Does money undermine community?
In a series of experiments, Vohs and her colleagues found ways to get people to think about money without explicitly telling them to do so. They gave some people tasks that involved unscrambling phrases about money. With others, they left piles of Monopoly money nearby. Another group saw a screensaver with various denominations of money. Other people, randomly selected, unscrambled phrases that were not about money, did not see Monopoly money, and saw different screensavers. In each case, those who had been led to think about money – let’s call them “the money group” – behaved differently from those who had not.
- When given a difficult task and told that help was available, people in the money group took longer to ask for help.
- When asked for help, people in the money group spent less time helping.
- When told to move their chair so that they could talk with someone else, people in the money group left a greater distance between chairs.
- When asked to choose a leisure activity, people in the money group were more likely to choose an activity that could be enjoyed alone, rather than one that involved others.
- Finally, when people in the money group were invited to donate some of the money they had been paid for participation in the experiment, they gave less than those who had not been induced to think about money.
Trivial reminders of money made a surprisingly large difference. For example, where the control group would offer to spend an average of 42 minutes helping someone with a task, those primed to think about money offered only 25 minutes. Similarly, when someone pretending to be another participant in the experiment asked for help, the money group spent only half as much time helping her. When asked to make a donation from their earnings, the money group gave just a little over half as much as the control group.
Why does money makes us less willing to seek or give help, or even to sit close to others? Vohs and her colleagues suggest that as societies began to use money, the necessity of relying on family and friends diminished, and people were able to become more self-sufficient. “In this way,” they conclude, “money enhanced individualism but diminished communal motivations, an effect that is still apparent in people’s responses today.”