Money-Primed People Show Increased Self-Reliance and Are More Selfish

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In the book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman shares some of the research work of Kathleen Vohs.  During the studies, individuals are exposed to different ‘primers’. Of interest to us today were the studies where people were exposed to primers related to money or reminders of money.  These triggers may be something as subtle as a stack of Monopoly money on a table or a screen saver of dollar bills floating in water.  In other experiments participants were working with phrases that have money themes.

He claims, “Money-primed people become more independent than they would be without the associative trigger.” This was shown by the fact that they worked twice as long on solving a very difficult problem before they asked for help. This, Kahneman says, is a, “crisp demonstration of increased self-reliance.”

Moreover, money-primed people are more selfish.  In the experiments they were less willing to spend time helping others during the experiment.

The bold conclusion is that, “the general theme of these findings is that the idea of money primes individualism: a reluctance to be involved with others, depend on others, or to accept demands from others.”

Finally, Kahneman says of Vohs’s work, “Her experiments are profound – her findings suggest that living in a culture that surrounds us with reminders of money may shape our behavior and our attitude in ways we may not be proud.”

My Observations:

1.  Most evangelical Americans won’t like this.

We are constantly claiming that money is neutral, and we decide how it will or won’t impact us.  This research seems to claim that money can and does draw out negative behaviors.

2.  Jesus yawns because it’s old news to him.

The Gospels, in fact the Bible, seems to be warning us constantly of the dangers of money to create self-reliance and selfishness.

3.  Money driven cultures are more self-reliant and (dare I say) more selfish.

I don’t have enough cultural experience worldwide to make a scientific statement.  I’ll share my impression.  Having lived in Papua New Guinea (PNG), Canada, and the States, I’d say that generally I’ve found people in North America to be much more self-reliant.  We have personal vehicles and can drive where we want, when we want.  We have insurance to care for us when we have needs.  In PNG, people are very reliant on family and community.

I’ve met a lot of very generous people in North America.  However, I’ve witnessed more self-sacrificial giving overseas.  I know that’s a terribly unfair observation and probably reveals more about my biases than fact.  However, I do believe communally-oriented cultures are more likely to act selfishly than individualistic cultures.

4.  I experience these realities in myself.

I constantly struggle with finding the right balance between caring for others and caring for myself.  For example, when I sit down and try to predict if I’ll have enough money for retirement, I’m more likely to cut back on giving in order to be sure I’m taken care of.  It’s a self defense mechanism.  On the other hand, when I’m focused on others, I’m more likely to be in a position where I may need to depend on others.

What are your thoughts?