Study: Thinking about wealth makes us more self-centered

A fixation on having lots of money tends to make people self-centered…

We’ve known this for thousands of years, at least as far back as the 2,000-year-old saying “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” (New Testament)

I stumbled on a recent piece of social science research that fills in the picture.

In the study, they “primed” participants with images and thoughts of money… and then tested how they interacted with other people. The ones who thought about lots of money (images of wealth) were consistently less likely to be social, less likely to help others.

It’s not all bad. They found that thoughts of money does make people feel more in control. It makes people feel more self-sufficient… but that also means they felt they needed other people less: “Money enables people to achieve goals without aid from others.”

“When reminded of money, people would want to be free from dependency and would also prefer that others not depend on them…”

“Reminders of money… led to reduced requests for help and reduced helpfulness toward others. Relative to participants primed with [non-money] concepts, participants primed with money preferred to play alone, work alone, and put more physical distance between themselves and a new acquaintance…”

In other words, thinking about money influences humans to care more about their own individual goals, and less about being in communion with others.

Moreover, “participants who were primed with money believed that [the stranger] should figure out on her own how to perform a task, as a self-sufficient person would do.”

A focus on money makes us believe that others should be able to solve problems on their own (a good thing) and yet, it also makes us less willing (about half as willing, according to the study) to help others… to come to their aid when they obviously need assistance.

Interestingly, people who were thinking about low finances (imagining having little money) were more likely to help others than people who were thinking about wealth. However, those not thinking about money at all, became the most likely to help others, and to ask for help.

“Even though gathering pencils accidentally spilled on the floor [a test inside this research study] was an action that all participants could perform, participants reminded of financial wealth were unhelpful.”

Note that the study is not saying some people are evil or good. It’s showing that those who are primed with certain thoughts, became influenced toward certain actions (or not).

“We found that Participants primed with money donated significantly less money to the [charity] than participants not primed with money.”

“Participants primed with money put more physical distance between themselves and a new acquaintance than participants not primed with money.”

“Participants primed with money chose more individually-focused leisure experiences.”

“Economics students were more convinced than noneconomists that their competitors would make self-interested moves, a result that echoes the thesis that money evokes a view that everyone fends for him- or herself.”

You can read the study for yourself here: http://web.missouri.edu/~segerti/capstone/VohsMoney.pdf

The authors of another study found that “People who were prompted to think about money — literally just shown a picture of bills or coins — were more likely to conceal their emotions than those who viewed non-financial imagery.”

Yet another study showed that “being exposed to money made people more likely to behave unethically; in these experiments, money-primed subjects were more willing to lie to make money in a simple game and were more likely to rate certain scenarios, such as swiping extra office supplies for personal use, as ethically permissible.”

These other studies were summarized here:

https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/10/just-looking-at-money-makes-people-selfish-and-less-social/382088/

Is this the kind of society we want?

Studies have also shown that the one determining factor of lifelong happiness and health is one’s relationships with others… not money or fame.

One of the more comprehensive studies of happiness, the 75-year Harvard Study of Adult Development, had this conclusion:

Nothing else in life matters as much to someone’s long-term happiness as the strength of their friendships/relationships.

See the TED talk here:

https://www.ted.com/talks/robert_waldinger_what_makes_a_good_life_lessons_from_the_longest_study_on_happiness

Long story short:

Thinking about having lots of money tends to reduce our desire to be in relationship with others. It makes us more individualistic and insensitive to others’ needs. And being less in relationship tends to decrease health and happiness.

As a business and marketing coach, the takeaway is: How am I motivating my audience to pursue their dreams? Am I using images of wealth and fame? If so, it is influencing them toward self-absorption, and being less sensitive to others’ needs.

Ironically, it is our very sensitivity to others’ needs and wants that allows us to do better marketing. It’s not about “our” product”… having a sustainable income is all about what *others* want us to produce.

As consumers, let us keep mindful of the messages and images being put into our minds.

If we’re following business/marketing gurus that are constantly talking about wealth, maybe we should stop consuming their messages, for the sake of our health and happiness.

As business owners, instead of obsessing about money, let’s aim to care more.