Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

The downside of dollar signs

January 20th, 2011

tasty moneyTake a look at this picture. What does it make you think of?

If (like me) you haven’t had breakfast yet, it probably makes you hungry.

What’s less obvious is that it can also make you feel self-sufficient, spend less time helping other people, give less money to charity, and prefer more solitary activities.

I’ll write more about priming in an upcoming post, but it’s essentially a process in which we are exposed to something that affects our responses to a later situation. In previous posts, I described how scents and sensations can affect our actions and preferences, but visual priming can be even more effective – and is much more commonly used.

For example, dollar signs (or pound, euro, yen, rupee or fill-in-your-currency-here symbols) are often seen in advertising and you’d think we’d become so accustomed to them that they wouldn’t have any further effect. Not true.

One of the most comprehensive research projects on the priming effects of money and its symbols was done by Kathleen Vohs, Nicole Mead and Miranda Goode. In one set of experiments, they had study participants solve 30 word-scramble puzzles. Half the participants had money concepts (such as “high salary”) in some of their puzzles, while the other half had neutral puzzles. They found that the participants whose puzzles had mentioned money

  • were less likely to ask for help when solving a later, more difficult problem,
  • volunteered less time to help the experimenter with another project,
  • spent less time assisting another participant who asked for help, and
  • donated less of the money they had just earned to charity.

Another experiment had study participants sit in front of a computer while filling out questionnaires, then move chairs into place for a conversation with another participant. Those whose computers had shown a screensaver of floating high-denomination bills put the chairs further apart than did participants whose computers had a fish screensaver or none at all.

Other ways of putting the concept of money into participants’ minds worked the same way. For example, reading aloud an essay about growing up in a wealthy family reduced participants’ likelihood of asking for help with a task, as did having a pile of Monopoly money sitting nearby. Sitting in front of a poster of high-denomination bills led people to choose more solitary leisure activities than did sitting in front of other posters.

The researchers concluded that money concepts inspire self-sufficiency in both a positive and a negative way:

“Relative to people not reminded of money, people reminded of money reliably performed independent but socially insensitive actions.”

So, if you’re looking for donations, volunteers or group cooperation, don’t talk about wealth and don’t focus on money or payments. You’ll do better to keep financial matters out of the conversation.

And while you’re at it, don’t hire Ke$ha or 50 Cent to star in your next fundraiser. Just don’t.

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