Why money messes with your mind

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Damnthematrix's picture
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Why money messes with your mind

Why money messes with your mind

Find out more about the credit crunch

wonga, greenbacks, cash. Just words, you might say, but they carry an
eerie psychological force. Chew them over for a few moments, and you
will become a different person. Simply thinking about words associated
with money seems to makes us more self-reliant and less inclined to
help others. And it gets weirder: just handling cash can take the sting
out of social rejection and even diminish physical pain.

is all the stranger when you consider what money is supposed to be. For
economists, it is nothing more than a tool of exchange that makes
economic life more efficient. Just as an axe allows us to chop down
trees, money allows us to have markets that, traditional economists
tell us, dispassionately set the price of anything from a loaf of
bread to a painting by Picasso. Yet money stirs up more passion, stress
and envy than any axe or hammer ever could. We just can't seem to deal
with it rationally... but why?

relationship with money has many facets. Some people seem addicted to
accumulating it, while others can't help maxing out their credit cards
and find it impossible to save for a rainy day. As we come to
understand more about money's effect on us, it is emerging that some
people's brains can react to it as they would to a drug, while to
others it is like a friend. Some studies even suggest that the desire
for money gets cross-wired with our appetite for food. And, of course,
because having a pile of money means that you can buy more things, it
is virtually synonymous with status - so much so that losing it can
lead to depression and even suicide. In these cash-strapped times,
perhaps an insight into the psychology of money can improve the way we
deal with it.

Relative values

as a simple medium of exchange, money can take a bewildering variety of
forms, from the strips of bark and feathers of old, through gold coins,
pound notes and dollar bills to data in a bank's computer - mostly
cold, unemotional stuff. The value of £100 is supposed to lie in how
much beer or fuel it can purchase and nothing else. You should care no
more about being short-changed £5 at the supermarket checkout than
losing the same amount when borrowing money to buy a £300,000 house.
Similarly, you should value £10 in loose change the same as £10 in your
bank account that you've mentally set aside for your niece's birthday.

reality we are not that rational. Instead of treating cash simply as a
tool to be wielded with objective precision, we allow money to reach
inside our heads and tap into the ancient emotional parts of our brain,
often with unpredictable results. To understand how this affects our
behaviour, some economists are starting to think more like evolutionary

Ariely of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is one of them. He
suggests that modern society presents us with two distinct sets of
behavioural rules. There are the social norms, which are "warm and
fuzzy" and designed to foster long-term relationships, trust and
cooperation. Then there is a set of market norms, which revolve around
money and competition, and encourage individuals to put their own
interests first.

exchange has been going on throughout human history, so it is possible
that our ancestors evolved an instinctive capacity for recognising the
difference between situations suited to social or market norms, and
that this could have developed well before the invention of money.
Alternatively, we may learn the distinction.

way, we appear immediately and subconsciously to recognise the cues
associated with the realm of market norms. Experiments published in
2007 reveal that even a passing contact with concepts linked to money
puts us into a market-oriented mentality, making us think and behave in characteristic ways.

Vohs in the department of marketing at the University of Minnesota,
Minneapolis, and colleagues, first got student volunteers to complete a
task in which they had to make sensible phrases either from a set of
words that had nothing to do with money (such as "cold", "desk" or
"outside") or from money-related words (including "salary", "cost" or
"paying"). Then they asked individuals from the two groups to arrange a
set of discs into a particular pattern.

researchers found that the volunteers who had been primed with the
money-related words worked on the task for longer before asking for
help. In a related experiment, people in the money-word group were also
significantly less likely to help a fellow student who asked for
assistance than were people in the group primed with non-money words (Science, vol 314, p 1154).

Split personalities

Vohs suggests there is a simple dynamic at work here. "Money makes people feel self-sufficient,"
she says. "They are more likely to put forth effort to attain personal
goals, and they also prefer to be separate from others." The
touchy-feely social side of us may disapprove of such behaviour but it
is useful for survival. This ability to assess which set of norms
applies in a particular situation is important in guiding our
behaviour, Ariely says. It allows you to avoid expecting too much trust
in the midst of a competitive business negotiation, for example, or
making the mistake of offering to pay your mother-in-law after she has
cooked you a nice meal. "When we keep social norms and market norms on
separate paths, life hums along pretty well," says Ariely. "But when
they collide, trouble sets in."

