Money Talks: Kathleen Vohs on the Self-Sufficiency Theory of Money

November 8, 2013

This feature is part of a new RSF blog series, Work in Progress, which will highlight some of the ongoing research of our current class of Visiting Scholars.

In this first installment, we focus on the work of Visiting Scholar Kathleen Vohs, Professor of Marketing and Land 'O Lakes Professor of Excellence in Marketing at the University of Minnesota. In collaboration with Professor Roy Baumeister, Vohs will spend the 2013-2014 academic year in residence at the Russell Sage Foundation investigating the self-sufficiency theory of money, or the idea that money is a source of independence for people that has both negative and positive effects on their behavior. How do people behave after they’ve been exposed to money?

As Vohs has found, people who encounter subtle reminders of money express enhanced agency and a desire to work hard in the tasks they go on to perform. However, this exposure to money also impacts their subsequent interpersonal interactions by diminishing how helpful they are to other people.

In one experiment demonstrating some these effects, subjects were asked to play a game with a lab confederate using Monopoly money. Unbeknownst to them, it was not their performance in the game that was being monitored—it was how they behaved afterward. After completing the game, the subjects were left alone in the room next to either a high amount of Monopoly money ($4,000), a low amount ($200), or, in the case of a control group, no money at all. After a few minutes, subjects were then told the experiment was over and released from the room. On their way out, another lab confederate carrying a bundle of pencils deliberately bumped into them and dropped the pencils in order to see how helpfully the subjects would respond to this “accident.”

As Vohs’ study shows, the test subjects exposed to no money (control group) were more helpful than those who had been exposed to a low amount. The low-amount subjects, in turn, were more helpful than those in the high-amount group:

A separate experiment conducted by Vohs and colleagues illustrates one of the positive aspects of the self-sufficiency theory—and shows that it doesn’t apply just to adults. In this experiment, children were asked to sort either buttons or coins. After completing the sorting, the children were given an impossible labyrinth puzzle to complete. A higher percentage of children who had counted coins persisted longer in attempting to solve the maze:

Given that we encounter reminders of money on a daily basis—from the ATM on the corner to the bills raining out of the sky in Rihanna’s new video—it’s crucial to understand how these reminders affect our behavior. Exposure to money, it would seem, makes us more driven but also more selfish.

During their time in residence, Kathleen Vohs and Roy Baumeister will work to incorporate these results into a series of journal articles.

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