Cold hearts and tight fists - A love of money can make us antisocial and mean

Cold hearts and tight fists

A love of money can make us antisocial and mean. Be careful what you give your children

Johnjoe McFadden
Thursday December 7, 2006
The Guardian

It is often said that money is the root of all evil, but what the Bible actually says is that "the love of money is the root of all evil". New research published in Science magazine by Kathleen D Vohs and colleagues at the University of Minnesota measured the effect that thinking about money has on our behaviour. They found that although money makes us more self-sufficient, it also makes us more selfish.

Vohs' subjects were first asked to perform a word descrambling task that could be resolved to generate either neutral phrases ("cold is it desk outside" became "it is cold outside") or phrases that would activate the financial centres of their brain ("high a salary desk paying" became "a high-paying salary"). The experimenter then tested the volunteer's self-sufficiency by giving them a puzzle to solve and measuring how long they would go before asking for help. After 20 minutes, 70% of the money-primed subjects continued to labour alone, whereas 60% of the neutral-primed subjects were pleading for help. Thinking about money seems to make us more independent and less likely to call for assistance.

But does it also make us less likely to help others? To test this, the volunteers were given the opportunity of helping another subject who apparently couldn't complete their task. The money-primed subjects were willing to spend only half as much time helping than the neutral-primed subjects. They were also less willing to perform simple helpful tasks. Another researcher entered the room and "accidentally" dropped a box of pencils. The money-primed subjects picked up significantly fewer pencils than their neutral-primed partners. Not surprisingly, this relative unhelpfulness spilled over into financial dealings. As they entered the study, each of the subjects was given $2 in quarters. On leaving they were given the opportunity to contribute some of their money to a "student welfare fund". The neutral-primed volunteers were willing to donate an average of $1.34, while the money-primed subjects gave a miserly 77 cents.

The results echoed earlier work that examined whether students of economics were more self-interested than other students. John Carter and Michael Irons from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, tested student performance in "the ultimate bargaining game". A subject could be either an "allocator" or a "receiver". The allocator was given an amount, say $10, and then had to propose a split whereby he could give either a little (one cent) or a lot ($9.99) to the receiver. The receiver then had the choice of either accepting the division or telling the allocator where he could stuff his banknotes. In this event, neither of the subjects received any money.

Most student allocators proposed a fairly even split, keeping an average $5.44; but students majoring in economics tended to be greedier, proposing to keep an average $6.15. Conversely, when they were on the other side of the table, the economists tended to accept less, as little as $1.70 (compared to $2.44), before throwing their arms up in outrage. It seems that studying money makes you less generous, or perhaps the discipline attracts less generous people who give less and expect less in return.

Jonathan Swift said that "a wise man should have money in his head, but not in his heart", but fictional misers like Scrooge tend to be cold-hearted as well as tight-fisted. To test whether exposure to money causes subjects to become less sociable, Vohs exposed her subjects to a screensaver that portrayed either fish or banknotes floating underwater. The subjects were asked to arrange a pair of chairs, one for themselves and the other for another participant who would soon be joining the study.

The subjects who had been watching the fish placed the chairs a cosy 80 centimetres apart whereas those forced to view the floating money separated their chairs by an antisocial 118 centimetres. Money may make the world go around but it doesn't make new friends. Exposure to money made Vohs' subjects unsociable in several other ways. They tended to prefer working alone and, when asked to complete a questionnaire indicating their preferred social activities, tended to choose relatively unsociable options.

So although money may not be the root of all evil, the love of it does seem to make us more cantankerous. The results would probably not have surprised Dickens, but it may be something we overlook when we emphasise the importance of teaching children the value of money. Regulated pocket money and savings accounts may make our children more self-sufficient, but it may also make them more unsociable and less likely to help others. With the festive season approaching, we should perhaps think twice before we slip a £20 note inside that Christmas card.

· Johnjoe McFadden is professor of molecular genetics at the University of Surrey and editor of Human Nature: Fact and Fiction