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The Money-Empathy Gap


Two thousand miles away, in her lab at the University of Minnesota, Vohs does experiments indicating that merely thinking about money can decrease empathy. Vohs is a 38-year-old psychologist who was inspired to study the effects of money on social behavior nine years ago, when she left a junior faculty position where she was making $32,000 a year, and started working at a Canadian business school, where she earned five times that much. Suddenly she was no longer asking her friends for rides to the airport. She hired a personal shopper. “I was becoming more independent and less interdependent,” she says. This led her to the next thought: “We need to understand at a theoretical level what happens to people’s minds in the context of wealth.”

In experiments she published in the journal Science in 2006, Vohs “primed” her subjects to think about money, which is to say she planted the idea of money in their minds without their knowledge before observing their social interactions compared with a control group. In one case, she asked participants to wait alone in a room at a big table, which happened to be strewn with gold, green, and burnt-orange Monopoly bills. After ten minutes, she’d get the subject, take him to a different room, and ask him to fill out piles of questionnaires seeking detailed psychological ­information. The point was to muddle the subject’s mind: He knew he was ­participating in an experiment but had no idea what he was being tested for.

Vohs got her result only after the ­subject believed the session was over. Heading for the door, he would bump into a person whose arms were piled ­precariously high with books and office supplies. That person (who worked for Vohs) would drop 27 tiny yellow pencils, like those you get at a mini-golf course. Every subject in the study bent down to pick up the mess. But the money-primed subjects picked up 15 percent fewer pencils than the control group. In a conversation in her office in May, Vohs stressed that money-priming did not make her subjects malicious—just disinterested. “It’s not a bad analogy to think of them as a little autistic,” she said. “I don’t think they mean any harm, but picking up pencils just isn’t their problem.”

Over and over, Vohs has found that money can make people antisocial. She primes subjects by seating them near a screen-saver showing currency floating like fish in a tank or asking them to descramble sentences, some of which include words like bill, check, or cash. Then she tests their sensitivity to other people. In her Science article, Vohs showed that money-primed subjects gave less time to a colleague in need of assistance and less money to a hypothetical charity. When asked to pull up a chair so a stranger might join a meeting, money-primed subjects placed the chair at a greater distance from themselves than those in a control group. When asked how they’d prefer to spend their leisure time, money-primed people chose a personal cooking lesson over a ­catered group dinner. Given a choice ­between working collaboratively or alone, they opted to go solo. Vohs even found that money-primed people described feeling less emotional and physical pain: They can keep their hand under burning-hot water longer and feel less emotional distress when excluded from a ball-tossing game. ­“Money,” says Vohs, “brings you into ­functionality mode. When that gets applied to other people, things get mucked up. You can get things done, but it does come at the expense of people’s feelings or caring about them as individuals.”

Critics of Vohs’s work complain that her priming technique confuses more than it clarifies, for how is one to know whether it replicates a real-life mental state of needing money, getting it, or having it? Vohs counters that she measures her subjects for anxiety and usually finds none. Therefore she isn’t creating a condition of stress—of need—but of something more like material comfort. I know a man who made a lot of money very quickly who might agree with Vohs’s findings. Wealth is “very isolating,” he says. You work like a dog to make the best widgets, and when you look up, 20 or 30 years later, you’ve succeeded. But your high-school buddies can’t relate to you anymore and you’ve lost touch with your wife. “You’re dealing with your problems. You’re sitting in your class,” he says. “It’s hard to know the problems of the other.”

Public-health research has long shown that poverty can have devastating effects on the brain. At 3 years old, poor kids have vocabularies that are three times smaller than their better-off peers. Their memories do not work as well. In poor children, executive function is not as developed as it is in more affluent children, which means they have a harder time sorting and organizing information, planning ahead, and coping in the event of changed circumstances. Research by Robert Knight at Berkeley has shown that kids raised in a poor neighborhood are more likely to have frontal lobes—the area in the brain that enables attention and focus—that appear damaged. A psychologist at Oregon’s Willamette University has discovered that when very young children are given headphones that play two different stories simultaneously, one in each ear, and are told to reiterate the story heard in the right ear, affluent and poor children perform equally well. But EEGs taken of the poor kids show that they have a harder time filtering out the extraneous stimulus.


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