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The Story of the Effects of Money

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An Important Experiment

Fifteen years ago, Kathleen Vohs, a Professor of Marketing at the University of Minnesota, published one of the most startling research papers in psychology. Unfortunately, Professor Vohs’ findings were not widely publicized. However, the conclusions are so important that we should all get to know more about this.

Professor Vohs and her colleagues divided participants into two and sometimes three groups. 

  • One group was given play money (this was notes of money from the game Monopoly). 
  • A second group was “money primed”. What this “priming” meant was that participants were given subtle reminders of money such as phrases “ahigh-paying salary” or made to read sentences such as “abundant financial resources.”
  • The third group was given neither the play money nor any reminders of money.

Nine experiments were then conducted on these three groups.  A problematic puzzle was given to participants in one experiment, and the experimenters measured how much the participants persevered in trying and solving the problem. In another experiment, the people experimenting pretended to trip and dropped several pencils onto the floor. They then measured whether the participant tried to help pick up the dropped pencils or not. Finally, in yet another experiment, the tester pretended to be another student and asked participants for help. In such a way, the following results were obtained.

Money and even the subtle reminder (priming) of money brings out in people:

While some of the traits on the left are positive, the traits on the right show the detrimental effects of even a subtle reminder of money!

A Deeper Effect

The Nobel prize-winning psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman urge us to think deeply about Professor Vohs’ findings. He wrote the Professor Vohs’ “experiments are profound – her findings suggest that living in a culture that surrounds us with reminders of money may shape our behaviour and our attitudes in ways that we do not know about and of which we may not be proud.”

If we look around us, we are bombarded by social media, television, outdoor advertisements, and celebrities with messages of success. If we pause and think about this, we may not actually feel these are directions we want to go towards. Yet, the constant and subtle messages that we face make us, unconsciously, behave in a similar, often selfish manner.

If you are skeptical about the above, you are not alone. Kahneman says that when he “describes priming studies to audiences, the reaction is often disbelief. Questions are cropping up in your mind: how is it possible for such trivial manipulations to have such large effects.” He urges us, however, to realize that the experimental results are accurate and the significant conclusions of such studies are valid and that they are “true about you,” not just about someone else.

Self-realization and self-discovery are slow and challenging tasks – but essential for personal and societal growth and well-being.

© Kaikhushru Taraporevala

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