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Recession Culture

No money changes everything, from murder rates to museum attendance, from career choices to what you eat for dinner. And not all of it for the worse.


Illustration by Peter Arkle

It’s a truism now that money was an engulfing, distorting force of the boom years, particularly in New York. At the level of urban development, it skewed our economy; at the level of culture, it misshaped values; at the level of individual behavior, it corrupted habits and discolored thoughts: This is your brain on money.

It turns out there are people who study our brains on money. Kathleen Vohs, a consumer psychologist at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, is preeminent among them, and for the sake of better understanding both the past and the future of our city, it’s useful to start by looking at what she’s found. Just thinking about money made her subjects less likely to help strangers struggling with their belongings. Just handling money made her subjects less sensitive to physical pain. My favorite experiment of hers, though, was one in which she divided her subjects into groups, one of which stared at a screensaver of floating dollar bills and another at a screensaver of exotic fish. Subjects were then asked whether they’d like to work on a task alone or with a partner. Eighty percent of those who’d been staring at the dollar bills chose to work alone. Eighty percent of those who’d been staring at the fish wanted to collaborate. (One wonders if the offices of AIG couldn’t have benefited from an aquarium or two.)

A few years ago, after Vohs presented some of her research at a conference, Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel Prize in economics in 2002, approached her and pointed out that her research had shown that money elicited archetypal American traits: self-sufficiency, self-absorption, individualism. More to the point, though, it seems like Vohs’s findings proved that money elicited archetypal New York City traits. The common thread in all of them is that money primes people to be “self-insulating,” as she likes to say, or prone to burrow deep within themselves, whether for self-protection or self-aggrandizement. And where else in the country are people such a powerful amalgam of self-involvement and motivation? Vohs acknowledges as much when I ask her about this. “Well, sure,” she says. “You know, If you can make it there … 

If the ambient, unflagging presence of money fundamentally alters the way we think and behave, then it stands to reason that money’s sudden absence does the same. And right now, we’re a city of people staring at a screensaver of exotic fish. Not all of us, of course: Just as some New Yorkers danced their way through the Great Depression to the supper-club stylings of Cole Porter and Champagne send-offs on the Normandie, some will live through this historic recession by summering in Sagaponack and taking their suppers at Per Se. (As the historian Mike Wallace likes to say, “The first law of New York is that there is no single ‘New York,’ but rather a vast variety of New Yorks.”) But there’s no denying that something profound has taken place. The city that once revolved around the dollar has been temporarily tapped off its axis, severed from the usual forces and robbed of the usual lodestars that keep us oriented and earthbound. What will we be like without them—as private people, as public citizens, as a whole metropolis? How does a city in withdrawal behave?

Recently, Vohs has been looking at what happens when her subjects spend time reflecting on money they’ve lost. She believes it’s a fairly good proxy for a recession mentality. What she’s found so far, she says, is that they’re more sensitive to physical pain—and social rejection. “Though I haven’t yet done the research,” she continues, “it would follow that they’d be more cooperative.”

Writ large, this finding could have interesting ramifications. It could mean that a financial calamity would create a more neighborly, civic-minded city.

There may well be an element of wishful thinking in this hypothesis. But history shows that one effect of economic reversals of fortune can be to coax people beyond their own self-interest. “After the Depression,” says Jackson Lears, the Rutgers historian and editor of the Raritan Review, “there was a kind of celebration of the group over the individual. It might have had its conformist side, but it’s what ultimately fed the programs of the New Deal—they were attempts to systematize what was already happening locally.” (Indeed, many of the New Deal’s architects were New Yorkers, including Robert F. Wagner and Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself.)

I ask Lears whether he sees any evidence of a renewed community-minded ethos today.

“Well, yeah,” he says, after thinking for a moment. “What was the Obama campaign, if not a signal of a widespread longing for that kind of unity?”


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