Monday, September 01, 2008

Money will change us, too...

Consider this fascinating research finding that I found both troubling and explanatory.  I think it offers problematic implications for rural community as the farm boom continues.
In a series of experiments, Vohs and her colleagues found ways to get people to think about money without explicitly telling them to do so. They gave some people tasks that involved unscrambling phrases about money. With others, they left piles of Monopoly money nearby. Another group saw a screensaver with various denominations of money. Other people, randomly selected, unscrambled phrases that were not about money, did not see Monopoly money, and saw different screensavers. In each case, those who had been led to think about money – let’s call them “the money group” – behaved differently from those who had not.

    * When given a difficult task and told that help was available, people in the money group took longer to ask for help.

    * When asked for help, people in the money group spent less time helping.

    * When told to move their chair so that they could talk with someone else, people in the money group left a greater distance between chairs.

    * When asked to choose a leisure activity, people in the money group were more likely to choose an activity that could be enjoyed alone, rather than one that involved others.

    * Finally, when people in the money group were invited to donate some of the money they had been paid for participation in the experiment, they gave less than those who had not been induced to think about money.

Trivial reminders of money made a surprisingly large difference. For example, where the control group would offer to spend an average of 42 minutes helping someone with a task, those primed to think about money offered only 25 minutes. Similarly, when someone pretending to be another participant in the experiment asked for help, the money group spent only half as much time helping her. When asked to make a donation from their earnings, the money group gave just a little over half as much as the control group.

Why does money makes us less willing to seek or give help, or even to sit close to others? Vohs and her colleagues suggest that as societies began to use money, the necessity of relying on family and friends diminished, and people were able to become more self-sufficient. “In this way,” they conclude, “money enhanced individualism but diminished communal motivations, an effect that is still apparent in people’s responses today.”  [More]

The numbers for rents, land prices, inputs and of course grain prices captivate us, partly because they are so much larger than they used to be, and perhaps because they are changing so fast.  But as we concentrate on the amount of money being transacted, it would appear we may become worse neighbors.

maybe this is no big deal, to be sure. Modern advantages don't make self-sufficiency all that unpleasant, but the decline in social capital would certainly diminish our lives.  What this study makes clear is how uncontrollable our response to money is and how deeply buried in our instincts.

Will we still be the same people we were before the Great Grain Boom? 

I wonder.

[via mankiw]


Anonymous said...

John we may be just now realizing these patterns but they have been here since the 60's and 70's. After WW11 we were still one nation until people began making enough money to start wanting things their neighbor had and the race was on. Friends quit helping friends in a subconscious hope of getting what that person had leading on up to the birth of the BTO. The 80's thinned us out even more which led to sometimes unethical practices of achieving what we want. It has evolved from there to now when money DOMINATES our every thought. I wish I was wrong, maybe I am. Just my thoughts.

John Phipps said...


Thanks for reading and for your comments. I'm really not sure whether the communal nature we associate with farming is an artifact of my time or a grievous loss. What startled me was how underground and subliminal the effect of money is.

For me, I'm afraid that degree of avarice attaches to land - not money. This certainly does not excuse the compulsion, but suggests there may be other golden idols out there.