Money as a Drug

I'm going to be traveling tomorrow, so I'm spending today getting ready. Instead of a long post about research, I thought I'd link you to a paper Stephen E. G. Lea by in press at Behavioral and Brain Sciences. For those of you who don't know, Behavioral and Brain Sciences has a target article (the linked paper is a target article), followed by peer commentaries on that article, and then the target article's author's response to those commentaries. The discussion of this paper should be pretty interesting. Here's the abstract:

Money as tool, money as drug: The biological psychology of a strong incentive.

Why are people interested in money? Specifically, what could be the biological basis for the extraordinary incentive and reinforcing power of money, which seems to be unique to the human species? We identify two ways in which a commodity which is of no biological significance in itself can become a strong motivator. The first is if it is used as a tool, and by a metaphorical extension this is often applied to money: it is used instrumentally, in order to obtain biologically relevant incentives. However substances can be strong motivators because they imitate the action of natural incentives but do not produce the fitness gains for which those incentives are instinctively sought. The classic examples of this process are psychoactive drugs, but we argue that the drug concept can also be extended metaphorically to provide an account of money motivation. From a review of theoretical and empirical literature about money, we conclude (i) that there are a number of phenomena that cannot be accounted for by a pure Tool Theory of money motivation; (ii) that supplementing it with a Drug Theory enables the anomalous phenomena to be explained; and (iii) that the human instincts that, according to a Drug Theory, money parasitizes include trading (derived from reciprocal altruism) and object play.

Read the paper, and if you have any thoughts, feel free to leave them here. Once I get to my destination, I'll post something on a related paper published recently.


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What a great format--provocative article--multiple responses--rejoinder. Wish my field of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology would do more of this (or, for that matter, make the reviews accessible along with the articles).

You know, that whole dialectic thing.

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Is this really surprising? There's only one substrate for all human mental activity. We may make distinctions based on "extraneural" factors such as the form and delivery method of the activity but ultimately the mechanics of any desire work on the same substrate. Of course, there can be huge differences in the reinforcing potential between activities, but that's a matter of degree, not kind.

From page 10
from our perspective, the metallist notion that abstract money must be backed by abstract goods is a version of Drug Theory.

That's not just wrong, it's drooling idiot wrong. Money is a tool (by their meaning) because of its exchange value. The point of metallism (easily empirically verified) is that money with intrinsic value tends to retain its purchasing power, whereas fiat money eventually becomes worthless. But the nature of that intrinsic value is irrelevant. Money would no more be a tool if we used hammers as money than if we used beautiful, beautiful gold coins as we obviously should.

I think the choice of terminology is deliberately and needlessly provocative. Functionally, by their definition a "tool" is essentially something that helps increase your number of expected offspring and anything that you enjoy which doesn't counts as a drug. I might as well be smoking crack in an alley instead of readng this delightful, thought-provoking blog. From an evolutionary standpoint I suppose that's true, but most people aren't looking at things from av evolutionary standpoint most of the time, and from a colloquial terminology standpoint it seems needlessly insulting.

But from their functional perspective, the question is pretty trivial: does having more money make it easier to get pussy? Not in every case, mind you, but statistically. Well, does it?

By George Weinberg (not verified) on 20 Dec 2006 #permalink

I'll try again.

This paper is:
1) a metaphor misrepresented as being a theory.
2) a metaphor which was pretty clearly chosen to shock rather than to illuminate.
3) a methaphor which requires logical gyrations in order to be made to appear to work.

This is not science, it is pomo nonsense.

By George Weinberg (not verified) on 21 Dec 2006 #permalink