If you won a million dollars, what would you do?
This is a common and fun daydream to have which represents freedom to most people–being independently wealthy is the American dream. Would you share that wealth or hoard it greedily? I think most people would like to believe that if they received a sudden windfall, they would share some. But actually, this altruism is probably just an illusion, as demonstrated by a series of experiments by American and Canadian behavioral researchers recently published in Science (Vohs et al 2006). While being wealthy reduces feelings of dependence on others, participants in their tests developed selfish attitudes when presented with wealth that carried over into other aspects of their lives. The authors attribute this to a “self-sufficiency hypothesis,” and designed their experiments to prime people to think about money and then observe changes in their behavior.
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In one experiment, it was suggested that just thinking about money made people greedy. Subjects were given $2 worth of quarters and then were asked to solve a word puzzle. Some of the puzzles were word-neutral, and others had words denoting money and wealth like “high-paying salary.” After finishing the puzzle, they were told they could donate some of their quarters to a student emergency fund. The subjects that completed the neutral puzzle donated an average of $1.34 while those who completed the money-centric puzzle averages a donation of 77 cents.
A second experiment suggested that people who were thinking about money were less likely to go out of their way to help people. Groups of subjects played a game of Monopoly, and then were left in the room with a pile of Monopoly money in plain sight equaling $4000, $200, or no money was there. Then an “accident” was staged where a person walked by and dropped a box of pencils. The subjects who had the least amount of money present helped picked up the most pencils, and the opposite was true of the large pile of money.
These findings are not entirely new:
According to a 2004 Statistics Canada survey on charitable giving and volunteering, low-income households donate a higher percentage of each dollar they earn to charity than do high-income earners. Households with an average income of less than $20,000 gave an average of 1.7% of their pretax earnings to charity, compared with just 0.5% for households with an average income of $100,000 or more.
So now that we know money matters, what to do about it? A few weeks ago, The New Scientist asked a slew of researchers what they would like to see changed (about society) in the next 50 years:
Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico, said he hoped that the appeal of conspicuous consumption would fade and that “absurdly wasteful display will become less popular once people comprehend its origins in sexual selection, and its pathetic unreliability as a signal of individual merit or virtue.”
(HT: Bob Abu)