The Symbolic Power of Money

Although actor and comedian W. C. Fields once said that a rich man is nothing but a poor man with money, common sense and recent research suggest that money can change people in interesting ways. Think about it. If you had a for- tune, you would be financially independent. How would that make you feel?

In a series of laboratory experiments, Kathleen Vohs and her colleagues found that when college students were merely primed to think about money, they became more self-sufficient, more autonomous, and less social in relation to others. In each study, the researchers primed money in some participants but not others in subtle ways—for example, by presenting them with scrambled sentences that relate to money, having them count a stack of Monopoly money, or seating them at a computer with a screen saver that featured images of floating bills. Across the board, those who were exposed to these cues later became more independent. Put into a social situation, they preferred working alone rather than on a team, they put more distance between them- selves and a fellow participant, they sought less help on a puzzle they could not solve, and they gave less help to someone who needed it. Reflecting on these findings, Vohs speculates that “money changes people at a core, basic level” and that “having money makes people feel less connected and more independent, whereas having little money makes you feel more interdependent with others”.

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Let’s take this speculation one step further. If money leads us to feel more self-sufficient, does it lessen our need for approval and blunt the pain of social rejection? And following rejection, do we attach greater value to money? Through research conducted in China, Xinyue Zhou and others (2009) sought to answer these questions. In one study, they brought a handful of university students together for a getting-acquainted conversation. The students were then separated and asked to pick someone from the group they’d like to work with. At that point, by random assignment, all students were told that they had to be dismissed—either because everyone selected them (social acceptance) or because no one selected them (social rejection). Afterward, they completed a set of money- related tasks. Here’s the interesting part: When asked to draw a Chinese coin from memory, students in the rejection condition drew larger coins. They also said they were more willing to permanently give up such pleasures as chocolate, sunshine, and the beach in exchange for the equivalent of $1.4 million. Rejection had increased the subjective value of money.

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