Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

The Psychology of Being Rich

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)


  1. #1 Charlie (Colorado)
    January 29, 2007

    I bet that doesn’t happen until it stops being effective for sex selection and reproductive success. Observe, for example, Donald Trump: multiple trophy wives, multiple children.

  2. #2 Erich Vieth
    January 30, 2007

    Thanks for the summary of the money studies. They make you wonder about the long-term effects of ubiquitous advertising. It can’t be much better (it might be much worse) than having piles of money everywhere.

    The quote by Geoffrey Miller is right on.

  3. #3 Simon Evans
    January 30, 2007

    There is an inherent fallacy in these new experiments. The experiment was set up in a way that people received a windfall without earning or deserving it. This is very different from working hard over many years to earn the money. We are all brain washed from early childhood that money is bad “the root of all evil”. Most people look at wealth and instantly assume that wealthy people must have stepped on others to get where they are. Although some might follow this path, it is a belief based on ignorance. True wealth only comes from creating value and helping people improve their lives, not hurting them.

  4. #4 Roy
    January 30, 2007

    You think we’re brainwashed to think that money is evil? Seriously?

    At best (worst?) I’d say we get a conflicted message about money. On the one hand, there’s the “money is the root of all evil” attitude, but I’d argue that there’s a much stronger attitude that the pursuit of money should be one of your main goals.
    Why do you get a job?
    To get money.
    How is our worth as a productive American judged?
    Based on our income.
    What do most conversations about college majors end up on?
    How much money you’ll make.

    We’re constantly shown images of how money can make us happier, or prettier, or more successful, or get us a better mate.

    If we really did have the attitude that money was the root of all evil, we’d be more inclined to get rid of it or be generous with it, because we wouldn’t want to have it controlling our lives. That people tend to become greedy/selfish/less helpful when exposed to money doesn’t seem to support the notion that people think money is bad.

    And, really, whether “true wealth” ought to include the notion of helping others isn’t really important to this study. THe fact that most people measure “wealth” by, you know… the number of dollars a person has… that seems to me to be a much more reasonably measured standard, and has the benefit of neither requiring, nor caring, whether someone helped or hurt people to aquire the money.

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