Money is not the root of all evil, but it changes us in ways that are not always good.  So, we should be careful about money if we wish to lead ethical lives.

A number of recent studies have primed one group of subjects to think about money (by having them solve word puzzles that involve money-related terms, or by having them sit next to a computer with a screensaver showing dollar bills floating around, or even by leaving some Monopoly money nearby).  Then, the scientists compared the decision making of these subjects with subjects who were not primed to think about money.

Two primary theories underlie this research.  First is the notion that while morality arises out of social relationships, thinking about money tends to mute those relationships.  In part this occurs because people who are money-focused tend to be think of themselves as more self-sufficient.  There is also the notion that thoughts of money tend to induce people to think of issues in a business frame where they tend to look out more for their own best interests rather than to consider the impact of their decisions on others.

The results of the studies are sobering.  Vohs and her colleagues, for example, gave subjects the opportunity to choose between a solitary activity (a cooking lesson) and a social activity (dinner with friends).  Subjects prompted to think about money were significantly more likely to choose the solitary activity than the social activity.  In other iterations of the experiment, subjects primed to think about money also:

  • Were less helpful when others asked for assistance
  • Were more reluctant to ask for assistance themselves
  • Donated less to charity
  • Maintained greater social distance when meeting someone new
  • Chose more often to work alone rather than with a peer

Mogilner asked money-primed and unprimed subjects to look at a list of activities and note which ones they intended to engage in and how happy the activities would make them…..or which ones average Americans would likely engage in and how happy the activities would make them.  Subjects who were money-primed chose to work more and socialize less than other subjects.

Liu and colleagues had third parties offer advice about a new product to two groups of subjects.  The subjects who were not primed tended to be grateful for the advice and to follow it.  Subjects who had been money-primed, on the other hand, tended to resent the advice as an infringement upon their autonomy and to act against it.

In a study published in 2003, Kouchaki and colleagues asked subjects how likely it was that they would do something unethical, like filch a ream of paper from work if they had run out of paper at home.  A much higher percentage of subjects who had been money-primed said that they would act unethically than did subjects who had not been primed to think about money.  In addition, in other experiments the money-primed subjects:

  • Lied more often to other subjects in a deception game where they could profit by lying
  • Lied more often to the experimenters to gain money rewards
  • Were more likely to say that they would hire a candidate who promised that if hired he would bring a competitor’s confidential information to the job

Given this corrosive effect of money, it perhaps not surprising that economics students tend to play economics games more selfishly than others.  This irritates those who would otherwise cooperate with them and costs the economics students money.  Nor is it surprising that just calling an economic game the “Wall Street Game” caused people playing it to cooperate less and to end up with less money in their pockets than they would have otherwise.

It appears that Heffernan was right when she said:  “When money becomes the dominant motivator, it doesn’t cooperate with, or amplify, our relationships; it separates them from others.”

Now I have some money.  And, all things being equal, I suppose, I wouldn’t mind having even more.  But all of us, and I’m not excluding myself, need to be watchful to ensure that we don’t let an unhealthy focus on money undermine our determination and ability to lead the kinds of lives we can be proud of.  The subjects in these experiments were not aware of how just being exposed to pictures of money could affect their decisions and actions, but now you have been forewarned.

For more information on how you might be unconsciously affected by other forces such as peer pressure, the desire to please authority figures, and the like, check out our free Concepts Unwrapped video series on this site.



Adam Alter, Drunk Tank Pink (2013)

Margaret Heffernan, Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril (2011)

Douglas T. Kenrick & Vladas Griskevicius, The Rational Animal: How Evolution Made Us Smarter Than We Think (2013)

Maryam Kouchaki et al., Seeing Green: Mere Exposure to Money Triggers a Business Decision Frame and Unethical Outcomes, 121 Organizational behavior and Human Decision Processes 53 (2013).

Jia (Elke) Liu et al., Reminders of Money Elicit Feelings of Threat and Reactance in Response to Social Influence, 38 Journal of Consumer Research 1030 (2012).

Cassie Mogilner, The Pursuit of Happiness: Time, Money, and Social Connection, 21 Psychological Science 1348 (2010).

Kathleen D. Vohs et al., The Psychological Consequences of Money, 314 Science 1154 (Nov. 2006).