Reading 18

The following passage is adapted from an article entitled “Why Money Messes with Your Mind” by Mark Buchanan (© 2009 by Mark Buchanan).

  1. Dough, wonga, greenbacks, cash.
  2. Just words, you might say, but
  3. they carry an eerie psychological
  4. force. Chew them over for a few
  5. moments, and you will become
  6. a different person. Simply
  7. thinking about words associated
  8. with money seems to makes us
  9. more self-reliant and less
  10. inclined to help others. And it
  11. gets weirder: just handling cash
  12. can take the sting out of social
  13. rejection and even diminish
  14. physical pain. 
  15. This is all the stranger when
  16. you consider what money is
  17. supposed to be. For economists,
  18. it is nothing more than a tool of
  19. exchange that makes economic
  20. life more efficient. Just as an
  21. axe allows us to chop down
  22. trees, money allows us to have
  23. markets that, traditional
  24. economists tell us,
  25. dispassionately set the price of
  26. anything from a loaf of bread
  27. to a painting by Picasso. Yet
  28. money stirs up more passion,
  29. stress and envy than any axe
  30. or hammer ever could. We just
  31. can’t seem to deal with it
  32. rationally… but why? 
  33. Our relationship with money
  34. has many facets. Some people
  35. seem addicted to accumulating
  36. it, while others can’t help
  37. maxing out their credit cards.
  38. As we come to understand
  39. more about money’s effect on
  40. us, it is emerging that some
  41. people’s brains can react to it
  42. as they would to a drug, while
  43. to others it is like a friend.
  44. And, of course, it is virtually
  45. synonymous with status. 
  46. The value of $100 is supposed
  47. to lie in how much food it can
  48. purchase, but in reality we are
  49. not that rational. Instead of
  50. treating cash as a tool to be
  51. wielded with objective
  52. precision, we allow money to
  53. tap into the ancient emotional
  54. parts of our brain, often with
  55. unpredictable results. To
  56. understand how this affects
  57. our behavior, some economists
  58. are starting to think more like
  59. evolutionary anthropologists. 
  60. Daniel Ariely of the
  61. Massachusetts Institute of
  62. Technology is one of them.
  63. He suggests that modern
  64. society presents us with two
  65. distinct sets of rules. There
  66. are the social norms, which
  67. are designed to foster long-term
  68. relationships, trust and
  69. cooperation. Then there is a set
  70. of market norms, which revolve
  71. around money and competition,
  72. and encourage individuals to
  73. put their own interests first. 
  74. Economic exchange has been
  75. going on throughout history, so
  76. it is possible that our ancestors
  77. evolved an instinctive capacity
  78. for recognizing the difference
  79. between situations suited to
  80. social or market norms, and that
  81. this could have developed well
  82. before the invention of money.
  83. Alternatively, we may learn the
  84. distinction. Either way, we
  85. appear immediately and
  86. subconsciously to recognize the
  87. cues associated with the realm
  88. of market norms. Experiments
  89. reveal that even a passing contact
  90. with concepts linked to money
  91. puts us into a market-oriented
  92. mentality. 
  93. Kathleen Vohs in the department
  94. of marketing at the University of
  95. Minnesota and colleagues, first
  96. got student volunteers to
  97. complete a task in which they
  98. had to make sensible phrases
  99. either from a set of words that
  100. had nothing to do with money
  101. or from money-related words.
  102. Then they asked individuals
  103. from the two groups to arrange
  104. a set of discs into a particular
  105. pattern. 
  106. The researchers found that the
  107. volunteers who had been primed
  108. with the money-related words
  109. worked on the task for longer
  110. before asking for help. In a
  111. related experiment, people in
  112. the money-word group were also
  113. significantly less likely to help a
  114. fellow student who asked for
  115. assistance than were people in
  116. the group primed with non-
  117. money words. 
  118. Vohs suggests there is a simple
  119. dynamic at work here. “Money
  120. makes people feel self-sufficient,”
  121. she says. “They are more likely to
  122. put forth effort to attain personal
  123. goals, and they also prefer to be
  124. separate from others.” This
  125. ability to assess which set of
  126. norms applies in a particular
  127. situation is important in guiding
  128. our behavior, Ariely says. It
  129. allows you to avoid expecting too
  130. much trust in the midst of a
  131. competitive business negotiation,
  132. or making the mistake of offering
  133. to pay your mother-in-law after
  134. she has cooked you a nice meal.
  135. “When we keep social norms
  136. and market norms on separate
  137. paths, life hums along pretty
  138. well,” says Ariely. “But when
  139. they collide, trouble sets in.”