Jun 01

They say money can’t buy happiness. That might be true, but a new study suggests money holds more benefits in store than just the obvious ones. A clever set of experiments by Xinyue Zhou, Kathleen D. Vohs and Roy F. Baumeister suggest that simply handling money can dull physical and emotional pain.

Previous research has shown that social exclusion and physical pain share common underlying mechanisms. This is due to the way we evolved as social animals. In fact, a 2003 study (Eisenberger et al.) showed that the brain produces similar responses to social rejection as to physical pain. Other work (Vohs et al., 2006) revealed that thoughts of money convey feelings of self-sufficiency, thus soothing the uneasiness of social exclusion. Putting these findings together, Zhou et al. propose that money and physical pain are linked to one another, and they set out to examine this connection as well as the connection money has to social distress.

Three pairs of experiments were carried out on university students, looking to see if:

a. social exclusion and physical pain increase the desire for money
b. money can appease this pain, both physical and emotional
c. losing money intensifies these sensations. As it turns out from the study, the answer to all of these hypotheses is yes.

Since I liked the design of the study I’ll describe it succinctly as I introduce the findings. The impatient reader can skip the part in blue.

The first pair of experiments explored if the desire for money increases with social rejection and physical pain. Researchers let groups of four get acquainted with each other, and then split them to individual rooms. The subjects were then told that they were not picked by any of the others as partners for a dyad task, to stem feelings of social rejection (subjects in the control group were told everyone chose them). After this semi-cruel manipulation, the subjects’ desire for money was measured in three different measures (e.g. the sum they were willing to donate to an orphanage) and in all three the participants in the rejected condition expressed higher desire for money, compared to their ‘popular’ counterparts.

In the second experiment, half the subjects were primed to the idea of physical pain with word-completion tasks, while the other half was exposed to neutral concepts. Simply priming the notion of pain also increased the desire for money.

The next pair of experiments investigated if money can sooth pain. Subjects in the one condition were asked to count eighty $100 bills, in order to invoke the feeling of obtaining money, while the other subjects counted 80 pieces of paper (all this under the pretence of a finger-dexterity task). Then, one experiment had subject play ‘Cyberball’ – a computerized ball-tossing game with other players. The participants were lead to believe the players were human but in fact were a simple computer program. Subjects in the exclusion condition weren’t passed the ball and were effectively left out of the game by the other ‘players’. How tragic it must have been for some of them – it’s the grade school playground all over again. After the game ended participants were questioned about their experience, and – as you might have guessed it – those who counted money beforehand felt less social distress over being left out of the game, and maintained higher self-esteem than those who counted paper.

The other experiment of the pair is possibly the most interesting in the bunch. After that same money/paper counting exercise, the poor participants had to undergo a pain-sensitivity task (and all they got in return was partial course credit!). Zhou et al. used another approach – they put subjects’ hands in an immobilizing contraption and then poured hot water on their fingers. After this ‘pleasantness’, subjects rated how painful was this experience. The results indicate that simply counting money significantly reduced feelings of pain in the high-pain condition, and that it made participants feel stronger than those who counted paper.

The last pair of experiments used similar measures to show that thinking about losing money actually intensifies the sting of social rejection (Cyberball) and exacerbate physical pain (hot water again). Subjects in the money-losing condition indeed reported higher vulnerability in both cases.

To sum up, these experiments suggest that having financial resources diminishes pain, both physical pain and emotional pain caused by social rejection. Possibly the most interesting thing to pinpoint is that the method these findings were obtained indicates a general perception of money as a mean to alleviate pain and suffering. This is because money by itself had no value in the experiments as it could not “buy” any passes of the ball nor a release out of the hand constraints. It is also interesting to notice that merely thinking about having or losing money, without any actual change in resources, had the described effects since the experimenters didn’t award (or take) the subjects any money (neither as a part of the experiments nor for their participation).

This study springs several implications to mind. As for me, I wonder if there will ever come a day that a dentist appointment will kick off with a brief game of monopoly (one where the patient always accumulates great wealth) prior to the actual treatment. It just might alleviate the pain.

Reference: Zhou, X., Vohs, K., & Baumeister, R. (2009). The Symbolic Power of Money: Reminders of Money Alter Social Distress and Physical Pain Psychological Science.