Study: Handling money minimizes pain

Kathleen Vohs


Tess Vigeland: If you've stocked up on aspirin in advance of April 15th, here's another possible solution to your tax headaches: Go get a wad of dollar bills, or maybe a stack of quarters. A new study says handling greenbacks actually helps minimize both physical and mental pain.

Kathleen Vohs is a professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota. 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: In one of our experiments, our participants would come to the laboratory, and their first task would be either counting out slips of paper or counting out slips of money, hard currency. After that, we would have the participants then engage in a virtual ball tossing game. The participant does not pass the ball, and this elicits feelings of ostracism and social rejection. And we found that after our participants hand counted out money, as opposed to slips of paper, they felt less social pain, less rejection, less disrespect when it came to being rejected by those other participants.

Vigeland: So literally just touching money made them feel better about themselves.

VOHS: Yes, yes, it blunted the experience of what we know to otherwise be a painful event.

Vigeland: So what does that tell you?

VOHS: Well, it told us that money has pretty powerful psychological effects. And 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: Now 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: What do you think would be other potential real life applications of these theories?

VOHS: As a person who went through a wonderful, but sometimes grueling, graduate school experience, I can imagine times before qualifying exams that I might have wanted to handle money or touch money.

Vigeland: But if you're in grad school you don't have any to touch, right?

VOHS: Yeah, right. It's the irony. Right. We thought about bringing this into more of an interpersonal realm and having people touch money before they approach someone they would like to go on a date with.

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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How interesting that this story should be presented just a few days after I finished reading (for about the tenth time) Silas Marner, the 1861 novel by the British author George Eliot (pseudonym of Mary Anne Evans). The title character, a weaver who lives in physical and psychological isolation from his fellow villagers, finds his only pleasure in the physical handling of his hoarded earnings. The author's description of Marner's nightly behavior (slightly abridged in the excerpt which follows) might also illustrate Dr. Vohs' findings: "The livelong day [Silas Marner] sat in his loom, his ear filled with its monotony, …his muscles moving with such even repetition that their pause seemed almost as much a constraint as the holding of his breath. But at night came his revelry: at night he closed his shutters, and made fast his doors, and drew forth his gold [coins]. … He spread them out in heaps and bathed his hands in them; then he counted them and set them up in regular piles, and felt their rounded outline between his thumb and fingers, and thought fondly of the guineas that were only half-earned by the work in his loom, as if they had been unborn children--thought of the guineas that were coming slowly through the coming years, through all his life, which spread far away before him, the end quite hidden by countless days of weaving." [Chapter 2]

Sarah Hager Johnston, BMus, MLS

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