Being reminded of money, even unconsciously, changes the way people behave, making them both harder working and more self-centered, a University of Minnesota researcher has found.
That is an unusual insight, fascinating but maybe not that useful in the day-to-day world of business.
Is a manager to e-mail a $100 bill to the sales staff each morning to get them to work harder? Should the boss make sure no one pays with cash when the project team goes to lunch at Perkins so employees come back still eager to work with each other?
Kathleen Vohs is the professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management behind a lot of the research in this academic field. As accomplished as she is, she can’t quite articulate a good practical lesson from her research for businesspeople, either.
But Vohs sure finds money effects fascinating. She’s got lots of other interests for her research, yet she’s been generating research article after research article on the effects on behavior when people are reminded of money.
Being reminded of money is called money priming. It has turned out to be such a rich research vein that Vohs has been asked by publishers to think about how to package some of her observations and ideas for people outside of an academic audience.
She already is often invited to give talks on her psychology-of-money research, and even how the audiences react is fascinating to her.
People with a background in economics seem to nod their heads, not surprised at all to hear how being reminded of money makes people more diligent and focused. Here money is having the effect on behavior it’s supposed to have.
She gets the opposite reaction if the audience is made up of sociologists or educators. They are more likely to be shaking their heads at hearing all this evidence of the corrosive effects of money, how even the idea of it breaks down cooperation and concern for others.
“We have these dual feelings and mixed emotions about money. I think [these effects] are in large part why,” Vohs said.
As a field of study, the psychology of money is still a fresh one, she said, but after about a dozen years of research these two main effects are about as settled as such things get.
The latest article on the topic she co-authored, to be published maybe as soon as this week by a psychology journal, describes how one experiment shows that even kids as young as 4 can act far more selfishly if they’ve been handling money.
Think about that. Kids that young barely know what money is, but if they’ve been sorting coins rather than buttons, they’re less likely to help a staff member gather up some red crayons for the other kids to use.
That’s one of the interesting things about Vohs’ work — that fully aware, top-of- mind thinking about money and what money can buy isn’t required to get the effects she and others have observed. Sometimes it happens so subtly that the people don’t even realize it has happened.
In one of her best-known papers, the research team asked test subjects to play a game of Monopoly before moving on to other tasks. Some of them got to keep $4,000 in Monopoly money “for later,” while others got to keep $200 and others none at all.
The participants had no way of knowing this, but it was only when the tasks were done and they were leaving the facility that the study really got underway.
On their way out the door, study subjects met a staff person whose arms were full of office supplies, including 27 pencils, and the pencils got spilled all over the floor.
Everybody stooped down to help pick up the pencils (and who wouldn’t)? The interesting thing is that the people who had the $4,000 of worthless play money picked up far fewer pencils than the others.
Vohs made the point that they were not cruel people, somehow enjoying watching a person struggle to pick up some spilled pencils.
It’s just that once having been so strongly reminded of money, they found it harder to think much about anyone else.
The effects that Vohs found have been confirmed by others, and as of last count there have been at least 165 experiments in 18 countries.
One study Vohs particularly likes comes from France. The field researcher observed a number of people, some of whom took cash out of an automated teller machine, while others walked by the ATM without taking out any cash.
Then the researchers arranged for a woman to drop her transit pass right in front of those same people. By this time, you’ve probably already guessed what they found. The people who had just gotten cash out of the ATM were far less likely to pick up her dropped transit pass and try to get it back to her.
There is a lot still to be learned about people’s feelings toward money, Vohs said. Some of the research now getting underway seems to be leading to some more practical approaches, at least to head off some of the worst effects of being money primed. One study, she said, showed that a researcher could introduce the idea of money and still get the volunteers in the study to be open and generous to others.
In this study, the researchers money primed a group of MBA students and then asked them to get to know their classmates. Another group was given largely the same instructions, but this time they weren’t asked to get to know anybody, they were asked to “network.”
It was this latter group that did much better socially. It was now driven by self-interest, of course, with the hope that a classmate someday is the kind of contact who could help boost a career.
So maybe there is a lesson here for managers. If you can’t keep talk of money out of the workplace and you still want people to work well together, maybe just suggest that every day at work is another chance for some networking.