Study: Handling money minimizes pain

Kathleen Vohs

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Tess Vigeland: Not that you asked, but here's a little glimpse into my brain on money. So two things happen to me when I get cash out of an ATM. First, I experience this slight feeling of dread because I know by taking money out, my bank balance is going to shrink. But when those crisp bills pop out of the machine, I feel better. I really, really -- REALLY -- like having cash money, even if it's just a wad of ones. Well, I'm happy to report that studies prove I am not nuts. Kathleen Vohs teaches marketing at the University of Minnesota and she's been conducting some of those studies. Welcome to the program.

Kathleen Vohs:Hi. Thanks for having me.

Vigeland: Can you take us through one of these experiences and tell us what you found?

Vohs: Sure. In one of our experiments, our participants would come to the laboratory, they'd come alone. Their first task would be either counting out slips of paper, as part finger-dexterity task. Or counting out slips of money, hard currency. After that, and one other task to sort of clear the slate, we'd have the participants then go online and they would engage in a virtual ball-tossing game. The participant is not tossed the ball by the other virtual players, and this elicits feelings of ostracism and social rejection. We exposed our participants to the game in which they were going to be socially ostracized. And later we asked them how did you feel about that game -- did you feel valued by the other players, did you feel rejected, did you feel disrespected? And we found that after our participants had counted out money as opposed to slips of paper, they felt less pain.

Vigeland: So literally just touching money made them feel better about themselves. So what does that tell you?

Vohs: Well, it told us that money has pretty powerful psychological effects. And that the theory that we're working off of is that when people are reminded of money, and they feel that they have some money, this means that they don't need to be liked by others. They don't need to be included by other people, because they have money to take care of their wants and needs.

Vigeland: But it's not like you were giving them money, they were just touching it.

Vohs: Right, so the psychological symbolism of money is very deep, and even just mere reminders of money can elicit this construct and activate it in people's minds and that seems to be enough to blunt the experience of pain.

Vigeland: The experiment that you talked about, blunting this notion of pain, this was just on a computer. But there was one even more dramatic example where you had people then put their fingers in hot, scalding water, and the people who had touched money didn't feel as bad about that as the people who hadn't.

Vohs: That's right, so we saw the same pattern of results. Instead of the social pain domain, we moved it to the physical pain domain, and we see the same thing.

Vigeland: Well, so does that tell us that, you know, before surgery we should have people roll around in a bunch of $20 bills?

Vohs: I like the image. Yeah, that is one of the implications. I've given several talks at medical conferences now, because, sure, health care providers are very interested in the implications of this for how they can assuage pain in their patients.

Vigeland: But again, I just don't understand where you feel the value is because again you are not giving money. I can actually half-understand how if people give you a bunch of money before you undergo a painful experience that it might blunt that, but they're not actually giving you any money. You're not getting anything out of this.

Vohs: That's right. So people's experience with money is common, it's frequent and it occurs almost throughout the lifespan. I mean, people start experiencing events with money starting to be when they're 3-4 years old, at least in the U.S. And so you build up these associations over time. All of those experiences add up to this very thick layer that we can actually just elicit this construct by just merely showing them pictures of money or having them touch hard currency. That is enough to trip off this very well-oiled construct of what it means to have money.

Vigeland: I'm sure you haven't taken the research quite this far, but what would this mean in a barter society? I mean is it the actual coin, the actual paper money that we're talking about here? Or is it whatever it is that is getting you some sort of object that you want?

Vohs: Yeah, it's more the latter. It's much more the latter. So, for example, if we move to a cashless society, then we should start to see credit cards start to take on some of these effects.

Vigeland: I don't know. I think those actually cause more pain than relieve it.

Vohs: Right. Yes. No, Tess, you've got it exactly right. In my laboratory, when we use credit cards it elicits all kinds of different effects. But yes, in a barter system if you had a resource that was highly valued, and everybody in your community knew that, then it would be that resource that tripped off these kinds of effects.

Vigeland: What do you think this says about our connection with money and perhaps our obsession with it?

Vohs: Well in these experiments, I'd like to point out is that when participants handle money, they don't feel like they have more self-esteem and they don't feel in a more positive mood. But the one thing that they do report that they feel is they say they feel strong. That's item -- strong. And I think that gets at the heart of your question -- that our relationship with money is that money is this valued resource. In fact, you could argue that it might be the most valuable resource that people come in contact with, so I think this starts to illuminate that pathway that when people are thinking about money or reminded about money, they get this feeling of strength, and as a consequence, they can be impervious to things that would otherwise be painful.

Vigeland: Well I know that we are not paying you for this interview, so I hope it wasn't too painful.

Vohs: No, this was fun, so no need to pay.

Vigeland: Kathleen Vohs is a professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management. Thanks so much.

Vohs: Thank you, Tess.

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