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Money, money, money; me, me, me

Psychologists find that just the thought of cash can lead to selfish acts.

November 18, 2006|Karen Kaplan | Times Staff Writer

A team of psychologists has discovered why money can't buy happiness.

Pictures of dollar bills, fantasies of wealth and even wads of Monopoly money arouse feelings of self-sufficiency that result in selfish and often antisocial behavior, according to a study published Friday in the journal Science.

All it took to discourage college students from contributing to a University Student Fund were 15 short phrases such as "a high-paying salary." Those primed by money-related phrases donated an average of 77 cents, compared with $1.34 for students exposed to neutral phrases like "it is cold outside."

"The mere presence of money changes people," said Kathleen Vohs, a professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota and lead author of the study.

Money makes it possible for people to achieve their goals without having to ask friends or acquaintances for help. Therefore, Vohs and her colleagues theorized that even subtle reminders of money would inspire people to be self-reliant -- and to expect such behavior from others.

A series of nine experiments confirmed their hypothesis. For example, students who played Monopoly and then were asked to envision a future with great wealth picked up fewer dropped pencils for a fellow student than those who were asked to contemplate a hand-to-mouth existence.

In another experiment, students spent six minutes completing a questionnaire on a computer before a screensaver suddenly appeared. Students who saw fish swimming across their screens later moved their chairs an average of 2 feet, 8 inches from a compatriot, while those who saw currency floating underwater stayed more than 3 feet, 10 inches away.

Money also influenced how people said they preferred to spend their leisure time. A poster of bills and coins prompted students to favor a solitary social activity, such as private cooking lessons, while students sitting across from posters of seascapes and gardens were more likely to opt for a group dinner.

"Money changes people's motivations," said coauthor Nicole Mead, a psychology graduate student at Florida State University. "They are less focused on other people. In this sense, money can be a barrier to social intimacy."

Perhaps their next study will examine whether money is indeed the root of all evil.

karen.kaplan@latimes.com

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