea of money affected behavior and not at how money works as a carrot in bolstering performance. In other words, the students did not stand to earn more money if they performed better or differently; money was not a motivator in the sense that the students could get money by changing behavior.

Which is why headlines, such as “Money motivates and isolates us, study says,” from the Minneapolis Star Tribune are misleading. Judging by the headline alone, a reader would believe that a desire for obtaining money motivates us, but also makes us feel isolated (and bad). But the research had nothing to do with obtaining money – students were only primed to think about money.

And “isolation” is a far stretch from the observed behavior of participating students. Those who were exposed to a money concept took longer to ask for help on two different puzzles (one difficult, and one impossible); they were less likely to help someone requesting assistance; and they also placed their chairs farther from other students when asked to “get acquainted” with another participant, compared to students primed with non-money stimuli. These behaviors support the authors’ theory that exposure to the idea of money affects social intimacy and self-sufficiency. But it does not imply isolation. Students did not leave the room, report feeling alone or isolated, nor refuse social interactions.

What this says (or doesn’t) about all of us
The series of experiments were conducted on college students. While they may reflect reactions that are common in the whole human population, few news reports pointed to the intrinsic limits of a study on a limited population.

These students are undoubtedly more educated, wealthier, whiter, and more likely to be American, than the population as a whole. Would the same results hold true in a poor community in Washington D.C., where few people go to college, or in a village in China, or in an old-age home in Mexico?

These questions cannot be answered in the context of a study on college students, which calls into question the universality of the concepts of money. Only one news account, by WebMD, noted that “The researchers aren't saying that everyone reacts the same way to money. The experiments were short and simpler than real life.” Even so, the author did not point out the intrinsic limits to a study like this one.


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