trick is to get the correct balance between these two mindsets.
Numerous psychological studies have found a general trade-off between
the pursuit of so-called extrinsic aspirations - such as wealth, but
also fame and image - and intrinsic aspirations, such as building and
maintaining strong personal relationships. People who report a focus on
the former score low on indicators of mental health, and those strongly
motivated by money are also more likely to find their marriage ending
in divorce.

is not to say that we shouldn't focus at all on extrinsic aspirations.
Everyone needs money for those parts of their lives governed by market
norms, and it's well known that financial strain can bring depression,
perceived loss of control and reduced life expectancy (see "Buy into happiness").

that the days of easy credit and rampant consumerism appear to be over,
for the time being at least, it would be nice to think that we might
acquire a more balanced relationship with money. Unfortunately, it's
unlikely to be that simple. One reason why is exposed by Vohs's latest
findings, which reveal another peculiar aspect of our mental
relationship with money.

In a study to be published soon in the journal Psychological Science,
Vohs and psychologists Xinyue Zhou of Sun Yat-Sen University in
Guangzhou, China, and Roy Baumeister of Florida State University,
Tallahassee, found that people who felt rejected by others, or were
subjected to physical pain, were subsequently less likely to give a
monetary gift in a game situation. The researchers then went on to show
that just handling paper money could reduce the distress associated
with social exclusion, and also diminish the physical pain caused by
touching very hot water.

seems to have symbolic power as a social resource," says Vohs. "It
enables people to manipulate the social system to give them what they
want, regardless of whether they are liked." Put bluntly, it looks as
if money is acting as a surrogate friend. Could that explain why some
people focus on extrinsic aspirations at the expense of real social

Stephen Lea at the University of Exeter, UK, and Paul Webley at the
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, have
suggested another reason for unhealthy and obsessive attitudes to
money. They believe that it acts on our minds rather like an addictive
drug, giving it the power to drive some of us to compulsive gambling,
overwork or obsessive spending (Behavioral and Brain Sciences, vol 29, p 161).
"It is an interesting possibility that all these are manifestations of
a broader addiction to money," says Lea. Compulsion appears to be a
problem for people with several money-related disorders which are
increasingly being identified by psychologists (see "Money problems").

and Webley propose that money, like nicotine or cocaine, can activate
the brain's pleasure centres, the neurological pathways that make
biologically beneficial activities such as sex feel so rewarding. Of
course, money does not physically enter the brain but it might work in
a similar way to pornographic text, argue Lea and Webley, which can
cause arousal not by giving any biochemical or physiological stimuli,
but by acting through the mind and emotions.

evidence for the notion of "addiction" to money comes from brain
imaging studies. In one experiment, for example, a team led by Samuel
McClure, a psychologist at Princeton University, asked volunteers to
choose between receiving a voucher for Amazon.com right then, or a
higher-value one a few weeks later. Those who chose the instant reward
showed brain activity in the areas linked with emotion, especially the
limbic system, which is known to be involved in much impulsive
behaviour and drug addiction. Those choosing the delayed reward showed
activity in areas such as the prefrontal cortex known to be involved in
rational planning (Science, vol 306, p 503).

idea that money taps into brain circuits evolved to make biologically
important activities rewarding is given a further boost by another
strange discovery. In an attempt to provide an evolutionary explanation
for our motivation to strive for money in present-day societies,
Barbara Briers of the HEC business school in Paris, France, and
colleagues decided to test whether our appetite for cash is directly
related to our appetite for food.

made three discoveries: hungry volunteers were less likely to donate to
charity than those who were satiated; those primed to have a high
desire for money, by having imagined winning a big lottery, went on to
eat the most candy in a taste test; and people whose appetites had been
piqued by sitting in a room with a delicious smell, gave less money in
a game situation than those who played in a normal-smelling room (Psychological Science, vol 17, p 939).
Briers reckons this indicates that our brain processes ideas about
money using the same pathways evolved to think about food, so that in
our minds the two are synonymous. If she is correct, it puts a whole
new spin on the term "greedy bankers".

pir8don's picture
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Sep 30 2008
Posts: 456
Re: Why money messes with your mind

Is it a core value of the matrix yet Mike?


Damnthematrix's picture
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Aug 10 2008
Posts: 3998
Re: Why money messes with your mind

Take the red pill Don......!


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