Does Money Lessen Pain?

ResearchBlogging.orgWhile reading through the science news headlines today, I came across a very interesting one from the Telegraph: "Handling cash 'better at killing pain than aspirin', study claims."

Intrigued, I sought out the paper mentioned in the article. It turns out it wasn't published recently at all - it was published last year in June. Of course, they were probably fooled by the fact that the University of Minnesota just published a press release on it. Regardless, the real question is whether money was truly more effective than painkillers at preventing pain. So what did the researchers find?

The research team, led by Kathleen Vohls, an associate professor in the Carlson School of Management, did six separate experiments to test the relationships among reminders of money, social exclusion, and physical pain.

First, they found that rejection enhances a person's desire for money. They took participants and had them meet each other in a group for a few minutes before pulling them aside one by one and asking them who they want to work with on a two-person task. When they went back to the participants, they told them that either everyone or no one had chosen them as a partner. The researchers then tested their desire for money using three established methods. In all cases, the rejected group revealed a significantly stronger desire for money.

Similarly, in the second experiment, the researchers found that the idea of physical pain also enhanced the desire for money. Simply reading statements that included painful words like headache or injury increased participants desire for money.

i-6d24eebb57acaef216487488a686756f-nf1-thumb-240x144-46278.gifBut what they really wanted to know is whether money prevented social and physical distress. In the third experiment, they had participants count either money or paper slips and then participate in a ball-throwing game where, unknown to the participants, they got the short end of the stick. After a few throws, one of the players stopped throwing the ball to the participant, leading them to feel socially excluded. When this occurred, participants felt the social distress of being excluded, but, the researchers found, those that had counted money first were significantly less upset than those that counted paper.

Then researchers took things even further. After having participants count money or paper, they immersed the subjects' hands in hot water. They wanted to see if handling money actually lowered the subject's perception of pain, and amazingly, it did. Those that counted money before the painful task rated the experience as less painful than those that counted paper.

To ensure that these effects weren't due to another factor about counting money, like the distraction of the pictures on the bills, the researchers repeated both the social distress and pain tests but instead had subjects write either about their monetary expenditures or the weather for the past month. Those that were primed to think about money lost felt more distress upon exclusion and pain when their hand was in hot water.

These data combined strongly suggest that thinking about money can have an influence on how we perceive negative stimuli. If we've handled money, or think positively about it, the world seems a little better, while if we've lost money recently or feel negatively about our financial situation, things appear much worse.

Vohls goes as far as to suggest that this kind of mental prepping could be used in the medical world. ""To assuage the pain in a medical circumstance, you may want to give [patients] reminders of cash," she explained. "It might psychologically be beneficial and then they wouldn't feel quite so much pain."

These results support the idea of retail therapy, so long as you pull out cold hard cash before splurging. Cash could even help guys deal with rejection. "We've been toying with the idea of giving men lots of cold, hard cash to handle before going into the nightlife scene, to soften some of the stings of social rejection that will occur when they're out on the prowl," said Vohls.

While this study is very cool, what it didn't do was compare the pain preventing power of money and pills, like the Telegraph suggested. There is no evidence whatsoever in this paper that money is better or worse at assuaging pain than over the counter or prescription drugs. My guess is that the pills are much stronger than this psychological effect.

Zhou, X., Vohs, K., & Baumeister, R. (2009). The Symbolic Power of Money: Reminders of Money Alter Social Distress and Physical Pain Psychological Science, 20 (6), 700-706 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02353.x

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It's fun to imagine ways of combining this study with the one about swearing, also from the middle of last year. How cool would it be if you could determine scientifically that such-and-such a word has equivalent pain preventative power to fifty dollars? (Yes, I see all the reasons why it doesn't work that way, but it's still fun to imagine.)

Indian government routinely announces monetory awards to relatives of those who die in accidents, terriorist attacks etc - it looked like gimmick to pre-empt protests and escape responsibilty - and I thought it worked as those people were poor - but with this paper, it is clear that effect is deeper and can work everywhere.
Cash awards in recession ?

My friend, the German Comedian Eckart von Hirschhausen, has a funny take on this study:

"Kathleen Vohs said in an interview that men should count some money before they try to conquer a woman, because they would then act more self-assured. Dear Mrs. Vohs, why before? During!

This reminds me of the Italian macho type, who for each expresso to be paid pulls the whole fat money clip from his breast pocket. I believe this study has a lot of therapeutic potential. Depression is very common in countries where people pay with credit cards!

For the current financial crisis it is interesting in this study that it is must not be the own money that is counted. Finance people get out the trick to protect themselves from social rejection by spending money that does not belong to them, - it's not even printed!

So, physicians specializing in pain management are actually making their job harder by getting paid? Very cool.

By C. Akritidis (not verified) on 13 Apr 2010 #permalink

...sounds nice, but is it especially about money? Wouldn't the same experiments also work with something else that has the potential (or at least lets the subject believe it has the potential) to make him happy? E.g. if the subject has a child (and she loves her child of course) let her count pictures of her child instead of paper clips... just wondering if it is really a specialty of money.

By Jörg Reiher (not verified) on 13 Apr 2010 #permalink

To bad our money isn't really money at all but a debt receipt.