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.
Recently I wrote a short summary of Christakis’s research for Time magazine 100 people of 2009. Here is my summary of the research:
Social scientists used to have a straightforward, if tongue-in-cheek, answer to the question of how to become happy: Surround yourself with people who are uglier, poorer and shorter than you are – and who are unhappily married and have annoying kids. You will compare yourself with these people, and the contrast will cheer you up.
Nicholas Christakis, 47, a physician and sociologist at Harvard University, challenges this idea. Using data from a study that tracked about 5,000 people over 20 years, he suggests that happiness, like the flu, can spread from person to person. When people who are close to us, both in terms of social ties (friends or relatives) and physical proximity, become happier, we do too. For example, when a person who lives within a mile of a good friend becomes happier, the probability that this person’s good friend will also become happier increases 15%. More surprising is that the effect can transcend direct links and reach a third degree of separation: when a friend of a friend becomes happier, we become happier, even when we don’t know that third person directly.
This means that surrounding ourselves with happier people will make us happier, make the people close to us happier – and make the people close to them happier. But social networks don’t transmit only the good things in life.
Christakis found that smoking and obesity can be socially infectious too. If his thesis proves out, then the saying that you can judge a person by his or her friends might carry more weight than we thought.
There’s a phrase we hear all the time, and one that suggests something about our psychological makeup: we’re not just concerned with actions, but with their attendant mens rea – or lack thereof – as well. If it wasn’t intentional, then it’s not as painful.
And, as it turns out, that is quite literally true: Harvard researchers Kurt Gray and Daniel Wegner recently found that we experience greater pain when we perceive it to be deliberately inflicted, rather than by accident.
In their clever experiment, they had volunteers perform a variety of tasks, including an assessment of discomfort. This involved receiving electric shocks and then rating them on a 1 to 7 scale. When participants thought their “study partner” (who was actually a research accomplice) had selected the task for them to complete, they rated their perceived pain as higher (Mean ratings = 3.62) than when they were told the selection was computer-generated the pain was lower (Mean ratings = 3.00).
What’s more, deliberate pain was not just more acute, it also lasted longer: whereas participants rated the unintentional shocks less and less unpleasant as the experiment progressed, the intentional shocks remained just as painful.
So next time you are at the doctor try to think that he or she really cares about you.
HBR just came out with their Breakthrough Ideas for 2009.
One of my projects was selected to this list in 2008, and another was selected this year.
Here is the writeup of the project ….
Labor is not just a meaningful experience – it’s also a marketable one. When instant cake mixes were introduced, in the 1950s, housewives were initially resistant: The mixes were too easy, suggesting that their labor was undervalued. When manufacturers changed the recipe to require the addition of an egg, adoption rose dramatically. Ironically, increasing the labor involved – making the task more arduous – led to greater liking.
Our research shows that labor enhances affection for its results. When people construct products themselves, from bookshelves to Build-a-Bears, they come to overvalue their (often poorly made) creations. We call this phenomenon the IKEA effect, in honor of the wildly successful Swedish manufacturer whose products typically arrive with some assembly required.
In one of our studies, we asked people to fold origami and then to bid on their own creations along with other people’s. They were consistently willing to pay more for their own origami. In fact, they were so enamored with their amateurish creations that they valued them as highly as origami made by experts.
We also investigated the limits of the IKEA effect, showing that labor leads to higher valuation only when the labor is fruitful: When participants failed to complete an effortful task, the IKEA effect dissipated. Our research suggests that consumers may be willing to pay a premium for do-it-yourself projects, but there’s an important caveat: Companies hoping to persuade their customers to assume labor costs – for example, by nudging them toward self-service through internet channels – should be careful to create tasks difficult enough to lead to higher valuation but not so difficult that customers can’t complete them.
Finally, the IKEA effect has broader implications for organizational dynamics: It contributes to the sunk cost effect, whereby managers continue to devote resources to (sometimes failing) projects in which they have invested their labor, and to the not-invented-here syndrome, whereby they discount good ideas developed elsewhere in favor of their (sometimes inferior) internally developed ideas. Managers should keep in mind that the ideas they have come to love, because they invested their own labor in them, may not be as highly valued by their coworkers – or their customers.
Can it be that adding food makes people believe they are eating less?
A recent study by Brian Wansink and Pierre Chandon report that this can indeed be the case (this version of the study was done with John Tierney of the NYT)
Half of the people were shown pictures of a meal consisting of an Applebee’s Oriental Chicken Salad and a 20-ounce cup of regular Pepsi and they were asked to estimate the amount of calories in the entire meal. The other participants were shown the same salad and drink plus two Fortt’s crackers prominently labeled “Trans Fat Free.” The crackers added 100 calories to the meal, but given that they were “diet” how will their presence influence the estimated amount of calories in the entire meal?
The first group estimated that the meal contained 1,011 calories, which was a little high. The meal actually contained 934 calories — 714 from the salad and 220 from the drink. But, the second group estimated the total amount of calories to go down. Now the average estimate for the whole meal was only 835 calories — 199 calories less than the actual calorie count, and 176 calories less than the average estimate by the other group for the same meal without crackers.
The original study was interpreted as a halo effect of items labeled as diet. I suspect that this is correct, but I think that it is also possible that people have a hard time computing totals and that instead they compute averages – which makes the estimation when the crackers are present to be lower.
I wrote this about 8 months ago — but it makes particular sense right now ….
If (as is often the case) talking about sex makes people more interested in having it, does that mean that the current talk about a recession could actually be creating one? Well, maybe.
Or so one general finding of behavioral economics would have us believe. With all this chatter about a recession, consumers might, for example, hold off on buying that new dishwasher because of the “bad economy,” or pass up the more expensive restaurant because “we’re in a recession.” Without any discussion about recession, we’re unlikely to change our pattern of behavior. But talking about it can be a force that affects our decisions and alters our consumption habits.What makes me think that we’re such creatures of habit? Consider the experience of eating a Godiva truffle: The chocolate is melting in your mouth, the aroma penetrates your nose, there is a small nut inside. . . . Now think about this familiar experience and try to determine how much it’s worth to you. A quarter? $0.50? $0.75? $1.25? $2.50? While the experience of eating a truffle is very familiar, figuring out what we would be willing to pay for it proves difficult. So what do we do when we make purchasing decisions? (more…)
Burns are a particularly nasty and painful type of injury: the nerve endings are damaged, skin regrows tougher and tighter, and on top of this patients have to also deal with physical therapy.
A new game, called Snow World gets burn patients to play a 3D computer game in which move along a snowy path and fire snowballs at nonmoving target. What are the effects of this game? A recent report shows that patients playing the game report feeling less pain when playing, and more impressively also get a greater range of motion in their burnt limbs as their muscles relaxed. Finally, they also get less pain medication was also required, meaning patients were lucid for longer periods of time.
This is just great — and I wish I had this game when I was in hospital. Maybe we can find games for other issues as well (eliminating the pain of social rejection, losing money in the stock market….).