Money has subtler benefits beyond the ability to buy lavish goods or luxurious services – it’s also a psychological and physical salve. According to research by Xinyue Zhou from Sun Yat-Sen University, handling money can soothe the sting of social rejection and appease the physical pain of hot water. Even bringing up the mere thought of money can have these effects.
Popularity matters to social animals like humans, who rely on each other for our wants and needs. Our dependence on each other makes it important to get along with our peers. But in many societies, money can bypass that need, allowing us to get our own way whether we’re liked or not. As such, Zhou and colleagues viewed money as a social resource, one that can substitute for popularity.
They reasoned that money should have a stronger allure for people who face social rejection, and that thoughts of profit should blunt the pain of isolation. Equally, thoughts of losing money should make the pain of exclusion more poignant as poorer people tend to be more dependent on others for their needs. And that’s exactly what they found through a series of six psychological experiments.
First, Zhou allowed 72 students to get acquainted in groups of four, before asking each one individually to name another person to partner with. Their choice didn’t matter – Zhou told each recruit either that everyone had picked them or that no one had. Three later tests revealed that the shunned recruits were hungrier for cash. They drew larger images of coins, which (according to previous studies) reflect a stronger desire for money. They said that they were more willing to permanently forgo pleasures such as sunshine or chocolate in exchange for $10 million. And they donated less money to an orphanage, when asked at the experiment’s end.
The thought of physical pain triggered the same desire for wealth as social rejection. Zhou asked 92 fresh volunteers to complete several words that either related to suffering (such as “headache”, “sore” or “pain”) or were neutral (such as “lunch” or “stone”). Priming their brains with these words had subtle effects on their behaviour. Those who filled in the pain-related words were more likely to overestimate the size of actual coins and claim that they would give up something they loved in exchange for large pots of money. As with the first experiment, all the changes were statistically significant.
The results in both of these studies were all statistically significant, and they show that people feel a stronger craving for money when ostracised or when thinking of pain. Zhou reasoned that the link between money and pain works the other way round too. Money, and even the thought of it, improves our confidence that the problems we face can be solved – could it actually reduce suffering?
To find out, Zhou asked 84 students to count out either eighty $100 bills or eighty scraps of paper, under the pretence of measuring their dexterity. Afterwards, they played a computer game called Cyberball, where they tossed a virtual ball between three other simulated players, who they believed were real. Some of the volunteers received the ball throughout the game, but others were eventually excluded by their three fake peers. Afterwards, all the recruits filled in a questionnaire that examined their feelings, including how distressed they felt.
Zhou found that the excluded players felt more distressed than the accepted ones, but those who counted money beforehand were relatively unaffected. They were also more likely to “feel strong”. Getting their fingers on some bills apparently buffered their self-esteem from a social blow.
The same applied to physical pain. After the same money-counting task, Zhou asked 96 students to stick their fingers in hot 43C water for three minutes, with or without a brief very hot stint at 50C in the middle. Both groups rated their pain on a nine-point scale. As you’d expect, the recruits felt stronger pain after a short encounter with the hotter water, but to a much lesser extent if they had counted money beforehand.
At first glance, that may seem like a strange result, but previous studies have suggested that we process social pleasures and pains using the same brain networks that respond to physical ones. In fact, ostracism evokes patterns of brain activity that are very similar to those triggered by actual pain. So by boosting a sense of confidence and personal strength, it’s entirely plausible that money could improve our resistance to social shunning as well as our ability to withstand pain.
There are other possible explanations for these effects, but Zhou systematically ruled them out. For a start, counting money rather than paper could simply have distracted the volunteers from both the computer game and the hot water. To disprove that, Zhou went on to show that the thought of losing money actually increases the pain of rejection or hot water.
Zhou asked 108 students to write down either what they had spent money on over the last month, or the recent weather. After a round of Cyberball, those who noted their outgoings were more distressed at being kept from the ball than those who had weather on their minds. A similar thing happened when 96 students performed the same financial tallying, and tried their fingers at the hot water. Those who were aware of what they had spent felt that the hot water was more painful than their peers.
Thinking about money had the opposite effect to thinking about losing it, which strongly argues against the idea that money is simply acting as a diversion. After all, losing money should be just as distracting as gaining it, if not more so.
Money clearly has uses that are far more obvious than any role as a shield against rejection, but they weren’t relevant in this study. The volunteers weren’t able to buy more passes in Cyberball or to purchase respite from the hot water. They never actually gained more money in any of the studies. Thinking about money didn’t affect their overall mood or emotions, their feelings of independence, or their desire for power.
For those with money on their minds, the main effect was a feeling of strength, which predicted their greater resilience to emotional and physical pain. Zhou also thinks that this effect is very specific to money, as opposed to other pleasant things like chocolate that don’t necessarily boost one’s feelings of strength. And in the first two studies, the volunteers showed that they strongly preferred money over chocolate and other pleasantries. (As Homer Simpson noted, “Money can be exchanged for goods and services.”)
Reference: Zhou, X., Vohs, K., & Baumeister, R. (2009). The Symbolic Power of Money: Reminders of Money Alter Social Distress and Physical Pain Psychological Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02353.x
More on money and social science:
- Money can buy happiness… if you spend it on other people
- Our moral thermostat – why being good can give people license to misbehave
- In conflicts over beliefs and values, symbolic gestures matter more than reason or money
- The spread of disorder – can graffiti promote littering and theft?
- Clean thoughts can soften moral judgments