Money might influence people less than believed

Alice G. Walton | Aug 24, 2017

Thinking of money can change how people think, feel, and behave—or, at least, this has been generally accepted among behavioral scientists for the past decade or so. But research by Chicago Booth’s Eugene M. Caruso, Stony Brook University’s Oren Shapira, and Booth postdoctoral scholar Justin Landy raises questions, and suggests that these systematic effects on thinking and behavior may be overstated, if they exist at all.

Numerous published studies have found that thinking about money makes people feel more self-sufficient. The first such one, from 2006, involved things that remind people of money, or “money primes.” More than 165 experiments generally supporting the theory were published in the subsequent decade.  

But when Caruso, Shapira, and Landy were conducting their own, related experiments, they found that demographic characteristics sometimes appeared to influence the results, and they realized that other research had also produced similar inconsistencies.

To probe these inconsistencies, Caruso, Shapira, and Landy systematically evaluated the effects of previously used money primes, testing a number of the prompts across a diverse sample of people. They first had 2,200 online participants view one of several prompts. One group saw the instructions for the study over a faded image of a stack of $100 bills. Others were asked to imagine being wealthy or impoverished in the future, or to unscramble money-related phrases. In another test condition, participants saw a sketch of seven rectangles in varying sizes and proportions and were asked to select three options that would best represent new sizes and shapes for new bills of US currency.

The primes had weak and inconsistent effects on whether these thoughts led participants to feel wealthy or self-sufficient.

The researchers used a few methods to test whether these prompts got participants thinking about money. In one case, to test how much the concept of money had been triggered, the researchers had participants complete missing letters in a word that could become either a money-related word or a neutral word—for instance, “b a _ k” might be completed as “bank” or “bark.” They also used questionnaires and other ways to test how the thought of money made people feel, whether wealthy or self-sufficient.

Almost all of the manipulations did get participants thinking about money. But the primes had weak and inconsistent effects on whether these thoughts led participants to feel wealthy or self-sufficient. And demographics including gender, socioeconomic status, and political ideology produced no clear patterns. Follow-up experiments with a similarly diverse group of participants, and with a college population, confirmed these findings and demonstrated that money primes had similarly weak effects on how people behaved. The researchers tested self-sufficient behavior using a puzzle—measuring how long people worked on it without asking for help.

The results raise questions about priming and suggest that money may not actually have systematic effects on how people think and behave. Beyond that, they produce a method that could be used to test other findings in psychological research.